1 Peter 2: 19-end
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
You can't avoid food in the Bible. From the apple in the garden of Eden and going all the way through to the Last Supper and then the breaking of bread at Emmaus, sharing food is again and again central to discovering what it means to meet with God. There are so many references to food and to eating together in the Old and New Testaments that you can, if you want, today buy the Bible Cookbook, which is advertised as presenting recipes and complete menus for 18 meals from the Bible. Cooking by the Bible isn't necessarily straightforward, - you need a reliable source of camels milk for example, and perhaps a strong stomach if like John the Baptist your going to try a daily diet of locusts and wild honey!
But the Bible shows us that Food and spirituality are intimately connected. A beautiful Russian icon shows three angels sitting at a table, one representing God, another the Holy Spirit and the third Jesus; the icon is a representation of the story from Genesis of the hospitality of Abraham, who offers three strangers a meal and then discovers their true angelic nature. In Hebrews Paul tells us 'do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels unawares.' For Abraham, for Sarah, for all of us who recited Psalm 23 just now and imagined what might be on that table spread before us by God in the presence of our enemies, food can become a way of experiencing the presence of God; sharing a meal in fellowship is one of the ways in which our eyes can be opened to the wonder and mystery of what it means to be in communion with one another, with Christ, and with the Holy Spirit.
The post resurrection appearances share this theme in very moving and human ways. In Mark Jesus appears to the eleven 'as they were sitting at table'. Last week we heard from Luke about Cleophas and his companion who recognise Jesus at the very moment He breaks bread. In John's Gospel we hear how the disciples meet the risen Christ; they're fishing and at first see Jesus as a stranger on the beach cooking fish over a charcoal fire. It's only when he says 'Come and have breakfast' that they realise who he is. In these post resurrection appearances, when the new Christians must have been filled with such an extraordinary range of feelings and emotions, breaking bread, having breakfast, and eating together become ways of breaking open their new faith; a chance to share the profound mysteries they're experiencing and above all a way of recognising the risen Christ as a presence in lives which must have been filled with a terrifying sense of imminent danger.
I think todays reading from Acts offers a vision for us here at St Anne's, and for all Christian communities; you can sense the community's excitement about the things they're discovering, and the sense of something new beginning. The act of breaking bread is so vital to their life together that it's mentioned twice. Both times it's not just about eating; breaking bread is central to praying, praising God, and talking about their new faith. There is a feeling of a community reaching out and welcoming in, of being generous and giving. And this is how God works - not just two thousand years ago at the very beginnings of Christianity, but also today. Because then as now there's nothing more important to our physical, spiritual, and mental well-being than being able to share food and companionship together.
But when we do break bread, as we will do later with communion, who is it that we're encountering? What is it about the risen Christ that makes talking about him so exciting? Our readings from Peter and John give us some pointers, but also raise lots of questions... and it's the questions which make our faith so endlessly fascinating. And today, as we open our new kitchen, I'm going to leave lots of those questions hanging in the air, in the hope that like those early Christians in Acts you might feel moved to ask them yourself as you eat and drink together after the service...
There's certainly a huge amount to discuss. Imagine being one of those early Christians and reading Peter's letter-your faith puts you at risk of persecution and punishment and yet Peter is telling you that unjust suffering wins God's approval. So much of what you're being asked to understand must have seemed as problematic then as it does now- how does it make sense not to return abuse with abuse, or violence with violence? Especially when the Romans are using extreme forms of violence, like crucifixion, to maintain their power and control over your friends and families. Peter tells you to take inspiration from the fact that Jesus himself didn't threaten or abuse, even though he suffered and was beaten. But you can imagine Peter's audience asking lots more questions- how have we been healed by his wounds? How have we been like sheep? How is Jesus 'a shepherd'? What does it mean to have a guardian of our souls? I think a vibrant Christian community is one that doesn't leave those questions sitting silently in the pages of the Bible, but instead opens them up and questions them- just like we did during Lent, or during our Advent discussion group, or now that we have our new kitchen, over food for sharing with one another...
I suppose a sermon might be thought of as a metaphorical breaking of bread, breaking the day's readings open to share what Jesus means when he tells us that, 'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.' This abundance is evident in the many ways Jesus talks about himself; but understanding Him takes work, and talking through. We have to listen and puzzle over what He means. Here a sermon is a really bad model; to really break open the bread of all those different ideas and images in our Gospel from John; the thief, the sheep, the shepherd , the bandit, the gate, it's not really enough just to sit and listen passively to someone preaching from a pulpit- you really ought to be talking these things over with other people... just like the early Christians we've been reading about in Acts!
Which brings us to the new kitchen-because in the light of today's readings our new extension is much more than a building with nice fixtures and fittings. It's there to take its place in that long tradition of Christian encounters with faith through the breaking of bread. So today I'm going to end rather differently than usual, because rather than using the sermon to say more about what I think today's readings are about I'm going to ask you to be like those new Christians in Acts, and talk about what you think our readings mean while you're eating and drinking together later this morning. And let us pray that, with the example of that early Christian community to inspire us, the new kitchen proves to be a source for rich and exciting conversations about faith and belief for many years to come.