Eating mindfully reveals our membership in creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Year B 2015
By Dennis Ormseth
Third Sunday of Easter in Year B
1 John 3:1-7
Helpfully for the first of the Sundays that bookend the week of Earth Day (April 22) in 2015, the readings of the Third Sunday of Easter reaffirm that the continuing presence of the resurrected Jesus is healing and restorative of creation. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, Luke uses this final scene of his Gospel
to remind his readers of the way in which Jesus will be present to the community . . . Luke has the delicate task of asserting (through the clumsy mechanism of narrative) both the reality of Jesus' presence and its difference from his former presence. The Emmaus story emphasized the elusiveness and indirection of Jesus' presence: Jesus could appear as a stranger without being recognized. This story emphasizes the other side: he is not a ghost, but a real person: “It is truly myself!”(The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 405)
That this real Jesus eats “a piece of grilled fish” is particularly significant: “As with the breaking of bread in 24:30, this detail reminds the reader of the feeding of the multitude in 9:16” (Johnson, p. 402). At the same time, however, Luke is also concerned to describe “the reality of Jesus' presence” in “its difference from his former presence,” which will make him available to the community in the future:
Yet even with the reassuring touch and bit of fish “taken in their presence,” it is obvious that Luke is not portraying resuscitation but a resurrection. The disciples are filled with a mixture of terror and joy. And when Jesus speaks, it is not simply the same as “when he was with them” (24:44); now he is the commanding Lord. They worship him and he departs for heaven with hands lifted in blessing. Luke teaches the community that from now on, Jesus' presence to them will be at such fellowship meals where they break bread as Jesus had taught them, read the Scriptures that speak of him, and remember his words (Johnson, p. 404).
Thus the Gospel reading offers us a vignette of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples which holds for them even though Jesus is considered to be “in heaven.” As Johnson observes, Jesus' final word to his disciples in Luke's gospel is the promise of the Holy Spirit – the “power from on high” (24:49k)—“which is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the 'withdrawal' of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life-giving Spirit” (Johnson, pp. 405-06).
Norman Wirzba connects Jesus “heavenly presence” to our concern for care of creation. We can understand heaven, he maintains, as not primarily a location but rather a set of relationships: “what makes a place really a place” he writes, “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there.” Accordingly, it is
not primarily the location that makes heaven what it is but the character of the member-ships that are happening in it. It is the place we most want to be because the relation-ships that transpire there are life-giving, joyous, and peaceful. What makes the relationships heavenly is that God is present and known in them (John 17:3). As such, heaven is the ultimate and complete realization of Home, the place of perfect nurture and celebration (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14).
Accordingly, Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his
ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God's kingdom looks like, and thus also what God's desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).
It is therefore of particular interest that included in such “possibilities of embodiment,” according to Luke, is eating. When Luke has Jesus ask for a piece of grilled fish, we suggest, he is not only providing a reminder of the many meals they have shared in the narrative of the Gospel. He also means to make his readers aware, as Wirzba puts it, that “eating is not incidental to the expression of life as Christ reveals it.” How so? Eating, he argues,
can serve as a witness to the heavenly kingdom. Why? Because eating is the action whereby we share and strengthen life, celebrate blessings received, and enact fellowship. When we eat well with each other we perform an essential meaning of home. As Robert Karris puts it, “In Luke's Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal: Following Jesus we learn to eat like he does so that we can move into the fullness of life he makes possible” (Wirzba, p. 216).
The Gospel reading thus prompts us to ask with Wirzba:“Will there then be eating in heaven?” While no one can give a definite answer, Wirzba allows, he thinks that “eating of some form will occur.” Why?
Because eating is one of the most fundamental ways we know for enacting communion. Because eating affirms the resurrection of a body that is what it is because of its relationships with other bodies. Because eating is so deeply intertwined with life's movements that to remove it would be to render living unintelligible to us. And because eating is a sharing in the primordial, eternal hospitality that is a mark of God's Triune life. This is not to suggest that the eating characteristic of heavenly life is a direct continuation of the eating we do now. If our eating is to witness to heaven, it will need to be transformed by Christ. Insofar as we learn to co-abide with him, eating can become a sacrament, the daily sign that the world we call our garden, kitchen, and home is also the home of God” (Wirzba, pp. 216-17).
That we should eat with Jesus in heaven, and in the feast that anticipates heaven, in other words, bears fully on the manner and consequence of our eating on earth.
Wirzba confirms the significance for our heavenly eating with Jesus for our orientation to earth and its care in this trenchant paragraph:
Eating is not simply about the filling of a gustatory hole. It is also how we develop into particular kinds of people capable of Godly sensitivities, affections, responsibilities, and delights. The Eucharist teaches that when we eat together we share in God's hospitable life. More exactly, we recognize, receive and then extend to others the gifts of life that God so graciously gives. We discover that life is not a possession but a deep and profoundly mysterious reality we participate in. Table manners developed while eating together, play a crucial role in equipping us to participate in the lives of each other with understanding, appreciation, and care. Jesus spent so much time at table with others precisely because it is around food that we come to a clearer self-understanding and a more honest estimation of the world as God's creation and our place in it (Wirzba, p. 228).
Luke's story, he concludes,
enables us to see that eating serves the very important role of helping us discover the meaning and the requirements of our life together .. . . [E]ating is the occasion through which we discover that we are creatures nestled within multiple memberships of creation altogether dependent on our creator God. It is the time when we honor, nurture, and celebrate membership. When we eat well, with Christ in mind, heart, and stomach, we recognize the grace and blessing and the mercy of these memberships, thereby (hopefully) becoming more graceful, grateful, and merciful ourselves. Around the table, people learn to live into God's eternal self-offering life by offering themselves to each other and to the world. Eating Eucharistically can thus rightly be understood as a 'rehearsal of heaven on earth' (Wirzba, pp. 229-30; the quotation is from Sam Wells, God's Companions, p. 197).
That in the Book of Acts Luke reports “that Jesus appeared over a period of forty days to his followers, eating with them and speaking to them of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3; 10:41),” points to the growing importance of these meals in the formation of the life of the church. This is how the church will be sustained, in days and years to come, in healthy and responsible relationship to the Creation.
It is significant to note evidence in our first reading for this Sunday that this practice of coming together to eat in the presence of their risen Lord quickly becomes for the Christian community what the temple in Jerusalem was in Hebrew tradition, the locus from which the flourishing of creation enters the life of the people. That the community continues to worship in the temple while they are in Jerusalem, we learn from the very end of Luke's Gospel: “they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24-53). But as the confrontation in Acts 3 shows, their presence there became a source of conflict. The crowd to whom the sermon was delivered was drawn by the healing of a beggar who “used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple;” the crowd's utter astonishment reflects the contrast between the man's persistent pleas for alms at “the Beautiful Gate of the temple” and his complete restoration to health by Peter in “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (3:6-8).
As Ben Witherington notes, the sermon of Peter in the Portico of Solomon in the appointed verses was directed against the officials of the temple (“Third Sunday of Easter,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2003, p 23). The sermon makes clear that the followers of Jesus have now appropriated several titles associated with worship in the temple for their confession of Jesus as Christ: the “'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus,” Peter proclaims. The officials of the temple, he charges, “rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15). Particularly significant here is the use of the title “servant,” clearly an allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-14, who “shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” That Jesus has already been glorified is the firm premise of Peter's confidence that, if the people repent and turn to God, new ”times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,” when Jesus, “who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” will come to them again (3:19-21; verses 20 and 21 should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the points being made here). Peter's sermon thus envisions that the well-being once associated with the presence of God in the temple, will now instead be made available, through acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and not only to the people of Israel. It will be given to all peoples, in accordance with the “covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of earth shall be blessed’ (3:25).
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288