“Fed” – Stephanie Wing, 5.15.11
I think there is very little that gives my grandmother more pleasure than feeding her family. She knows the foods that we like best and always has them ready when we come for a visit. One summer, my sister and I were there for a two-week visit, and when my parents came to pick us up, I had gained 7 pounds! My mom told my grandmother we wouldn't be able to come again for such a long visit if that happened again. One of our favorite treats was a homemade milkshake. The next summer during our visit, my sister and I would weigh ourselves each night and say, "Grandma, I didn't gain any weight, can I have a milkshake?"
My grandma can make just about anything, but at the heart of each meal is her homemade bread. She has a big basin that she uses to kneed the dough - by hand, of course - and because of its size, she puts it right in the middle of the kitchen floor and goes to work. She makes at least a dozen loaves at a time, and freezes what isn't used right away. Bread is served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and often for an evening snack. It is true that one cannot live by bread alone, but I'm not sure that my grandmother could live without it!
In our short passage from Acts, breaking bread is mentioned twice as a central act of the early Christians. In last week's reading from the Gospel of Luke, we read of how the disciples first recognized Jesus after the resurrection. It wasn't until he broke bread with them that their eyes were opened. Breaking bread over a fellowship meal was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before his trial and crucifixion. The breaking of five loaves to feed the hungry crowd of thousands was one of Jesus' most enduring miracles. In fact, the earliest Christian artifacts incorporated images of bread from Jesus' ministry.
The earliest images of Jesus in Christian art often depicted him as the Good Shepherd, an image that figures most prominently in the gospel of John. In the gospel of Mark, when the disciples return to Jesus after having gone out teaching and healing others, Jesus encouraged them to come away with him to a desolate place to rest for a while. However, the crowds find them and follow them, and we read that Jesus had compassion on them, for they were like "sheep without a shepherd." Jesus teaches, and as the day turns to evening, he gathers up all the food that can be found - five loaves and two fish. He tells the people gathered to sit down on the "green grass." They were in the wilderness, but suddenly they are sitting down in green grass! The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures...
What else does the Good Shepherd do? He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. He anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows. The shepherd feeds the flock, and the Lord, the Good Shepherd, feeds the flock abundantly. Jesus is both the good shepherd and the bread of life. Jesus leads us beside still waters, and invites us to drink of living waters that quench all thirsts.
Have you ever thought about how much eating and drinking Jesus did in his ministry? The Pharisees noticed it. In Luke, the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners. They go on to say, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus' response was that you can't make the wedding party fast while the bridegroom is with them, but soon the bridegroom will not be with them, and then they will also fast and pray.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, there was indeed time for fasting and for prayer. We read that the early church devoted themselves to prayer, and to the teaching of the apostles. The believers were all together and kept everything in common, selling their goods and distributing the money to anyone who had need. Though their fasting included periods of abstaining from food, their fast also included giving up their personal property, the everyday comforts of life, in order to take care of each other, and to take care of those in need. Perhaps you have heard the saying, "Live simply, that others may simply live."
Fasting is not about starvation, and giving away the things of value to us is not about self-deprivation. It is about recognizing Jesus as Lord of our life, and giving up the things that too easily distract us, the things that too easily become of central importance in our lives. The fast does not deny the goodness of food, or the necessity of certain worldly items, or even the pleasure that we derive from abundance. A fast reorients us, it re-orders our priorities, and helps to put our needs, wants, and desires in place, so that we may be in proper relation with God and with each other.
A fast also reminds us of our ultimate dependence on God. We quickly become self-reliant, confident in our ability to put food on our tables, a roof over our heads, and insurance to protect the things most valuable in our lives. I dare say that many of us have little experience with true hunger, or with deep material need. A voluntary fast, or truly sacrificial giving, opens us to experience the provision we are promised by the Good Shepherd.
Yet to paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything - a time for fasting and prayer, and a time for feasting and fellowship. The early church gathered frequently to break bread together, to share with each other as there was need, and to share together the abundance of what God had given them. It is good for us to eat together. On Friday many of us experienced that goodness, both in the celebration of Nancy Gabhart's birthday, and in the Bingo night and fellowship dinner later that evening. It is good for us to gather together and enjoy the gifts that God has given to us. Doing so gives us an opportunity, like the early Christians, to eat our food with "glad and generous hearts."
Eating together is just one way that we are fed by the Good Shepherd. We are also fed in devoting ourselves to teaching and learning, to studying the Bible together and individually, to worshiping together and learning more about what it means to follow Jesus. We are fed in praying together, in being upheld by the prayers of others, and in the gift of being able to hold up others in prayer. We are fed in community. We are fed by the work and ministry of the church. And just as we are fed, so we are called to go out and feed, to invite others to the feast, and to share what we have been given so freely, that others may come to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Our reading from Acts gives us a window into how the early Christians worshiped, as well as their posture of service and outreach. And we read that day by day, the Lord added to their numbers. Early in Acts, we read that the followers of Jesus numbered about 120. Then after Pentecost and after Peter's first sermon, three thousand were added to their number! The early church grew by leaps and bounds through the proclamation of the good news, and as they lived life together as the gathered body. As their life and worship and service flowed together, the church grew.
If we, as a church, are faithful to God's call to us for worship and ministry, then we, too, will grow. That growth is happening now. It may not be by the thousands, or hundreds, or even scores, but it is growing in the number of youth coming here each Wednesday night, and in the excitement that they have to invite their friends to come and see what God is doing here. It is growing in the mission and outreach of this church - Little Dresses...., Dress for Success, the Congregational Care Team, the hygiene kits for disaster areas, Second-Wind Dreams, mission opportunities in our backyard and beyond. It is happening in Sunday school classes, in Bible study, and in our fellowship.
Each time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we are called to remember the abundant feast that God provides. We are invited to be fed by the good shepherd, to see the table that God sets before us, and to drink from the cup that overflows. We are invited to lives of prayer, study, worship, fellowship, and service. We are invited to be fed by God through those activities, and to be fed by God here at this table. Eating and drinking at this table reminds us that we are feasting with the bridegroom, that Christ is present with us. Our prayers and fasting, our giving and our service, remind us that we are also living in a time of anticipation of Christ's return, and the hope and assurance of God's extravagant love and grace.
Coming to this table reminds us that we are connected to each other, not just those of us gathered here, but in some ways, more importantly, those who are not here. We are connected to those who do not feel welcome at the table, for one reason or another. We are connected to those who have not heard the invitation. We are connected to our brothers and sisters who are still in need, and I can't help but think that we have been entrusted with our riches so that we can use them to share God's blessing with others.
The feast is abundant. I have not yet been to a meal at this church where we have run out of food, and I know that God's kingdom is like that, too. So let us come to this table and be fed. Let us be fed at the hand of our Good Shepherd, and let us devote ourselves to the care and feeding of all of God's sheep. As we have been fed, so let us feed. As we have been blessed, so let us bless. As we have been loved, so let us love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, amen.