Updated: Aug 5
All churches have traditions. I’m not talking about the formal customs and procedures of religious practice. I’m talking about the unofficial rituals that make a certain church our parish home. And while most of these aren’t written down anywhere and their origins have usually been lost to history, they are nonetheless entrenched in the culture of the parish. They are, in their own way, sacred.
I knew I had encountered my first Grace Church Martinez unofficial holy law of obligation when I asked why we have pancake breakfasts during Lent instead of Easter season. “Isn’t that,” I inquired with innocent concern, “backwards”? “Well,” I was told (gently but firmly), “I don’t know about the theology of it, but to me Lent at Grace Church is the smell of pancakes.” And I, knowing that church doctrine is no match for the aroma of maple syrup and sausage, shut my mouth and said grace.
The truth is that for many of us food and God are inextricably linked. One of the very first conversations between God and human beings was about food. After God strongly suggested to the first people that they not eat from one particular tree in the beautiful garden where they lived, they went right ahead and did it anyway, leading to all kinds of trouble – but also providing us with the comforting knowledge that we are certainly not the only p unable to resist attractive but forbidden foods. We are also not the only people who miss food when we are deprived of it. After God released them from lives of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites tried to mutiny because they were hungry – and when God gave them something to eat, they promptly got angry because they didn’t like the taste of it.
We do God a disservice, however, when we focus on biblical stories in which God’s people were deprived of food, because there are many, many more tales in which God provides food for the people. God not only sent manna to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but he also dispatched a raven to feed his prophet Elijah, Abigail to provide for David, and Joseph to be sure that the people of Egypt had enough food stored to survive a seven-year famine. Ours is a generous God, a god who has continued to provide physical and spiritual food for the human beings she created and loves, despite the fact that we have been ungrateful for them – despite the fact that we have rejected them – despite the fact that we have often destroyed them, including God’s own child, Jesus, the unblemished sacrificial Lamb, the perfect spiritual food which we, in our anger and fear, despised, rejected, and crucified.
That’s what Peter was trying to help the people of Jerusalem to understand – and it “cut them to the heart” when they realized that they had misunderstood and rebuffed God’s mercy. This passage is not about how “the Jews killed Jesus.” It is not about the collective guilt of the people of the city. Peter was not there to condemn the group – why would he bother? He’s there to offer forgiveness and salvation to each individual person. Jesus is the Lord, he tells them, the Messiah whose mission was not thwarted but fulfilled by his sacrificial death. Jesus is the one they were waiting for, and, miraculously, they could still be part of it – part of a new life, a life free of corruption and fear. All they had they to do was not throw away the gift they have been given.
It’s all we have to do too. I recently read an article touting the effects of a miracle drug that can, “improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans – at no personal cost.” That drug is religion. Long-term research suggests that although “the draw for many may be meaningful liturgy, perhaps a sense of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation,” that’s not all regular church attendees are getting. Churchgoers (as opposed to non-churchgoers) are more optimistic, less depressed, have a greater sense of purpose, exhibit more self-control, are less likely to smoke, and more likely to have a stable marriage.” And, just to be clear, these benefits are related to church attendance, not individual spirituality. These findings fly in the face of what Jeff Paschal calls, “shallow, privatized, and individualized faith characterized by statements such as…’What I believe is between God and me’; ‘I am spiritual, but I do not practice organized religion’; ‘I am Christian, but I practice my faith by myself by being a good person.’ For too many church members, faith has become little more than mouthing the words ‘I believe in God and in Jesus’ as some sort of magic formula. There is [no] public and communal dimension of thanksgiving and responsibility.”
Yet, as today’s scripture readings so clearly tell us, it is exactly the public and communal aspects of the early Christian church that drew people to it, so much so that three thousand people were baptized in one day. That seems impossible today – but I’ll tell you something. I don’t think it is. Because I think that people need something to believe in now just as much as they did then. Human beings need something to give them strength, and something to share – and I believe that “something” is God –whether they know it or not. The job of regular churchgoers is to show them.
One of the most beautiful practices we have here at Grace is when I invite forward those who would like to share the joys and sorrows of our lives together by disclosing a struggle or offering a thanksgiving with the group. This opportunity – to hear that one of our sisters only needs one more chemo treatment, or that a long-awaited heart transplant has occurred, or even that one of our friends is still struggling but remains hopeful – is an incalculable blessing – the same blessing that brought people to Jesus and to the movement that still bears his name.
That is what true Christian hospitality is all about, demonstrated over and over by Jesus in life and confirmed in his death. It is the way in which Christians are supposed to be known – by our willingness to provide not just for one another, but to anyone who asks. Each time we break bread in community, whether it’s pancakes or wafers or granola bars; whether it’s in liturgy or fellowship or on the street- we are known to one another – and Jesus is known to us.
“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six,” Sara Miles writes in Take This Bread, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food—indeed, the bread of life.”
That is the lesson and the promise of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; that “Jesus will meet his beloved ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ [That] the hospitality of…traveling companions [will become] the doorway to grace… [This requires] trust and hope…Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risk,” but it is the way in which we are asked to demonstrate our faith, our gratitude and our understanding of God. It is the way in which God opens our eyes to the gifts that he has given us and the way in which we learn to accept those gifts. That bread is a miracle. Take it. Eat it. Share it. And be known in it. AMEN.
Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/