Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I wonder what pattern your behaviour later this morning commonly assumes, as lunch approaches. Perhaps a beer or gin and tonic before lunch, followed by a traditional roast, then some summer pudding or other suitable dessert, followed perhaps by a nice selection of cheeses. No doubt even in a group as small as this, the variations are endless. But in all of this what none of us can escape is the fact that we do not simply eat and drink, we also say things by what and how we eat and drink. Take that gin and tonic, for example. The choice not only identifies me – or you – as firmly middle class but also a product of Empire, with the quinine in the tonic first introduced as a mild form of relief against symptoms of malaria during the British Raj. Your grandmother would have preferred gin and orange, while earlier still it would have been a firmly working class drink, indeed a sure sign or poverty and distress, as William Hogarth’s satirical sketches so clearly indicate. It had become the cheapest drink available once William of Orange became King in 1689 and insisted on some tax relief for his fellow Dutchmen who produced the drink.
Nor does what you eat escape from similar ambiguities. That last course of cheese may well suggest a strongly British household but there are of course those amongst us who like to indicate a preference for all things foreign and so serve the cheese before dessert, as do the French. Not that the French always get their way. For centuries all of Europe followed their practice of serving several course at once – a la française, as it was known – but Russia finally won out in the early nineteenth century and so we are all now a la russe with one course strictly following after another. Still, the French monarchy did keep one tradition going to the last, and that was the practice of public eating. In the middle ages the lord of the manor and his servants had eaten together in the same hall in sight of one another, suggesting some sort of a mutual interdependence. Gradually, however, eating had become privatized but never fully so with the French. Accordingly, when the monarchy was restored in the nineteenth century one tradition that was revived was the practice of the king and his family eating in public view. Any citizen could pop along, and see them in action. A very strange convention to us, but indicative of the extent to which, at least in theory, the monarchy saw itself as beholden to, and interdependent on the people.
You may by now have concluded that today’s preacher is more concerned to offer you a surfeit of interesting but useless facts than to deliver a sermon. But these facts do come with a reason. My intention has been to alert you to the way in which food and drink have almost never simply existed in and of themselves but usually carry some further meanings with them, explicit or otherwise. It was no different in the ancient world. Before turning to the land of Jesus’s birth, however, let us look first at what happened more generally elsewhere in the Roman pagan world. At every meal, whether in a rich home or poor, some element of the food to be consumed would have either already been offered in sacrifice or else presented immediately beforehand at the household shrine. Similarly, of the wine being served, some would be poured onto the floor in what was known as a libation, as again an offering to the gods. Sometimes such acts are interpreted by modern scholars in largely negative terms, as a sort of insurance policy, a way of placating the gods, but to my mind something rather more profound was involved, something that runs deeply in the human psyche. First, there was the desire to involve the gods in what might otherwise seem the rather dubious practice, of slaughtering animals whose right to life perhaps belonged properly elsewhere. But, secondly, it was also an expression of gratitude, the sense that the gods’ permission sanctioned enough to eat and drink on this day at least, and so one could enjoy it. In other words, sacrifice and libations were offered gladly and not grudgingly because they spoke of thankfulness and divine endorsement for what was taking place.
Nor was ancient Israel and the world of Jesus markedly different. There may have been no equivalent to the libation but a sacrificial system was still in full force, and this included elements of both thanksgiving and sharing with God. So in the Temple each day and at each of the major festivals animal sacrifices were offered, some of which were holocausts with everything burnt, but most of which were not, and significantly these latter included ones with names like thanksgiving or communion sacrifices. In the latter case an explicit sharing with God was envisaged: God dining with the ordinary people, as it were, a rather pale reflection of which was intended by that nineteenth century practice of the French monarchy to which I referred earlier.
It is against just such a complex background that the Last Supper then should be understood. Yes of course, there was recollection of the flight from Egypt but there was also remembrance of all those other elements in Jewish rites of sacrifice. Part of the Passover Lamb had already been offered in the Temple, and now Jesus ask his disciples to share with him in eating the rest but in a way that radically reinterprets what is taking place, for Jesus, as we all know, takes as his own primary source of reference not the choice cuts of lamb, but the simple bread that also accompanied the meal. That is, rather than taking the richest and best of the feast, he suggests that his disciples find him in the most ordinary of bread, indeed unleavened at that and so scarcely the most tasty. In effect, Jesus is challenging his disciples to find his presence in the most common of comestibles, in half cooked bread eaten in haste, in all that the poor and disadvantaged might have available to them: in other words, a Saviour who enjoins us to find him not in the most sumptuous of feasts but in the most trivial and ordinary, in the simple breaking of bread.
John, however, carries that symbolism one stage further in the passage which we have just heard, for he also mentions drinking Christ’s blood. Significantly, in the earliest account of the Last Supper available to us – in Paul – Jesus makes no reference to the disciples actually drinking Jesus’s blood. Instead, the talk is of the cup as ‘the new covenant in my blood’ (I Cor. 11.25) and there is good reason for this. Jews had a peculiar horror of drinking the blood of animals, and that because they saw blood as the sign of the life given to them by God and so as uniquely belonging to him. So in a number of texts in the Old Testament (e.g. Lev. 17.10-11) we are told that the blood of animals must never be drunk but instead offered up to God, and this is precisely what happened, with their blood being sprinkled on the altar before the flesh was then eaten by the worshippers. But Jesus in this chapter of John effectively overthrows that prohibition. Drink Jesus’s blood symbolically in the wine, we are told, and we will now share in the divine life, the life that was once seen as exclusively God’s. So it is no accident that there are several references to eternal life in John 6, part of which we heard this morning. The eternal life that was once exclusively God’s now also belongs to us through the shedding of Christ’s blood. But, note, it does not just mean a life that goes on forever, it also refers to a new quality of life, since for John eternal life begins in the here and now in the new perspective that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection gives to every aspect of our own lives.
And so let me end by returning to the gin and tonic and Sunday roast with which I began. For those of us who are Christians such eating and drinking is not just the inevitable fallout from being irretrievably middle class. They are also signs of celebration, food and drink as a gifts of God but also gifts to be shared, however indirectly. As that brittle, basic wafer of bread reminds me, I am no more deserving of food and drink than those who of necessity must rely on public provision, whether it be in Syria or closer to home. Indeed, it is precisely through kneeling and stretching out our hands to be fed at this altar each week that we discover what grace is: God drawing us towards that one great feast that will be the consummation of all things when all will be grateful and all fed, with king and pauper at the same table, and perhaps even the person with gin and tonic now in hand happily purring alongside the lager lout.
The Reverend Professor David Brown