Visiting the home of food-oriented friends, I scanned the living room bookshelves. A title quickly popped out: The Spirit of Food, a collection of essays edited by Leslie Fields from Kodiak Island, Alaska. I picked it up and quickly resonated with her theology.
“Food is nothing less than sacrament. All food is given by God and is given as a means to sustain not just our bodies but also our minds and our spirits. In all of its aspects —growth, harvest, preparation and presentation — food is given as a primary means of drawing us into right relationship toward God, toward his creation and his people.”
People attracted to Jesus in the early days didn’t suddenly change from human form to holy stature. In most ways they continued to live like their neighbors: sleeping and waking, working and playing, drinking water and eating bread.
With glad, generous hearts
Luke paints a simple picture of the daily routine after Pentecost. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
In Jewish tradition, bread is often associated with hospitality. The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing nearby. He ran to meet them and bowed down. He said, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves” (Genesis 18:1-5).
The writer of Hebrews (13:2) commends Abraham: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
So it is not surprising that early Christians (who were, after all, Jewish) met daily around meal tables. They called their gatherings agape (the New Testament word for self-giving love) referred to in Jude 12 as the love feast, recalling the meals Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room, and in the Emmaus village.
These common meals followed a ritual Jesus himself gave that combined conviviality, teaching and prayer. Christians remembered and met their Lord around tables: This was the heart of their worship in the first three centuries. Sharing food symbolizes sharing of life, nourishing our bodies and our relationships.
Reviewing my 89 years as part of the global family, I find no better words to sum up the rich goodness of those decades: Sharing food with a glad and generous heart.
Receiving, too, is blessed
I remember a story of mission in reverse. It happened in 1972, in a farmer’s family courtyard in northern Ghana. Our hosts expressed gratitude to missionaries from afar for sharing agricultural practices that yielded more food for their household.
With two middle-school children, we had driven the mission Peugeot sedan 500 miles from our city home in Ghana’s coastal capital to the arid northern region. Here two young agriculturalists from the United States, Dallas and Larry, represented Mennonite Board of Missions (a Mennonite Mission Network predecessor) in assisting Indigenous farmers with crop cultivation. As administrative overseers, we went to get acquainted with the friends Dallas and Larry had made as they cultivated soil and mutual friendship.
Sitting in a circle surrounded by mud huts, the American fellows interpreted what was going on in the fields beyond the compound. In basic English punctuated with non-textbook sign language, they connected hosts and guests — sometimes with words, more often with gestures.
After a pastoral blessing, the host motioned for his children to bring gifts: six eggs and a live chicken. We cringed as we remembered our well-stocked pantry back in Accra in contrast to the sparse daily fare of our new friends. We recalled Paul’s reminder that Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Our children guarded our gifts as we traveled home, sensing that Jesus’ oft-quoted beatitude needed amplification: “Receiving, too, is blessed.”
Integrating work, worship
My spirits have been rejuvenated in monastic spaces: Bolton Abbey in Ireland, Glasshampton in England’s Midlands, Rostrever in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland, St. Gregory’s amid the farms of southern Michigan.
Nourishing simplicity marks monastic mealtimes. The abbot’s bell signals the meal’s beginning. The monks bless the plates served before them, then devour the food as they listen, each taking a turn reading aloud from a community-chosen book. The bell rings again, reading stops, a prayer is repeated, and the meal ends. The rhythm of worship integrated with work moves on.
Rabbis tell a folk tale: A man asked, “God, what are heaven and hell like?” God pointed to two doors. As the man opened the first door, he smelled a pot of stew that made his mouth water. Around the table sat emaciated invalids holding spoons with long handles reaching into the pot. But because the handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the miserable scene. God said, “You have seen hell.”
They opened the second door. The room looked just like the first. The stew smelled just as good. The people around the table had the same long-handled spoons, but they were healthy and happy, laughing and talking.
“I don’t understand,” said the puzzled man. God smiled. “It is simple. Love requires only one skill. The people here feed one another. They have learned that food is love made edible.”
When putting together Mennonite Men Can Cook, Too, I concluded, “I know no more fitting final word for my cookbook than the mealtime prayer I learned at my family table:
God is great; God is good;
Let us thank God for our food.
By God’s hand we all are fed,
Give us Lord our daily bread.
It is a prayer in keeping with Scripture: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
A lifelong Mennonite pastor and journalist, Willard E. Roth and spouse Alice Metzler Roth live at Greencroft Goshen. They are members of Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind. Willard is the author of Mennonite Men Can Cook, Too (Good Books, 2015).
Double apricot pie
(from Mennonite Men Can Cook, Too)
1 package refrigerated (not frozen) Pillsbury pie crusts (2 crusts)
20 large moist dry apricots (advance soaking in water recommended)
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon minute tapioca
3 tablespoons apricot or peach liqueur
1 15-ounce can apricots in heavy syrup
1 tablespoon sugar
In saucepan over medium heat, cook dried apricots in water until tender.
Mix sugar, cornstarch, tapioca and liqueur until smooth. Add to cooked apricots; stir well then add canned apricot with heavy syrup.
Form one crust into ungreased 9-inch glass pie plate.
Gently spoon cooked apricots into unbaked crust.
Cover with second crust, either whole or braided; sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 10 minutes in preheated 400 Fahrenheit oven; reduce heat to 350 for 20 minutes until nicely browned.