Bread for the World

There are people out there who like to work out frequencies. How many hours of my life have I spent at stop lights? How many hours a week do I spend sending emails? How many times have I said ‘I love you’. Enough? If you are a churchgoer you might have tried to count how many of those thin, little Communion wafers you have placed in your mouth through the years – 100, 1,000, 5,000? I think the people who ask these sort of frequency questions do so mostly for one of two reasons: they have an exceptional amount of spare time on their hands, or they want to tell the world something about why it is that we do the things that we do. So, on this Maundy Thursday, when the church recalls Jesus’ last supper with his friends before his arrest and death by crucifixion, what is it exactly that is going on in the meal of Holy Eucharist?

frequency

In the history of the church this question has been highly contentious: families have broken apart, nations have warred against nations, churches have suffered schism and centuries of estrangement from one another. It can all seem a bit distant today, odd even, in our increasingly post-religious age, when the debate that people are having with the church is not about the significance of what is happening during acts of worship and but the relevance of the life of faith and worship altogether. Indeed, it can be tempting to believe that in a time of the increasing secularization of society, and when there are seemingly far more pressing needs in our world from the tragic event of this week in Brussels to the shrinking ice caps of the Arctic, our beliefs about what Holy Communion is may not seem to matter that much in the larger scheme of things.

je-suis-1024x681

Yet as little their significance might seem today, the truth about the practices of our lives, especially ones that we might repeat as often as the Eucharist, is that they have the power to shape us more than we might realize. Augustine, the early church bishop and theologian, said of the Eucharist that we should ‘become what we see’ – become the body of Christ – and ‘receive who we are’. This encouragement to ‘become what we see’ is much like Jesus’ encouragement of his disciples as he washed their feet: to go and do likewise, to wash one another’s feet. ‘As I have loved you, you also should love one another’, are his words. Be the serving church. Be a people who give to others. Be the body of the Christ whose body was given for you.

Many see the Eucharist, the meal of sharing that body of Jesus, as that from which we gain nourishment, food for the journey of faith. For some, to receive the bread and wine is to receive Jesus himself. For others, it is to draw near to a memory, yet for others it is to enter a mystery and partake in the same final supper that the disciples partook in with Jesus two millennia ago, to be mystically present in it as Christ is present in us. Beyond this, though, the Eucharist has the power to shape us not only internally but in our relationships with others. In other words, the Eucharist is a gift that we receive that fits us better to be a force of good for the world.

event_289421942

For the early church, meals mattered, both for the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem and in the church which spread across the gentile world through Paul’s missionary activity. They mattered in a world shaped by Roman and Greek culture and politics because sacrificial meals were key in imperial cult and city celebrations serving as an embodiment of the dominant social order. Public meals were occasions for careful observance of social rank, at which slaves were required to stand in silence, and poorer quality food and drink was served to guests of lower rank.

The New Testament writer, Paul, was concerned not only that the record of the last supper be passed down but that the sharing of such meals in Christ’s name be fitting for the gathered church community. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, he challenged the alleged practice that some were eating whilst others were hungry (1 Cor. 11:20-22), going on to encourage the church’s members to ‘wait for one another’ so as to eat together (1 Cor. 11:33-34), thus subverting the established Greco-Roman hierarchy of subordination to supposed superiors. We also learn in Paul’s Corinthian letters that for Gentiles members in the church, the challenge was whether or not to continue to eat food that had been offered to idols. For Paul, theologically, there was little reason for Jewish members to be concerned – who would not be permitted to eat the sacrificial meat of the gentile temples – arguing that ‘we know that no idol in the world really exists’ (1 Cor. 8:4). Yet, for the sake of the whole body, the Corinthians, Paul argues, should abstain from the practice of eating food offered to idols so that others are not ‘tripped up in their faith‘ (1 Cor. 8:9).

serve_others_with_love

What informs these instructions to the early church that seek to put others first in the sharing of a common meal is knowing who it is that sits at the head of the table of fellowship. In the Roman world, the head of every social gathering and the place of greatest honor would go to whomever represented the ultimate head of Roman society, the emperor Caesar. Indeed, tributes to Caesar were visible all over the cities of the empire, in the form of shrines, temples, festivals and athletic games; he was the power above whom no power could be uttered socially and politically. Caesar was Lord, the ‘Son of a God’, through whom the ‘Pax Romana’, the peace of Rome was spread across the earth by conquest and governance.

Knowing this, that for the early church it is not Caesar who sits at the head of the table but Christ is an indicator at how counter-cultural this table fellowship, this common Eucharist was. It represented not only a fellowship where people might take their turn to eat in consideration of others, but an entirely new image of society constituted not in the hierarchy of political power, but in the radical equality of being the body of Christ. To be in communion around that table was to be as the Lord who serves his disciples, who washes their feet, and who suffers and dies for their sakes.

sg_shouldchristiansbecountercultural

‘Become what you see, receive who you are’, says Augustine. Every time we gather around a table of fellowship where all of us are equals, where each of us serves the other, where every one of us is gifted the opportunity to be seen for God’s own children, we proclaim the Lordship of the Christ whose headship of our table is at the place of the servant. And as we do, wafer by wafer, sip of wine by sip of wine, we lay ourselves open to be changed by that servant king who is making all things new, even you and I.

Advertisements

Tiny Houses, Giant Imaginings

 

IMG_4170

For the past several weeks a tiny house has been living inside of our church building, nestled behind some pews in the back near to where the people sit who arrive late and are thinking of leaving early. Whatever you might imagine a tiny house to look like in terms of its dimensions, the one we have had on display is long enough to lie down inside but not tall enough to stand up in. It has dwelt among us, week by week, soaking up the hymns and prayers, and the hopes of a community that seeks to make a difference for good in the lives of those around them. People have been encouraged to learn about the tiny house movement and write a prayer for the needs of homeless people on a sticky note and post on the doorposts of the house, like the ancient people of Israel seeking to remember God’s works of goodness in uncertain times (Deuteronomy 6:9).

IWI-Chris-portarit-280

Our tiny house of prayer is also a work of goodness. It was built by and loaned to us by Chris Scott, founder of i-wood international, a sustainable resource-use movement that  for the past ten years has been utilizing innovative technology to provide affordable, ecologically-sound homes and emergency shelters around the world. Chris’s vision today is that tiny houses might become a viable option for homeless people here in the United States, not only to find shelter and stability but to build micro equity and begin to take their own steps up and out of the cycle of poverty.

This Saturday on the grass and concrete of our church’s front yard our own tiny house will be joined by four others for the inaugural community event ofPBHC Logo the Pacific Beach Homelessness Coalition, a monthly gathering of homeless people, representatives of agencies who work to meet the needs of homeless people in our area, and local residents. The stated aim of the coalition is to identify, advocate for, and meet the needs of homeless people and try to build a better community for all. On Saturday, we will be joined by a number of other community organizations which seek to meet the needs of homeless people, and we hope by community members who want to learn more or just imagine themselves scaling down and living more simply as many have across America.

So why do it? As the person organizing the event and the coalition, I can attest to the fact that when a church, known for its ministry to those who are hungry and homeless, says that it is going to host a tiny house expo what follows are phone calls that ask where it is exactly in the neighborhood that we are planning to put our tiny house village. The voices I hear are often a mix of fear and anger. ‘Not in my back yard’ is a tough mentality to shake. It doesn’t help when our current political talking heads speak of building walls to keep ‘the other’ out. As a Christian, I suppose the fundamental difference between that kind of desire so often present in public discourse today that seeks to separate from ‘the other’ – whether heard on a national stage or over the neighbor’s fence –  and the Way of Jesus Christ, is that in Christ, there is no separation, no divide between us and them. We are either identified as one body or we have no identity at all.

Trump-Pope-AntiMedia-Wall

Saturday’s Tiny House Expo is not so much about encouraging people to find Jesus as it is an attempt for people to find one another. And once they do find one another, people might start to see one another more and ask one another questions that matter, such as how we might choose to spend our resources and how much we are prepared to be at peace with a society that allows fellow human beings to sleep on the street. Yet beyond this, the tiny house also asks us an even more fundamental question: how much is enough in order to be whole?

foucault-balcony

Given this hope that questions might be asked of friends and strangers, our expo on Saturday is akin to what French philosopher, Michel Foucault referred to as a ‘rhetoric of disruption’, language around concepts or discourse that seeks to unpick our dominating ideas about people and practices when they become too narrow or coercive. A tiny house is a disruption to the idea that the American Dream can only be fulfilled via the accumulation of a certain social and economic status in society, or the even more pernicious ideology that pervades almost all elements of public life that ‘bigger is better’.

Guatamala-Jesus

As a Christian, there is another proponent of a rhetoric of disruption who comes to mind particularly this week ahead, as followers of Jesus recall the events of the last week of his earthly life. Palm Sunday, this Sunday, recollects the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. For Jesus, the peacemaker, his arrival in such a manner offered a postcolonial turn on the Roman practice of military processions into the city following victory in battle. Likewise, Jesus’ execution at the hands of Rome, a death sentence reserved for political dissidents in Roman antiquity, became the act of disruption that Christians believe shaped the whole of human history, with the attempted destruction of God on the cross resulting in the emergence of new life for all in the risen life of Jesus the Christ.

So, if you happen to wander by 1050 Thomas Avenue in Pacific Beach this Saturday lunch time and see people in animated conversation with one another about the relative merits and demerits of tiny housing or solutions for homelessness in America, it might well be that something of that disruptive hope has worked. We can hope.

hope-hero