Known in the Breaking of the Bread

“Known in the Breaking of Bread,” Richard Watts

I begin with a story from the early years of New Covenant Community. 

Like most faith groups, we felt a need to come up with a mission statement, a succinct affirmation of who we aspired to be. We met in small groups, 6 to 10 at a time.

The group I was in struggled, and seemed especially  uneasy with any statement that included the words “Christian” or “Church.”  I found that strange, and thought to myself, “If these folks are embarrassed to call themselves ‘Christian,’ then maybe I don’t belong here.” But by the grace of God I decided to be quiet, and just listen more carefully, so that maybe I could discern what this was all about. It soon became clear that “Christian” and “Church” were toxic words for many, conjuring up images of exclusivity, of dogmatism, of a history of arrogance and violence.

But at the same time there was a positiveresponse to the figure of Jesus, a willingness to dig down through the debris of centuries to meet him again.  And so, after much struggle, our mission statement emerged, focused on him rather than on Church or Christianity: “to continue in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of the world as an inclusive, compassionate, joyful community.”

Around the same time, we were studying the writings of one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, who had recently written an influential book, The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

His work, and that of the Jesus Seminar, is complicated, but its purpose can be simply stated: to give Jesus a stronger voice in the contemporary church.  It may sound strange to suggest that Jesus needed help getting a hearing in the Church! But think for a moment about a basic Christian faith statement, The Apostles’ Creed.  It goes from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “crucified, dead and buried” – from birth to death in half a breath.  No mention of anything he said or did in the in-between years. Certainly no clue as to why the powers-that-be would regard him as a threat to law and order who needed to be got rid of. The Jesus scholars set out to fill in that gap.

Just as art historians use sophisticated tools to scrape away a third-rate painting to uncover the masterpiece that they suspect lies covered over beneath it, so the Jesus scholars did their best to reclaim the historical figure buried beneath layers of doctrine. And their work confirmed a suspicion I had long held, that a big part of the threat that Jesus posed is found in the whispered accusation that followed him wherever he went “This man has no shame – he sits down at table to eat and drink with all sorts of people – he has no sense of proper boundaries!”

Within recent weeks , you may have read in the Pantagraph of the death of a friend to many of us, Wally Mead. His obituary reminded us how he had been arrested and imprisoned back in 1962 in North Carolina.

“His guard and fellow prisoners, “the obituary read, “were unsympathetic to [his] cause and therefore he was always the point man for destroying rattlesnake nests and despite intense physical labor, was denied water though the temperature reached nearly 100 degrees.  A fellow prisoner had warned him not to run to give the guard an excuse to shoot him in the back, but he eventually passed out due to heat exhaustion so the guard had to radio for an ambulance, resulting in Wally spending the rest of his sentence recovering in the hospital.  He had long-term effects from that experience.”

And what was the crime for which he was being punished? Trying to eat and drink with others at a lunch counter where such an expression of commensality  was illegal.

Anthropologists tell us that once they know where, when, and with whom food is eaten, they can infer just about everything else about the character of a society. I hope it sounds weird to you that In a twentieth century “democratic” society, someone could be sentenced to hard labor for the crime of eating with the wrong people. But what Wally experienced was just a small example of the history of arrest, abuse, discrimination, even lynching, that generations of African Americans experienced when they stepped beyond the boundaries designed to keep them “in their place.” And nothing revealed more clearly the segregated shape of our society than the fear and loathing aroused when some young people tried to sit down together at a lunch counter, to eat and drink together.

Just so did Jesus break down societal separations – male and female, child and adult, observant and non-kosher Jews, wealthy toll gatherers and impoverished peasants – thereby challenging the whole system, building bridges where others fought to keep walls.

My respect for Dominic Crossan’s quest for the historical Jesus derives not only from admiration for his scholarly work, but also because he knows its limits. He once described an imaginary conversation with Jesus. Jesus is speaking:

“I’ve read your book. Dominic, and it’s quite good.  So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”

“I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”

“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”

“Is it enough, Jesus?”

“No, Dominic, it is not.”

No, it is not enough to parse ancient texts, unless we are able to share Jesus’ vision and get with his program.

Another great scholar of the church, Paul Lehmann, had completed his final lecture at Harvard, picked up his notes and moved toward the door, to the sound of applause by a standing classroom full of appreciative students. At the threshold of the door he stopped, raised his hand to silence the applause, and said, “Remember, dear friends, Jesus is the questionto all our answers.”  Then he turned and walked away.

One of the gifts of the Jesus Seminar has been to recover for us the faith of an early Christian community whose gospel never made it into the New Testament.  They didn’t focus on either “born of the Virgin Mary” or “crucified, dead and buried,” but on those years in between, on the wisdom teacher who called together a new community whose style of life – a peaceable kingdom in miniature – would ultimately win the day against imperial power and violence. They referred to their Teacher simply as “the living Jesus,” not a Jesus who was but as Jesus who is.  That is the Jesus who doesn’t ask about our theology but about whether we’re willing to get with his vision and program, the Jesus who doesn’t give us all the answers but forces us to ask the right questions.  Questions perhaps like these:

       What is our calling in a time of resurgent hatred of “the Other, “when such fear and loathing is nourished by leaders in high places?

How do we move from charity to justice, in this richest of nations, when  some 40 million fellow citizens must decide this month between rent, or medicine, or food ?

What does it mean to tell the truth while awash in a culture of lies?

        What is our witness to the peaceable Kingdom when most global disputes and evils are thought to be susceptible to military cures?

       What will be required of us, if we are to tear down walls between peoples, and build bridges instead?

If the historical Jesus is not the answer to all our questions, but the question to all our answers, surely these are some of the questions he prompts us to ask, if we are “to continue in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of the world in an inclusive, compassionate, joyful community.”