The late German/American theologian Monika Hellwig, wrote a little book that Heather and I read during our theological training, called Eucharist and the Hunger of the World. The book asked a question that has always stuck with me. Can we western, wealthy Christians truly experience the impact of communion, which is the gift of food that is life-saving, when very few of us have ever experienced real hunger?
The story of Elijah and the widow who fed him illustrates how food can be experienced as a gift from God when a meal is literally a life-saving event. The widow is willing to share her last meal, her last supper, with Elijah. And when she does, she is also sacrificing her son for the sake of another. It is that willingness to make such a sacrifice that becomes life-giving as, contrary to expectation, the food doesn’t run out, but lasts until the rains return and a new crop grows.
In that story, a small amount of flour and oil are life-saving and a sign of God’s grace. But if we, who are not in the midst of a drought, who are not starving, if we were to share such a small morsel of bread, would we say we had been touched by God? For us hunger is missing a meal, not a life-threatening condition. So it is hard for us to receive this symbolic scrap of bread with the thankfulness of those who know what it is to be starving.
The sacrament of communion reminds us that every bite we take is a gift from God. Countless men and women have participated in growing the wheat and grapes that make up this meal. Many more have worked to turn it into bread and wine, then to transport it from the farm and vineyard to the processing plant, to the store and to our table. There have also been many hands at work in our congregation to present these gifts to us today.
We wealthy, western Christians can appreciate the miracle of human cooperation with each other and with the natural world that has put this bread and wine before us. But, and this is Hellwig’s question, can we truly experience this meal as God’s intervention in our lives if we have never experienced food as life-saving in the way that Elijah and the widow did?
There is a story of two monks, a master and his pupil, walking together on pilgrimage. Just as the pupil is asking his master “What must I do in order to know God?” They come to a river and begin to make their way across. When they are in the middle and the water is at its deepest, the master steps behind his pupil, grabs him by the shoulders and shoves him under, holding him there only to let him resurface at the last possible moment before he would drown.
“When you are as desperate to know God as you were desperate for air when I held you under the water, then you can begin your journey.”
The meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was one that had that air of desperation about it. This was a Passover meal, when Jews gather to remember that at one time they were an enslaved people and just before they left Egypt they had one last meal, knowing that there wasn’t even enough time for the bread to rise. As Jesus sat with his disciples, he knew he was a hunted man and his days were numbered. He wanted to leave something that would allow his followers to renew that sense of impending doom, but in a way that reassured them that God was present in the moment.
If we have never experienced starvation, if we have never been hunted or under threat of death, then for us communion cannot have the same impact as it does for most of the world’s people. We can only imagine hunger and fear and the enormous relief that comes with this assurance that God is with us. If we have never been held underwater to the point of drowning then we can only imagine the relief that comes with that breath of air when we rise above the surface.
For far too many of the world’s people, no act of imagination is required. Hunger is an everyday, debilitating reality for close to a billion people. Fear of violent death is also an ever-present shadow for most of the hungry and for hundreds of millions more.
Sharing food reminds us of the way in which God’s love is enacted by countless ordinary people like that widow in Sidon; those who produce the crops and turn them into bread, those who shelter refugees from violence and those who feed the hungry.
Jesus did not ask us to remember him by putting his name on buildings or erecting monuments in his honour. That is the way that pharaohs and emperors seek to be remembered. Instead he left us with an action. Jesus left us with the communion meal as our central way to remember him because it is an act of the inclusive hospitality that is the heart of his ministry. The Greatest Commandment he told us to love God and to love our neighbor.
Sharing the communion meal reminds us of the countless men, women and children who, like Elijah, are in desperate need of even a morsel of food, often because they have been driven from their own land and so deprived of the means of supporting themselves. For refugees every meal is a life-sustaining miracle.
Hospitality is not just a matter of feeding one another; it is a sacred duty to preserve life; to house the homeless, to care for the sick, to visit those in prison and to clothe the naked. When we share this symbolic meal today, I encourage you to imagine yourself as being in the situation of that widow in Sidon, as someone who after a long drought has but one morsel of food left between yourself and death and is then approached by a stranger fleeing violent death who asks you for a meal. Imagine that you have given your last slice of bread to that refugee, but then discover that God is still present, still with you and that the bread of life made known in Jesus Christ is being offered to you.
The sacrament of communion is Jesus’ life sustaining gift to us – a reminder that when we offer hospitality to another person, we are enacting the presence of God among us.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.