Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sour Dough and Breaking Bread

Isaiah 25.6-9,
In this short passage from Isaiah the prophet talks about a celebration feast. His words remind us of what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper: From now onwards I shan't drink from the produce of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.' Was Jesus thinking of this Endtime banquet of vintage wines and rich fare?

The Prophet goes on to say something very striking. The celebration will be held to mark the lifting of a great shroud that blights the lives of every person from every nation on earth. For God will swallow up death for ever.

This is a wonderful new idea in the Old Testament. It's still not the concept of resurrection. Isaiah is, I think, looking forward to the future not speaking about the past. He's holding out the hope of life everlasting for the living rather than a promise that death will be put into reverse. But, of course, the idea was soon developed to take on board the notion first that God would raise up those who had been martyred for their faith, and then that his power could destroy the past consequences of death as well as its hold over us in the present moment.

And, says the Prophet, this wonderful promise will come true in Jerusalem. Christians believe, of course, that the prophecy was finally realised on Easter Day.

Psalm 114
Psalm 114 reminds us that we believe and trust in a God of mighty deeds, a God who can turn back the sea and part rivers to enable his people to cross on dry land. Even the Earth sometimes trembles at the Lord's presence, and he can bring springs of living water cascading from deep underground out of apparently barren rocks. He can do amazing, life giving things. He can bring about miracles to rescue his people.

1 Corinthians 5.6b-8
Paul quotes a saying of Jesus. It only takes a little leaven to leaven the whole lump of dough.

In Biblical times, of course, people didn't make bread with yeast. They used sour dough, or leaven, which is made by allowing a small amount of dough to ferment and be activated by wild yeasts in the flour and in the atmosphere. Creating a new sour dough takes a few days and involves careful nurturing. Even today, the best bakers make their own sour dough although I can never be bothered to mess about like that myself when there are pockets of dried active yeast available in all the supermarkets.

Once you have made your leaven, of course, you don't have to keep repeating the process from scratch. Instead you can simply keep back a small amount of the sour dough each day, mix it up with some of the new batch of bread dough, and it will quickly all become leavened ready for tomorrow's batch of breadmaking.

Now and again, however, it is good to get rid of the old leaven and make a fresh start - creating your sour dough from the base elements again. This is what Paul is describing here. He us reminds of the need to purge the old sour dough from the breadmaking process to get rid of any unpleasant flavours, or any loss of effectiveness, that have corrupted it over time.

Christians must constantly do the same thing in our spiritual and ritual life. We must look at the things we are doing, at the ways we are worshipping, at the pews and furnishings even that surround us, but above all at the message that we preach. Has it grown stale? Has it lost its effectiveness? Does it need purging and renewing? Worst of all, has what we believe become influenced, perhaps, by our own selfishness and personal opinions, our own prejudices and wicked ideas? Every now and again we must go back to the source - to the life and teaching of Jesus - and make a fresh start based on his sincerity and truth.

This idea inevitably makes Paul think of Passover. The reason for eating unleavened bread at Passover was because the people of Israel, waiting to escape from oppression or on the move through the Wilderness - on their way to the Promised Land - didn't have time to make sour dough, mix it with the new batch of bread dough which they were making each day, and then wait for the dough to rise. But Paul seizes on the idea that getting rid of the old sour dough gives us the chance to make a fresh start, and combines it with the Passover tradition of eating unleavened bread. Jesus, the Passover Lamb sacrificed for us, is also our new sour dough, our new leaven, leavening the whole lump of dough which is the Christian community.

Luke 24.34-49
It's not absolutely clear where Emmaus was. It's certainly not the place which modern tourists visit, because that's too far from Jerusalem. Perhaps it doesn't matter because the journey functions as a kind of microcosm of the Christian journey. It begins and ends in the holy city of Jerusalem, the place where Jesus died and to which the first Christians expected him to return at the end of time. The two disciples start out sadly and forlornly but then Jesus joins them on the way. His arrival leads them eventually to a new understanding and a complete change of direction.

Is this what our lives are sometimes like? We lose direction and purpose. Then Jesus overtakes us and injects new meaning and new direction into our journey. We find ourselves starting again, reinvigorated by a new sense of purpose. Is that what the Church's life should be like? Should we sometimes pause, on our journey - as Jesus and the two disciples paused at Emmaus - so that we can take stock, and think afresh?

If so, it's interesting, isn't it, that the journey can also be mapped out as an act of worship - a sort of prototype of the Christian liturgy. It begins with the two disciples confessing their sense of failure and loss. Jesus rebukes them, but perhaps he also offers them a sense of forgiveness and new hope as he goes on to expound the Scriptures to them. The disciples show concern for Jesus as he makes as if to continue his journey alone, perhaps reflecting the prayers of concern that we offer in our services. And then, finally, comes the climax of the liturgy - the breaking and sharing of the bread - the moment when we know that Jesus is with us, just as he promised he would be - and the sending out where the disciples, burning with new enthusiasm, hurry back to Jerusalem to continue the task of proclaiming the Good News.

Why were the disciples prevented from recognising Jesus? Is it because he looked different? Is it because, in his risen form, we can only meet him in the liturgy - as we worship, explore the scriptures and share the Eucharist together? Or is it because the disciples met Jesus in a fellow traveller, a stranger on the way who turned out to have deeper insights into the truth about him than their own very partial understanding?

Who were the two disciples? In John's account of the crucifixion we are told that one of the witnesses was Mary of Clopas, Mary the wife of Clopas. Here we are told about Cleopas and his unnamed companion. Is this his wife, Mary, returning home with him?

Many later Gospel writers claimed to have access to what Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection, and often these ideas turned out be a strange and eclectic mixture of popular ideas designed either to increase the appeal of Christianity, or to give it a new twist that happened to suit the writer. For a while some of these Gospels were fashionable but in the end they were all rejected. Luke's story survives because he doesn't attempt to make up the contents of that sermon on the road to Emmaus. He simply tells us that Jesus unpacked the stuff about himself in all the scriptures.

The Lord is risen. He is our companion on the way, and we can recognise him in the breaking of the bread.

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