Knowing Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread

Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308-1311, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena.
Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena.

Two friends walk along the road, speaking quietly to one another. They are hopeless. They are sad. When Jesus was alive, they were full of hope; he would redeem their nation, set them free. But Jesus is dead, and with him, all their hopes.

A stranger appears. “What have you two been talking about?” he asks. The friends look at each other, and then at the stranger. What else would they be talking about? For three days, all that anyone has talked about is the fact that Jesus—the one that was hoped to be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel—is dead.

“Do you really not know what has been going on around here recently?” they ask.

“Tell me,” says the stranger.

They tell him. Jesus—the prophet who was so powerful, who healed the sick, gave sight to people who were blind, fed thousands of people with just five small loaves and two fish, and who taught everyone about the kingdom of God—is dead.

“We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem us,” they say, “but now he has been dead for three days. Even worse, now there are odd stories about his tomb being empty, and women seeing visions of angels telling them that Jesus is alive again.”

“Well,” said the stranger, “don’t you realize that all of your Scriptures say that the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel, would have to suffer and then enter into glory?”

Far from being a tragic and unexpected turn in the story, this suffering and death–and the transformation of that suffering into glory, that movement from death to life–had to happen, if Jesus was really the Messiah.

They must’ve wanted to hear more from this stranger, because they invite him to stay.

And when the stranger takes bread, gives thanks for it, and breaks it, they suddenly realize: the stranger is Jesus!

Supper at Emmaus, Giovanni and Francesco Cagnola (?), 15th c.
Supper at Emmaus, Giovanni and Francesco Cagnola (?), 15th c.

Jesus, who taught them about the kingdom of God, who healed the sick, who gave sight to the blind, and who fed thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish; this Jesus was now breaking bread and giving it to them. Their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. They were blind to who he was, but now they could see. It is a miracle.

And then, suddenly, Jesus is gone.

But he is not really gone. Once they come to understand that he is not dead at all, they realize that he still is the one to redeem all people.

Knowing this, they cannot stay where they are.

Though they’ve been traveling for much of the day, they immediately return to Jerusalem to tell everyone what has happened: Jesus has risen. Jesus is alive again. We recognized him when he shared bread with us.

It’s typical of Luke’s gospel that their transformation in understanding who Jesus is should take place over a meal. It even sounds a bit like the first meal in the Bible, but in reverse. When Eve and Adam eat the fruit, their “eyes are opened”; when these two take the bread that Jesus has broken, their eyes are opened and they recognize him, and the truth and power of his teaching:

“were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 

The one who redeems us lives, and we want everyone to know. We will make him known as we continue to break bread in his name.

“Eating together was an important aspect of the early church’s
common life—a powerful symbol of unity both with Christ and
with one another. Eating with the poorest, the weakest and the
most vulnerable is an essential aspect of those early Communion
meals.” (Eat With Joy, p. 68)

“As God betstoweth his benefites upon us, let us beware that
wee acknowledge it towardes him, by doing good to our
neighbors whome he offereth unto us, so as wee neither
exempt ourselves from their want, not seclude them from
our abundance, but gently make them partakers with us, as
folke that are linked together in an inseparable bond.” (John Calvin, sermon on Deut. 15)

We Don’t Approve of Bull-Baiting, Dogfighting, or Public Executions…

…and so I don’t think we approve of…

Chickens being occasionally decapitated by the automatic feeding cart, then rotting away in their cages.

Chickens getting their necks stuck in the bars of their cages and dying because they can’t get them out and no one comes to help.

Workers must blast exhaust fans and run in to do a job quickly because “it’s physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia” fumes rising from the manure pits below the barns.

Conveyor belts transporting 4.5 million eggs a day–destined for places like Shop-Rite–are thick with flies, mice, and poop.

it’s just that we don’t know that this is happening…

The Humane Society of the United States recently ran an undercover investigation of Kreider Farms, finding these acts of cruelty that go against the industry standards promoted by groups like United Egg Producers, who, last year, joined with the Humane Society to support new federal standards providing more space for laying hens–a move Kreider has not supported.

In a great op-ed last week, Nicholas Kristof (one of my favorite journalists) writes:

For those who are wavering, think for a moment about the arc of empathy. Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.

Look, you don’t need to love chickens enough to want to hug them to realize that if God notices the death of each little sparrow, God certainly sees the suffering of the chickens who die so that we can have cheap eggs.

It isn’t only about how much we love animals. It’s about what kind of people we are going to be.

No one thinks what Michael Vick did to all those poor dogs is okay.

Chickens might be less emotionally affecting than dogs, but they’re still God’s creatures.

Why not make a brief, polite phone call to your U.S. Representative and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 3798? Then, make a brief, polite call to your two U.S. senators to support this legislation when it’s introduced in the Senate. Look up your legislators’ phone numbers here.

“The righteous know the needs of their animals,
but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Prov. 12:10)

Please don’t think this is only for crazy chicken-huggers. Take a minute to watch the video, maybe read Kristof’s op-ed, and think of the arc of empathy:

what kind of people do we want to be?

what kind of people are we made to be?

Plagues and Famines: better not to know? (part 1)

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

What might that mean?

Using God as Backup for White Middle Class Standards of Beauty

Usually for your weekend reading I post something of interest from around the web. This week I enjoyed reading the HuffPo listing of the 10 most polarizing foods–foods that people either love or hate–but some of your responses to this weeks’ earlier posts made me think you might enjoy this one, originally posted in August, on using God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

Recently I read back through just a bit of Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund–because I vaguely remembered that there was something in there that had once had a grip on my mind–and I only had to suffer through 43 pages until I found it:

“..my advice to all is: when you first become conscious in the morning, get decent. I know some people say [pray] first, but don’t you sort of feel sorry for God when daily he has to face all those millions of hair curlers and old robes? What if you were the Almighty, and got prayed to with words spoken through all those unbrushed teeth? It seems to me like the ultimate test of grace.”

(Hm, so I should have compassion on God and look good before I pray?)

She goes on to pose a number of questions like these:

“How are your hips, thighs, tummy?”

“Do you need to get into that jogging suit and run?”

“How is your hair?”

“What kind of program are you on to stretch, bend, and stay supple, to stand tall; to be a good advertisement of God’s wonderful care of his children?”

(So I have to look good not only for God but for everyone else, too?)

From about age 15 or so, I used to get up early to use the NordicTrack or to do some idiotic aerobics routine before school, for 2 reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved to eat breakfast until I’d exercised

and

2. I didn’t think God wanted to hear from me unless I was ‘disciplined’ enough to exercise regularly.

Being a typical American teenager, it didn’t even occur to me that God might have bigger things to worry about than whether I reached my target heart rate or ate too many grams of saturated fat. I’m pretty sure 1996 had enough injustice, war, natural disaster, famine, and other stuff going on that God wouldn’t have minded hearing the prayers through unbrushed teeth or from girls who chose to do something with their spare time besides fitness and beauty maintenance.

surely I’m not the only one who had a caboodle?


I’m pretty sure that somewhere, deep down, I knew that God didn’t care what I looked like. Nonetheless, pleasing God by looking good was bound up in my mind and body with actually doing good in the world.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that the pressure on women to attain to an unrealistic standard of beauty has  increased along with women’s freedoms in other areas of society. A study of archived letters from students at Smith College suggests that women before suffrage (1920) were more likely to worry about needing to GAIN weight, while women after, almost universally, worried about needing to LOSE weight.

{Why? To take up less space? To look better in the ‘flapper’ style? To eschew feminine curves for a more androgynous appearance?}

This problem, it’s not unlike my Audrey Hepburn problem. But it’s worse in some ways, too, because claims like Anne Ortlund’s use God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

And her book isn’t the only one to do that. Lots of the ‘Christian’ diet books out there do the same thing. And that’s what had me so upset about the article in Relevant last week.

Because what’s good? And what does God want from us?

{100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups every morning? Detoxification ‘cleanses’?}

NO–

To do justice.

To love mercy.

To walk humbly with God.

{I’m no longer posting on Sundays. See you all on Monday!}

Eating With Dr. Martin Luther King

We’ll be having a birthday cake today, to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have a dream”

Because, yes, we’ll watch the I Have a Dream speech; yes, we’ll sing “We Shall Overcome”; we’ve read the picture books and talked about the civil rights movement. But to truly mark a day as special–to show a 3 year old and a 6 year old that Dr. King’s birthday is worth remembering in a big way–you must have cake.

Now, Dr. King’s favorite dessert is reputed to be pecan pie–a deeply American dessert, a wonderful recipe for which you can find here–but that’s not a dessert my children will eat, and it excludes my dad because gluten-free pie crust is not easy. So we’ll have something else, but the important thing is, it’ll be Dr. King’s birthday cake.

{Talking to my son last night, I explained Jim Crow and segregation in mild, child-appropriate terms, and he said, with deep concern, “But what if you were white and your really good friend was black or you were black and your really good friend was? You couldn’t be together?” Bless that child.}

{What follows below is excerpted and modified from a previous post on The Help.}

While the film was criticized by some (including the New York Times reviewer) for supposedly showing only the domestic side of segregation, I loved it because of how it (and the book) used basic bodily functions to communicate both the shared humanity of and gulf of separation between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. References to taming hair and clothes to meet societal expectations are pervasive, as are motifs and themes related to toilet functions.

Present also (but in the book, less emphasized) is the motif of food and the theme of shared eating. I’m particularly tuned in to food issues, of course, but there was no missing the way in which the film capitalized on images of shared and segregated eating and drinking. The black maids must take care of their physical needs furtively and shamefully–sneaking a bite of deviled egg on the sly, for example–all the while pampering the appetites of their white employers. Hilly Holbrook (a smoothly hateful Bryce Dallas Howard), will gorge herself on the food cooked by her maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer, who voiced the same character on the audiobook), but expects her to use a designated outdoor one–even during a tornado. The film portrays the shame and belittlement of this segregation in cinematic shorthand.

{I’m sorry; I’m having formatting issues I’m as yet unable to fix…}

Where the film goes beyond the book (in its portrayal of food and eating), it aligns with my own understanding of a biblical theology of food. So much of food and eating, within the Bible, touches on issues of poverty, justice, community, and inclusion.

In virtually every culture, sharing food non-ceremonially is an important indication of welcome and friendship–Jesus’ ministry emphasized the importance of eating with those who are different as a way of not just symbolizing—but, in fact actually practicing the kind of equality and unity that he proclaimed. Early Christian writers, too,  claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith.
So when the outcast “white trash” Celia Foote drinks a cold Coca-Cola with Minnie, it’s a foretaste not only of the meals she’ll later insist on sharing with (and then cooking for) Minnie, but a foretaste, too, of the coming healing, reconciliation, and deep friendship that forms between Minnie and Celia, and Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen.

And a foretaste, too, of the heavenly banquet.

Living the gospel acknowledges our shared humanity and need for reconciliation with God and with each other. When we sit to eat together, we acknowledge our physical needs and that shared humanity (we all eat; we all excrete) while tasting just a bit of God’s graciousness. The Help reminds me again just how countercultural that Supper of the Lamb really is, and inspires me to look for ways to taste the firstfruits of that meal in my own life, right now. And that, as the preacher in the film says, takes self-sacrifice and a willingness to hear one anothers stories. But it’s also the only way to true relationships and genuine joy.
Fresco of an early church ‘agape’ (love) feast

It’s worth asking: what is obstructing true ‘love feasts’ today? In what ways are we guilty of prejudice?

Who is crying out to God for deliverance from injustice and oppression, and what is keeping us from hearing (or heeding) their cries?