God: Bread and Vine
Lauren Winner begins her chapter on Bread and Vine as an image for God saying, “It would not be a gross exaggeration to say that the Bible is a culinary manual, concerned from start to finish about how to eat, what to eat, when to eat. Food is the first way the Bible shows that God intends to provide for humanity: all those seed-bearing plants and trees with fruit in the garden of Eden given to Adam and Eve to eat.”
It’s amazing, when I think about it, how much of our attitudes toward God become an intellectual exercise that doesn’t connect with the everydayness of our lives. We’re not accustomed to thinking about God in the everyday minutia of our existence. Maybe grace gets said at some meals – but do we think about God when grabbing a cup of coffee? Do we think about God and what it means to be God’s baptized children when we wash our hands? Do we think about God when we get dressed in the morning?
“The Bible is a culinary manual,” Winner says. Now the Bible comes from a time when food was much more a central issue in people’s lives. There was no such thing as fast food. There wasn’t refrigeration. There weren’t restaurants. Meals were gathering times for families and communities. Winner points out that even though there were dietary restrictions, God offered an abundance to the people. The Bible speaks of “figs and apples and raisins and vinegar and cheese and wine.” Hospitality was extended by providing physical sustenance. In that wonderful story where the angels visit Abraham, Abraham and Sarah provided hospitality by preparing a meal. When I was in seminary, a professor noted that Luke’s gospel portrayed Jesus eating with others – over and over again. Even Jesus’ parables were connected with food and drink. There’s the parable of the wedding banquet, the parable of the yeast in the bread, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
“Food carries memory and food becomes sacramental vessel,” Winner says. Think of the Passover Meal, that central sacramental rite in the Jewish tradition. The meal, with its liturgical elements, carries memory and shapes the community. That Passover meal shaped the central sacrament of the Christian faith – the Lord’s Supper. In this meal we remember that God has offered God’s very self to us as food. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Now, we may not eat the vine—but we eat and drink its fruit.
This imagery, this concept, that God offers God’s very being to nurture us, to feed us, to satisfy our thirst is baffling. In the early days of Christianity, outsiders who heard these words repeated assumed that Christians were cannibals. At the same time, the imagery is almost, as Winner says, unremarkable. “Wine and bread. The fruit of the vine; the staff of life.”
There’s a powerful story from World War II that was retold by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn in their book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life.
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
“I am the bread of life. I am the true vine.” Winner notes that most of us take our provisions for granted. Stories like the one from World War II – or perhaps the powerful, painful images of today’s refugees – remind us of our own need for God. She also says we can look deeper – broadening our image of what it means for Jesus to be our bread. She asked a question that I will put to you. “If Jesus is the bread of life, what kind of bread is he?” No one gave the answer that Jesus was like the little communion wafers her church uses. They named all sorts of breads. She says the list she got became a reminder that God is about delight as well as sustenance. Bread should contain “enjoyment and necessity, sustenance and pleasure.” (We should invite her to come and taste the communion bread that Maureen or Gail makes!) Take a few moments. Think about the breads that are or have been a part of your life. “If Jesus is the bread of life, what kind of bread is he for you?”
It was interesting to read about the evolution of our obsession with white bread. Food activist Michael Pollan suggests that “the prestige of white flour is ancient and has several sources, some practical, others sentimental.” White flour has been accessible to the masses only since the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century, bread became something that was purchased because there was an appeal in its uniformity. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possible slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” So wrote a reporter in 1928. Winner sums up our obsession: “The history of the lovely white loaf may be found in America’s optimistic quest for scientific perfectibility and in America’s history of shaming immigrants and shaming women.” And that obsession with “white” bread crept even into our observances of the Lord’s Supper. “It seems an odd genealogy,” she says, “for the bread that week in and week out, Christians name as Jesus. Jesus, who consorted with shamed women. Jesus, who is neither orderly nor predictable. Jesus, who, with his parents, became a migrant (I might say refugee) to Egypt when his own country turned inhospitable to him. Jesus, who makes possible our immigration to the Kingdom of God. Jesus, whose skin was darker than the flour we prize.”
When Jesus spoke of himself as the bread, he reminded his hearers of the bread God had provided in the wilderness – the manna (the “what is it?”). Rabbis said that this bread was not uniform. It tasted like “whatever the Israelites wanted it to taste like.” Isn’t that a neat concept? An 11th century Rabbi said there were a few exceptions. It “could not taste like leeks, onions, cucumbers, watermelons, or garlic, because those five foods might hurt nursing mothers!” It strikes me that this interpretation of manna honors both the individual and community. The individual is given what she or he needs – within the larger context of what is good, overall, for the community.
Winner says if Jesus is the bread of life, he tastes for us like what we need. But, that cannot be an anything goes approach. We are given what we need in ways that strengthen and support the whole Body of Christ, in ways that bring life to our communities, in ways that promote the healing of the world.
I admit to coming to this “celebration” of God as Bread and Vine with mixed feelings. The doctor ordered me to cut back on carbs – so there go the breads! (And I love bread.) Winner wrote of people with eating disorders who refuse to come to the Lord’s Table because they fear the calories – even in communion wafers. She notes that many fad diets take aim at the staples of life – at the very foods that the starving in our world would crave. She wonders if Jesus could have imagined the people of this age who respond to bread and wine with fear and self-disgust. Then she states, “Maybe one of the invitations He was making at the Last Supper was an invitation to anxious middle-class women [and men] two millennia in the future – the invitation to let His bread and His wine and His [Table] reshape the way we hold and eat and sip and feel about all bread and wine.”
Now, this chapter in her book is so full that I’ve left out many of her reflections on bread. And I’ve barely touched the image of God as Vine. It’s a powerful image of connectivity. It also leads to thinking about the cup, about the wine that comes from the grapes of the vine. We know the difficulties in our world in relating in healthy ways to alcohol. The Bible does speak of drunkenness. Sometimes God punishes with drunkenness. There is also a Biblical invitation that uses drunkenness as a metaphor. The Song of Songs encourages lovers to get drunk on love – to allow themselves to become fully focused on each other. Winner suggests this is a metaphor for us. “Perhaps, if I received Jesus as wine, I would know divine intoxication again. “Would that be bearable?”
Today, we celebrate God who desires that we feast on God’s very presence, on God’s very self. God is both the provider and the meal. God comes to us as bread, the very basic staff of life, and God comes as the wine that invites us to joyful living.