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Food, Feasts, and Jesus

Dave Jensen

February 1, 2015
Luke 24:13-35

A reading from the Gospel of Luke:

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma′us, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.


The gospel is almost nothing without food. When Jesus proclaims the Reign of God, he often has bread in his hands and drink in his cup. The gospels take pains to record Jesus’ meals: how he shares food, and who he shares food with. Jesus’ preaching and his table fellowship go hand in hand. This is particularly the case in the gospel of Luke. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he is tempted by the devil, Jesus claims that “One does not live by bread alone” (4:4). But as he goes about his ministry, he makes clear that one cannot hear the gospel without attending to basic foods. Consider all the times Jesus enjoys and shares food with others: he and his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath to relieve their hunger (ch.6); he feeds five thousand with five loaves and two fish (ch. 9); he shares a meal with a Pharisee who invites him over for dinner (ch. 11); he invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner (ch. 19); he tells stories of wedding banquets and grand feasts (ch. 14); and, in his last hours with his disciples, he breaks bread and pours a cup for them. Jesus liked food. Apparently, some of his enemies thought that he liked it too much. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says this about his accusers: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (v. 34). Jesus thought it was important how we shared food with others and he thought it was rather unimportant who we shared it with. One of the things that made his ministry so unsettling was that he shared food with anyone. He dined with the right people and the wrong people. He accepted others’ hospitality and sometimes imposed himself upon others’ hospitality (read the Zacchaeus story, if you don’t believe me). In his meals, in his invitation to table, we see that Jesus, the gospel, and food go together.

How fitting that today’s gospel lesson relates yet another story of Jesus with food. This is the first appearance of the risen Christ in Luke’s gospel. Several disciples have already heard news of the resurrection and even seen evidence of it, but no one in the story has seen the risen Christ. Until now. Two followers of Jesus encounter a man they don’t recognize and share a conversation as they walk. They see Jesus and talk to him, but they don’t see him. Nothing in the text suggests that Jesus’ appearance has changed. And of course we can assume that the followers of Jesus would recognize him by sight. These two followers see but do not see. Appearance is not enough to cause recognition. The followers don’t even recognize Jesus when he starts teaching them, as he addresses their disappointment over his death and interprets the scriptures for them. Most students can recognize a teacher by that teacher’s words. But these students do not. Jesus’ teaching, apparently, is not enough either. The followers hear, but do not hear.

Only when Jesus shares a meal with them are their eyes are opened. When he gives them food, they see Jesus as if for the first time. They eat and they see. It is not Jesus’ appearance that makes these followers witnesses of the resurrection; it is not even when they hear the teaching of Jesus. They become resurrection people when they share a meal with Jesus again. Food is not incidental to the gospel; it is bound up with the gospel. Four verbs describe Jesus’ actions at this meal: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Jesus takes, Jesus blesses, Jesus breaks, Jesus gives. These four verbs occur throughout the gospel of Luke. They describe what Jesus does with food: how he gives thanks, blesses, and shares. But these four verbs also capture what Jesus does with his life. What he does with his life and with food, he gives to the world. Jesus takes this bread and takes his life: ordinary bread, a staple food across cultures, that becomes his body in a gesture of grace. Jesus blesses: his bread, his body, and everything he touches. What makes Jesus’ life so unsettling is his blessing of everybody: worthy and unworthy, his willingness to eat with anyone–beggars, outcasts, sinners, religious leaders, even those who would seek to kill him. Jesus breaks: he breaks bread so that food might be shared; he breaks bread so that no matter how many are gathered, there is always room for one more at the table. And he allows his own body to be broken: a body that bears the scars of a crown of thorns and the pierce of a spear. His risen body does not erase these scars, but makes scars visible to those who seek them. The breaking of his body is also an opening for the world. Jesus gives: bread and wine and his own broken body. Jesus, the Broken One, gives the gift of life to Lazarus, of fellowship to Zacchaeus, of healing to lepers. He gives his life and his body for the mending of the world. What he does with food with these followers in Emmaus, he does with his life.

Like most American cities, Austin is a place of contradiction. It is prosperous and poor; livable and inhumane; diverse and segregated; well-nourished and craving for food. Much of our city is a food heaven. Restaurants serve locally-farmed produce and exquisitely prepared cuisine from every corner of the world. We can shop at supermarkets, farmers’ markets, or boutique food stores. Whole Foods began here as an alternative hippie market, and has now grown into an international marketing colossus. The mothership on Lamar is a feast for the senses: wandering the aisles, we can dip organic strawberries in a fair-trade chocolate fountain, sample locally-grown produce, and buy farm-raised Texas catfish or Coho salmon flown in from Alaska.

But other parts of Austin, primarily in the east, tell a different story. There are no Whole Foods on the eastside. There are fewer places to eat, and many of them are fast-food chains. Most residents of the eastside do not live within walking distance of a full-service grocery store, making it difficult to secure wholesome food if one does not have a car. And many on the eastside do not. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, swaths of East Austin are food deserts—places where access to nutritious, affordable food is severely limited. And though there are signs of change in East Austin as condominiums rise and boutique stores open their doors, longstanding residents get priced out of the neighborhood. The food deserts then move to other parts of the city, where the poorest residents live. In this city of plenty, in this nation of plenty, the food we eat (and do not eat) reveals the contradictions and injustice of our society. What we eat depends on where we live. In this respect, Austin is hardly unique. Our habits around food reveal much about who we are.

How do we celebrate the coming of the Risen Christ amid the food deserts of Austin and elsewhere? How do we connect Jesus’ habits and gestures around food amid the contradictions surrounding food in our time? These are big questions. But I think some clues might be drawn from the Emmaus story.

One thing that stands out in the story is that this first resurrection appearance focuses on unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar place. Nowhere else in Luke, let alone the entire New Testament, do we hear of a person named Cleopas. He appears rather suddenly on the scene and disappears as soon as the story is over. The other character in the story isn’t even named. We can be reasonably sure that this other character isn’t one of the familiar disciples, because the story includes the detail that the “eleven” are in Jerusalem. If these characters dart in and out of the story, so too, does the town that they’re journeying toward. Emmaus is hard to locate. Modern biblical scholarship is riddled with guesses as to its location. If it was a “real place,” it doesn’t seem to have left much of an archaeological record. This is the one instance in all of scripture where a place called “Emmaus” is mentioned. Whatever the case, Emmaus is hardly “significant” in the usual sense of the word. But of course Cleopas and the unnamed disciple ARE significant; Emmaus is significant. This first appearance of Jesus is not in the place where he was buried; it is not in Galilee; it is not in Jerusalem; it is in a new place—a place that hasn’t yet been mentioned in the gospel story. And the risen Christ appears to people we haven’t met yet either. And it is in this place, with these people that Jesus breaks bread, shares a meal, and interprets scripture. These people and this place just might symbolize the places and the people where we encounter Christ. As a text from Acts puts it, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (2:39) Jesus is always going on ahead of us, calling us to new places, to new faces, to make new disciples, to recognize him in the bread that we break with others. In places like this table; in places like the food deserts of Austin. Where will you meet the Risen Christ today?

If we open our eyes enough, we will see signs of life in food deserts. In East Austin, Urban Roots offers paid internships for youth to work on a 3.5 acre sustainable farm, a farm that yields 30,000 pounds of produce per year that go to local food banks and community farmers’ markets. Many churches across our city have planted gardens, including our own congregation. If we look close enough, there is plenty of food to be shared: right here, right now, in this place and throughout this city. Some of it we will collect with our offering today. The Risen Christ meets us whenever food is shared, with gestures of grace: in Emmaus, in Austin, wherever we call home. Whenever we break bread, we take part in a feast where there is always room for one more at Table, where Christ our host invites us to share what we have been given. And sometimes we plant gardens that flourish in the midst of the desert. Come, take and eat: all is prepared. Amen.