Eating as a Spiritual Discipline

by Jeff Krehbiel, September 8 2013

Homecoming Sunday
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

“For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (vs. 29).


The great poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry suggests that one of the great superstitions of our consumer age is that “money brings forth food.” It’s possible to go the store and buy a loaf of bread, go home and eat a slice, without any sense at all of the many complex connections that a simple loaf of bread represents. We don’t bake, we don’t grow, we don’t harvest, we don’t cultivate the soil. And as often as not, in our modern urban age, we don’t have any relationship with those who do.

            For Berry, it all begins in the soil. Our sanctuary today is filled with soil, and as theologian Norman Wirzba points out, it is easy to dismiss soil as nothing more than dirt. He writes:

            “We forget that organic soil is the indispensable, life-nurturing setting (a placenta of sorts) in terms of which so much of our living is made possible. Good, healthy soil is not dead but teeming with life. Death decays into it and reemerges as new life, all because of the astoundingly complex and mostly invisible work of billions of bacteria and microorganisms. Without their work our world would be overwhelmed by the corpses and stench of death. Soil is a marvel and a mystery that we have not yet even begun to comprehend.”

            So it is no wonder then that Berry waxes poetically about soil in Christ-like terms:

            “The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”

            Over the next several weeks we will explore that deep connection between food and human life– not just the soil, but the grain, the garden, the farm, the farm worker, the farm owner, agricultural policy, food production, food distribution, poverty, hunger, human community, and the church. Here is the quote that will guide our reflections, from Norman Wirzba’s book Food and Faith:

            “Thoughtful eating reminds us that there is no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without viable ecosystems, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its source in God.”

            For Christians, human life begins in the soil and ends at the table. So, appropriately, our communion table for these next several weeks is filled with dirt. But it’s not just dirt, it’s compost, teaming with bacteria and microbes that help foster life, and sustain human community. Today, our table is literally grounded in the earth, but metaphorically, all of life is grounded in the earth. When we eat, whatever we eat, we are connected to the soil. The soil and the table are deeply connected. Wirzba writes:

            “Whenever people come to the table they demonstrate with the unmistakable evidence of their stomachs that they are not self-subsisting gods. They are finite and mortal creatures dependent on God’s many good gifts: sunlight, photosynthesis, decomposition, soil fertility, water, bees and butterflies, chickens, sheep, cows, gardeners, farmers, cooks, strangers, and friends (the list goes on and on). Eating reminds us that we participate in a grace-saturated world.”


The Quaker writer Parker Palmer defines contemplation as anything that helps to “unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality, and reveal the reality behind the masks.” In that way, our approach to food over the next several weeks will be deeply contemplative. To approach eating as a spiritual exercise is not to make our food more spiritual and less material, nor is it to make our food somehow taste better or turn us all into foodies. It is to cultivate the habits that are at the center of the spiritual life– attention, conversation, reflection, gratitude, honest accounting– and connect them to the food we grow, the food we eat, and our connections both to the earth and to the human community that eating fosters.

            In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he excoriates the Christians in Corinth for gathering at the Lord’s table and then distributing the food unevenly among them according to their social status. You can’t blame the Corinthians for being confused. They simply brought into the church the values they had absorbed from their society. Not unlike our own, they lived in a culture with deep divides between the rich and poor. Some people had more food and others had less, and that’s just the way it was. You could share what you had in an act of charity, but you were under no obligation to do so. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours in yours, and let’s not get confused about the two. So when they gathered for their evening worship, in which they always shared a meal, those with a little more came early, laid out a grand feast, proceeded to chow down, and didn’t really give much thought about those who couldn’t afford to join them. Sort of like spending the evening on the lawn at Wolf Trap. Everyone buys a ticket, everyone brings their own food. There is a subtle one-upmanship to see who can spread out the most elaborate repast, but no one imagines that you bear any responsibility toward those who are sitting right next to you on the lawn unless they are part of your own party.

             What Paul was saying to the Corinthians was this: we are all part of the same party. Only Paul uses distinctly theological language. We are part of the same body. Christ’s body. In case they don’t grasp what he means, he spells it out for them in the 12th chapter:

            For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many... there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

            What Paul accuses the Corinthians of doing is failing to discern the body. He doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to the bread on the table. He means they aren’t paying attention to their neighbor in the next seat. By failing to discern the body, Paul tells them, it is not the Lord’s Supper that they eat. Indeed, he tells them, in failing to discern the body, they eat and drink judgement on themselves.

            It’s not entirely clear whether Paul expects this behavior to extend beyond the church walls or whether this is just special conduct he exhorts for when they come together. One of Paul’s suggestions is that they simply eat at home before they gather, which always strikes me as a cop-out on Paul’s part. What is clear, is that the distinctions that mark their social world have no place within the community of faith.

            So I wonder what it might mean for us to extend the parameters of Paul’s exhortation to the entire created order. Not just to those in the pew, but to our neighbors outside our doors. Not just to the food we eat and the food we share, but to the earth that brings forth the grain, the farm workers who harvest the crop, the animals that are sacrificed for the chicken salad, the bakers who bake the bread. If you don’t discern the soil, it’s not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. If you don’t discern the farm worker, it’s not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. If you don’t discern the baker, it’s not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. If you don’t discern the hungry poor that gather at your doorstep, it’s not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.


Our worship during this Homecoming season is inspired, in part, by the Norman Wirzba book, Food and Faith, that I mentioned earlier. One of the central theological insights he lifts up is the Greek word perichoresis, which was first used by the early Church Fathers to describe the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. Perichoresis means something like “interpenetration” or “co-inherence.” What it’s trying to describe how the three persons of the trinity make room for each other. Perichoresis is about intimacy, community, communion at the very heart of God. Therefore, he suggests, this is also how we are called to relate to one another as Christians. We make room for one another.

            So when we crowd around the table, as we will do in a few minutes, we make room for one another, so that no one is left out. When we eat the bread, we make room for the soil that grew the grain, the farm workers that harvested the crop, the bakers that baked the bread. When we share our bread with the hungry, we make room for the poor in our midst. When we share the bread and lift the cup with exclamations of gratitude, we make room for God who created the earth, and all that is in it, and for Jesus, who gave himself away so that we might live a new life, and for the Spirit that inspires us to give ourselves away as did Jesus. As Wirzba put it:

            “Thoughtful eating reminds us that there is no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without viable ecosystems, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its source in God.”            ✞


© 2013 Jeffrey K. Krehbiel
Church of the Pilgrims
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 387-6612

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