Eating plays a big role in the earthly ministry of Jesus from the first temptation in the wilderness onwards. He told his disciples, “You give them something to eat,” before he performed one of the miraculous feedings of a multitude. There is plenty to eat and baskets left over. He quips that he goes about eating and drinking and so is called a glutton and a drunkard. He tells Zacchaeus that he is going to dine with him that day — and then does. Many other important occasions for his teaching and healing take place at dinner parties at various houses: at Simon the Pharisee’s home, Simon Peter’s, Martha’s house in Bethany, and so forth.
And of course there is the Last Supper: the Passover meal that Jesus earnestly desired to eat with his disciples in the upper room on the night in which he was betrayed. When he gave them the bread saying, “This is my body,” and gave them the cup of wine saying, “This is my blood,” they surely did not understand what he was talking about, but it was real bread that they all ate and real wine that they all drank — including Jesus, who said he would not taste it again until he did in the Kingdom of heaven. Later, after seeing his broken body and flowing blood, they started to understand enough, so that they began to follow his command to “do this in remembrance of me.” And we know that at first the Eucharist was a real meal, not a ritualized one, such as we observe today.
But let’s consider how important eating was in Jesus’ resurrection ministry to his disciples. In Luke 24 on Easter evening, Jesus sat down to eat dinner with the two disciples at Emmaus and took and blessed the bread. Then he disappeared, presumably without eating any of it. But they recognized him in the breaking of the bread and hurried back to Jerusalem to tell everyone.
When Jesus revealed himself to the disciples in Jerusalem, “he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:41-43).
Why? Was it to show that he is not a ghost? But he had done this already. He first showed them his hands and feet and told them to handle him, “for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).
So why did he then ask for food? Was he hungry? Did the risen Christ need to eat? Or did he eat with his disciples to remind them that life goes on and that they actually do need to eat?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus cooked a breakfast of fish and bread on the side of the Sea of Galilee while he waited for the disciples to come back in from fishing, having cast their net on the right side of the boat at his direction. It seems to me that Jesus was inviting them to a meal which he shared with them — the significance is in the sharing of a meal, not because he needed to eat. They did need to eat, however, and he ate with them. He then went on to tell Simon Peter that he must “feed my sheep,” obviously using feeding as a metaphor for spiritual guidance and inspiration. But he fed Simon Peter fish and bread first before he said that to him.
Man does not live by bread alone, but he needs bread to live. Jesus was telling his disciples not just that he has a real body that can consume food, but that he is with us in our daily needs. The shocked and confused disciples may have forgotten to eat, or had no appetite, as often happens to human beings in a crisis. But they needed to eat. Life goes on; and their physical lives had to go on if the Gospel message was to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth and Jesus’ life and death be not in vain. Jesus showed them that clearly.
The Ascension, to be celebrated this week, teaches us that the Risen Lord has gone on into the heavenly places at the Father’s right hand, but even there the joy of heaven is described as a feast: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” But while we are here in this earthly life, Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread — our first necessity, and the first necessity of all people in this sinful and broken world in which we are called to do the ministry of evangelization and reconciliation.
The Gnostic tendencies that have impinged on Christians from the beginning of our faith, subtly tempting us to think of our bodily and physical needs as unimportant or even lamentable distractions, are just as powerful now as ever.
It is good for us to remember this Eastertide that Jesus showed over and over again, even in his resurrection appearances, that he does know and recognize our needs as bodily beings; we are not just valued for our spirits and minds. Let’s remember to be gentle with each other and with ourselves as we recognize our daily needs — first we must eat.
The featured image is the Emmaus Supper window by Burne Jones in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge. The photo was uploaded by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons.