Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:1-4 NRSV
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness offers up three symbolic sins which Jesus overcomes, this first of which is the most relevant for our daily lives but usually too narrowly understood. It’s often seen fairly obviously as Jesus overcoming sins of the flesh. Jesus has mastery over his body and that’s why he doesn’t give in to hunger, and we should all be strong like that and not give in to our fleshly desires, right? But the text clearly states that his 40 days of fasting are over. Jesus has fulfilled his requirement, and there’s no reason for him not to break his fast at this point. But when the devil suggests turning a stone to bread Jesus answers back, “One does not live by bread alone,” quoting Deuteronomy (8:3) but cutting off the rest of the verse which states, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” and leaving that “bread alone” tantalizingly dangling. The word used for alone, monos means, in Greek, “without a companion,” “forsaken,” it’s like “being all alone in the world”–which is pretty emo language to use about a piece of bread. And it’s not just the Greek. In the Hebrew that Jesus is quoting, the word for alone there, bad, has the same connotation of being separated and by yourself, and it’s the same word used in Genesis (2:18) when God says, “it is not good for man to be alone.” Language in the Biblical world was rife with layers of meaning, but rather than being considered confusing, this was desirable for teachers and orators, they enjoyed how words could evoke meanings behind the obvious. This is perhaps why Jesus–or at least Luke channeling Jesus–cuts off the quote, to emphasize this double meaning: one can’t live by bread alone, you must also be spiritually fed, yes, and at the same time, one doesn’t live by eating alone, by taking what you need for yourself and not sharing with others. Jesus isn’t worried about the sin of giving into bodily needs and not being spiritual enough, he’s just sacrificed 40 days of his short life in dedication to God, so his spiritual bona fides are in order, that’s not the issue. The temptation he’s resisting is that he doesn’t want to be alone to break this fast he has offered to God; he wants to share that celebration with others. The sin Jesus is avoiding is not lack of willpower like he’s on “America’s Biggest Loser,” the sin he’s avoiding is lack of hospitality.
So much of what Jesus’ ministry was about was what is called “table fellowship,” which meant that whoever he shared meals with were automatically granted belonging in that community, and since, unlike the other Rabbis and priests, Jesus shared tables with outcasts and criminals, this was world-changing. Jesus instructed us to continue that same kind of table fellowship and share meals with those who have otherwise been cast out, and do it in remembrance of him, which the early church obeyed with communal meals which became the symbolic Eucharist we share today.
But there are ways of experiencing Eucharist more like how Jesus and the early church lived and experienced it, as a real meal offering an expansive invitation of inclusion. Los Angeles actually made national and international news recently for something positive for once: Chef Roy Choi, who got famous for starting the food truck revolution with his Kogi BBQ trucks started another revolution by opening a fast food restaurant called LocoL in the heart of Watts, a notorious food dessert. Chef Roy had a rough youth, including gangs and drug addiction, but gourmet cooking saved his life, and he worked his way up until he became a celebrity chef and entrepeneur with multiple restaurants. But rather than just enjoying all that success for himself like many other wealthy businessmen, Chef Roy wanted to give something back, and he became devoted to the idea that successful chefs like him should not only focus on serving the well-off and feeding their own success but should figure out how to harness their talents to feed the hungry, the outcasts that exist right in the middle of our thriving, urban environments. And not just feed them the chemical-laden, obesity- and disease- causing processed food they’ve been getting, but feed them well. At an international food industry conference in Denmark he gave an impassioned speech challenging his fellow chefs to do just that, asking:
What if every high caliber chef, all of us in here, told our investors as we’re building restaurants that for every fancy restaurant we build, it would be a requirement to build a restaurant in the ‘hood as well?
Other chefs and investors took up the gauntlet and within just two years, they began a new venture to bring jobs, hope, and good, healthy food to an underserved community, all for the same prices you would pay at McDonalds or any other chain–they even have a dollar menu!–but made with only fresh, natural, local ingredients and designed by world-renowned gourmet chefs to boot. This food will nourish both body and the soul, it’s affordable, and even fun. The space encourages community, with customers comparing it to grabbing a seat on a porch or being at someone’s backyard barbecue. This is nothing short of miraculous for the people in Watts who turned out en masse on opening day, some waiting in line for hours to show their support and appreciation for what Chef Roy was bringing to their neighborhood.
One of the lesser-known ideas of the Reformers is that they discouraged a priest from saying mass alone, in fact the 1662 prayer book prohibits it, the sacrament can only be experienced in community. How beautiful that the “magic,” what changes the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Christ, is not in the words, it’s not in the hands, it’s in us sharing a meal together. It doesn’t seem that Chef Roy is religious, but he gets, like Jesus got, that people need more than “bread alone,” they need community, and maybe even a little magic; they need an experience larger than themselves. And he’s figuring out how to provide that magic to people with his own table fellowship. So should we all be doing.
The communion meal we share is rife with meaning. It has sacramental meaning, theological and historical meaning, and it also has personal meaning for each of us, often in ways we can’t articulate or are not even aware of. There’s a certain meaning in seeing the same people share the Eucharist with you, week after week, year after year. There’s a certain meaning in taking communion when you are emotionally and spiritually starving. There’s a meaning in taking communion when you are distracted, maybe even doubting, but you do it anyway, because it has meaning regardless of what you’re feeling in that moment. All that meaning we bring to and receive from communion, the symbolic meal, applies to our actual meals as well. And they should both be icons of each other, so that we look for the sacramental element in all the meals we share and we look for the community element in the symbolic meal we share here. The Buddha said “If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.” Chef Roy knows the power of giving, that it has the power to change lives, to even change the world. Jesus knew, and so he does not take the bread for himself because his whole ministry was never about taking, but about giving to others, even to the point of pouring out his life for us. We are called to walk in the same way Jesus did and share what we have, and whether we can share our meals and our abundance with others, let us at least share what we receive so freely each week, God’s love for us all.
Adapted from a sermon given at Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre, February 14, 2016