The early Christians were accused by their pagan neighbours of cannabalism, perhaps not surprising given the graphic words that Jesus speaks in John 6 (vs. 53-56). In fact, it makes for uncomfortable reading and I can’t help but wince slightly when I hear Jesus say, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’. Such words would seem to belong more in an old Gothic horror movie…
And yet it is this eating and drinking that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
As we saw in the first post in this series on Thinking Theologically About Food, food plays a major part in the Bible. In fact, so much of the story revolves around meals that there are too many to list here (although you can find quite a fun list here). In the Old Testament there are two types that stand out particularly. The first is covenant meals. These were concerned with peace, union, fellowship and reconciliation. The Biblical story can be traced through its covenants – between people, between people and God, and between God, people and the whole creation. The second is sacrificial meals. These both provided the way for the people of Israel to have their sins dealt with, and celebrated the resulting union.
These two meals come together in the Passover meal of which Jesus partook in what we now call the Last Supper. Through the sacrifice that Jesus makes, in coming to earth as a human and in dying on the cross, God’s covenant with his creation is brought to its fulfilment and we are given the means of entering into eternal life with him. And it is this that we celebrate and remember when we take the bread and wine of communion together.
The Eucharist is a unique meal as, through it, Jesus offers his body and blood to be consumed, and I want to suggest a few things for us to think about when we eat the Eucharistic meal together.
Firstly, as William Cavanaugh so brilliantly reminds us, as we eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood we not only consume, but we are consumed ourselves: taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. 1 Cor. 10:16 reminds us that, ‘we all share in one body’. The body that Paul is talking about here of course is the body of the church, but because we have all been made in God’s image, our thinking extends beyond that as well.
Have you ever had toothache? If you have, you’ll know that you cannot isolate that one part of you that is hurting: it effects your whole body. And as we share in one body, so we share in each other’s pain and happiness. There are many beautiful and joyful things in our world today. But there is also much suffering and, because the Eucharist draws us into the world-wide body, we care, and it is right that we do. We should be moved. We should be upset by the things we hear about, and we should be angry. And, like a body with toothache that can’t rest or sit down whilst there’s pain, so should we be.
Secondly, let us remember the main place outside of the Gospels where the Eucharist is talked about most fully: Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The setting there is interesting: it’s very definitely a meal that Paul is talking about, not something with wafers and a dinky cup! But the meal is causing problems. Those who are wealthy have the leisure to sit and stuff their faces, but those who are poorer have to work and so arrive at the meal late and find that it is gone, and so they go hungry. Paul has some very strong words to say here: ‘whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 11:27).
The Eucharist brings in a note of judgement that we would be wise to heed. When we live in a world in which nearly a billion people are suffering from hunger, we must be very careful how we approach these gifts of bread and wine.
Cavanaugh says that, ‘those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation’. Whenever we eat and drink – and especially so when we do so in remembrance of Jesus – let us try to do so with humility and a recognition of our need for repentance, for where we have all played our part in the global situation that we have today.
Finally, the Eucharist is our promise of the future and our sustenance for the present. Tom Wright writes about this helpfully in so much of his writing, describing the Eucharist as the moment when past, present and future all come together.
As we think about food in this little mini-series, we do so against the backdrop of a global food system that has gone horrendously wrong, that is concentrating power and money in the hands of a few, and that is a major cause of climate change, species extinction and water shortages, to name just some of the problems. It can be easy to feel utterly overwhelmed by the scale of these things. When we do, though, the act of going forward or sitting with friends to break bread and drink wine is a prophetic statement: one that reminds us that there is a future that we are working towards, one where there will be no more suffering or sickness or death.
And so let us remember that our only sustenance for the present – the only thing that will keep us going and not let us give up – will not come from simply gritting our teeth in determination, but from feeding on Christ, letting him fill us and sustain us so that we, in turn, can become food for others.