Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Have you eaten? (Elaine Ledgerwood) 13.4.2008
Have you eaten? To our western ears, this is such a strange way to start a conversation. We live in a world of diets and weight loss, so while it is possible that a person hasn’t eaten, it tends to be out of choice.
In India, ‘Have you eaten?’ is one of the first things that will be asked in a conversation. In India many people will not have eaten because of poverty. Often what is available for the poor to eat does not contain sufficient nutrients and so sickness and disability abound. Unlike us, they have no choice. Ancient Palestine would have been very like India is still today. There is no social security, so those who are unable to work are dependent on their extended family. If they can’t help, the only option is to beg and if you can’t raise enough money by begging, then you can’t eat. Particular groups are more vulnerable because of their lack of power in the social structure – women, children, the disabled and the elderly. So the story in today’s reading from Acts is about supporting the most vulnerable in society in some very practical ways. But it goes further than this: in this story we see the Church’s original Holy Communion. Originally Communion was not about a ritual re-enactment of what Jesus did before he died: It was a time in which the community shared its resources to ensure that everyone had enough. In ancient times a gathering over a meal to hear a speaker was a common occurrence. Well known philosophers or teachers would be invited into the houses to preside at symposia, which involved a speech, a meal and discussion. It is easy to see how, with the addition of the prayers and songs, from the Jewish tradition, we have come to our church worship today. The early Christians simply borrowed from both Greek and Jewish traditions in order to make their own distinctive gathering. The difference between the Greek symposia and the Christian gatherings was that all were invited. In a world where who you ate with reflected your standing in life, the Christians created a meal with a difference. Rich and poor, slaves and free, men and women all ate together and were filled. Food that was brought to the common table was also taken out to those who were unable to attend the gatherings – often the sick and imprisoned. Let me illustrate this with two short stories from the early church. As many of you would know, the early church suffered persecution from the Roman Empire. Because they were neither part of the Jewish religion nor did they worship the Emperor, they were considered a threat to the establishment. During one of these persecutions it was commented by an official ‘they not only feed their own poor, but our poor too’. The generosity of these early Christians did not stop at the doors of the church, but rather extended out into the community where their help was also needed. The other story is from St Lawrence, the patron saint of Deacons and also occurred during a period of persecution. St Lawrence was ordered to make available the treasures of the church on pain of death. On the appointed day, St Lawrence led the officials to a warehouse, threw open the doors to reveal the poor of the town and said, ‘This, sir, is the treasure of the Church.’ He was killed anyway. Both these stories indicate the importance that the early church placed on looking after the vulnerable in society and so having a shared meal that meant everyone was fed was one way of doing this. However the change to ritual also came fairly early in the Church’s life. By the time that Paul wrote to the first letter to the Corinthians, the rich were excluding the poor from eating with them. The poor would only get the scraps from the table. This was clearly a corruption of the picture of church life that we saw in Acts 2. It seems to me to be such a shame that because of this we no longer eat a meal together as our communion service. Yet at the same time we in the West don’t need to do communion as a meal because most of us have enough. The majority of those who would need this sharing of resources in order to survive no longer live as part of our community and certainly virtually all of them are removed from our congregations. I once heard a Catholic priest say that we only eat a morsel at communion so that we go away hungry. The small serve of bread and wine is not enough to satisfy us and this once again connects with a hunger for justice. Far too many people in the world do not get enough to satisfy – some people being hungry for food and others being hungry for justice. According to this priest, the small amount of food that we eat leaves us hungry for justice in solidarity with those who are hungry for food. Many people throughout our history have been hungry for justice and as I wrote this reflection, I was left wondering how the course of history might have been changed if Marx knew about this original celebration of communion. Similarly, churches such as the Salvation Army don’t celebrate communion in their worship because for them every meal has that connection with God. Whilst perhaps for many of us this misses some of the sacredness of the communion in worship, it also highlights the sacredness in the ordinary things of life: it reminds us that when we share our bread (or other resources) with those in need, then we are in communion with God. Yet we too in many ways celebrate this alternative way of seeing communion in our congregation on almost a daily basis. When we gather together for meals, or listen to the lonely in our community, spend time at the Wednesday morning coffee or connect with another person whom we meet in our daily lives, then we enact this other sense of communion in a modern way. As we gather together in our congregations and celebrate communion, we can also gather to celebrate together with the church across the world the little acts of justice that reflect the life and death of Jesus. For whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882
Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands, Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands