I have been thinking this week about the power of food. In almost all my mission trips, there was a food story. Whether I was uncertain about eating what looked like undercooked chicken in the Dominican Republic, or I was struggling with the proper way to eat the tiny bird I was given in Burma, or I was trying to swallow the freshly made tamale in Honduras when all I wanted to eat was a saltine because I was so sick – there was always a dramatic food story from each trip that led to endless jokes later. Of course there are good food stories too. There are those foods that you always eat when you visit a favorite restaurant, the foods you beg your mom to make when you visit home, or the foods whose recipes you try to master before your grandfather passes away and the magic taste is gone with him. Food is a powerful thing. There is the basic need for food for sustenance, there is the nostalgia and delight that the smell and taste of food can bring, there is the adventure of trying new and exotic foods, and there are ways in which food can be the enemy – from overeating to disordered eating. Food is the common denominator among all peoples, and in many ways, our life is centered around food. The common joke in the South is that you know a family is a good southern family if they are planning their next meal while eating the current one.
So today, when Jesus says, “Have you anything here to eat?” Jesus harnesses the power of food to do something equally powerful. In Luke’s gospel, the women have found the empty tomb and reported the news to the disbelieving disciples. Peter has confirmed the news, but the disciples remain huddled in fear. Two of those gathered have an encounter with Jesus on their walk to Emmaus, and return to the disciples to share the news. Finally, in our lesson today, Jesus appears among them. Though he offers peace to them, and tries to calm their doubts and fears, the text tells us that they are joyful, but still in disbelief and wonder. Despite the fact that the disciples have received multiple testimonies of the risen Lord and despite the fact that the same risen Lord is standing right in front of them, offering them peace and assurance and even showing his wounds as proof of his identity, the disciples just cannot get their heads around this strange new reality. And so Jesus resorts to the one power left he has to reach the disciples – the power of food. To this scared, confused, disbelieving gang of followers, Jesus says the most basic, normal question, “Have you anything here to eat?”
Who among us has not tried to use food as the great peace maker? Almost every time we go to visit family, our family anxiously asks, “What do you guys eat?” Whenever we host friends, we are careful to ask about food allergies or what kinds of foods they do not like. Pretty much every birthday party we have been to with our five-year old has served pizza and cake – because apparently, every kid likes pizza and cake. Nothing feels better than satisfied eaters around a dinner table. Once people are happily eating, the conversation flows and the laughter soon follows. Likewise, when we make the wrong food choices for a meal, the results can be disastrous. I always have loved the scene from the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when the Greek girl invites her very non-Greek boyfriend to meet the family. The whole family has gathered, a pig is on the spit, food is flowing, music is playing, and the favorite Aunt comes up the boyfriend and asks him what she can serve him. The Greek girl tries to calmly and quietly explain that her boyfriend is a vegetarian. The Aunt seems confused, and so she explains that her boyfriend does not eat meat. The Aunt loudly asks, “What do you mean he doesn’t eat meat?!?” The room suddenly stops – a record scratches as the music halts, a glass drops from a stunned hand, and jaws drop as they stare at this strange boyfriend. But the Aunt, ever the gracious host, quickly affirms the boyfriend and says, “That’s okay, that’s okay. I’ll make lamb!”
Though the Aunt clearly does not comprehend the practice of being a vegetarian, she still leans on food as a way make peace. Once she has made peace, the party continues, and the family gets back to knowing the foreigner and welcoming him as family. That is because food has that power. Food can break down walls between foreigners, food can soothe old hurts, and food can help make new friends. Food has power.
Jesus seemed to know this truth. When appearances, conversations, and physical evidence cannot not seem to calm the disciples enough for them to understand what God is doing in the risen Christ, Jesus resorts back to the one thing that can transform everything. “Have you anything here to eat?” is not just a question about whether there is food in the house. His question is a disarming one – a question that not only requires the mundane work of preparing food, but also gets the disciples into a place a familiarity, comfort, and ease. In this place, gathered around the table with food, the disciples are finally put in a place where they can really hear Jesus. In fact, the text says that Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Finally, after confusion, fear, and disbelief, through the power of food comes clarity, wisdom, and direction. Jesus is able to break through, create understanding, and most importantly, commission the disciples to spread the good news to all the nations.[i]
On those mission trips, those funny food stories always led to something more powerful. That questionable chicken was procured for us because the village leaders knew how hard we had labored and they wanted to give us food to sustain us – even if it meant driving out of the way to obtain the chicken. And once we ate, the hungry villagers ate too. Those tiny birds that we panicked about in Burma were actually quite a delicacy. They are a rare treat that were painstakingly prepared by the women of the church. And though I am sure our faces betrayed our uncertainty, you could not have seen more proud looks on those women as we began to pick through those tiny bones for meat. Those mounds of fresh tamales were like a death sentence to me in Honduras. But I learned that the women of the village had pooled their money for the ingredients and had been working all day to prepare for the feast. After we ate those delicious offerings, there was great dancing and celebration as our team honored a productive week with our village hosts.
Churches understand the power of food. I still hear stories at St. Margaret’s about the progressive dinners held back in the day. Parishioners who are often quite overbooked will clear their calendars for our annual parish picnic. I have told many a friend that St. Margaret’s is the only parish I know whose Coffee Hour truly lasts an hour – sometimes more if the conversation is really hopping. Even our most recent new endeavor of providing a family-friendly worship and fellowship opportunity is centered around food – Pasta, Pray, and Play. Churches understand the power of food to bring people together, to enrich relationships, and to create new connections.
But probably most important for the Church is the power of food to heal, reconcile, and embolden. The Eucharistic Meal is the primary way we use the power of food. For those of us who have been receiving communion our whole lives, we sometimes forget the power of that simple meal. I remember, at one of the services when one of our young people received his first communion, the look of consternation on his face when he first tasted the dry wafer. I do not know what he was expecting, but I can tell you, that wafer shocked his senses. That is what our Eucharistic Meal is supposed to do. We spend an hour pondering and praying about what God is doing in our lives, we confess our failures to live as faithful servants of God, we reconcile with our brothers and sisters in the peace, and then we stand humbly before God and receive a meal that restores us and makes us whole. That single meal gives us the peace and the power to get back out into the world and try again – try again to be the witnesses Jesus invites us to be today. That is the power of this food – this meal can transform us and enable us to be faithful witnesses in the world. When Jesus says today, “Have you anything here to eat?” we say emphatically, yes, we do. Amen.
[i] Sarah S. Henrich, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 429.