People of Bread

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, November 8th, 2010

Bread is a remarkable food. Growing up on bread in rural Germany, I often contemplated why the Church used paper-thin, tasteless substitutes to represent the bread at the celebration of the eucharist. As a child, I was a regular visitor at the local bakery, which belonged to a friend’s father. The aroma of the freshly baked loaves filled the entire building, and we couldn’t wait to eat the first slice. The corner piece was generally the most desired part of the bread, although we also enjoyed eating the entire loaf with our hands, starting from the center. In the 1980s, bread took on new forms to entice the community: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds were added to the dough and, when baked, created a nutty scent that was almost irresistible. Getting together was as simple as putting bread on the table. At church, little was found of that table fellowship.

The scriptures spoke of the breaking of the bread at the Last Supper, and relief paintings in the sanctuary portrayed the event in solemn pictures; yet no real bread was ever distributed. In the 1990s I experienced my first fellowship dinner at a local church in Okinawa, Japan. To my surprise, people came with pots full of food, meats, vegetables, desserts, and bread. The sharing of the food was reminiscent of Luke’s comment in Acts 2:44 that “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Yet—there was no breaking of the bread. The event was disconnected from the activities of the Lord’s Supper, which indeed occupied a minor position in that community. Here was true table fellowship, there a true celebration of the eucharist. Each was its own world.

In the 1990s, I also learned about social justice and the Church’s involvement in feeding the hungry and giving to the poor. In the pentecostal churches of North America, I heard my first sermon that the church is a “house of bread.” Food ministries to the homeless shelters, soup kitchens in the churches, prison ministries, and feeding the children all became a part of my ecclesiological outlook. At the same time, it became painful to see that the poor and homeless received care through the churches but were not invited to the eucharistic table. They ate their bread with one another but did not receive the broken bread at the table of Christ. Although prayers and sermons were an important part of the meal, the churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the isolation of their own sanctuary.

As I became involved in ecumenical studies, I learned that bread did not represent a major image of Christian unity. On the contrary, ecumenical dialogue was often limited to formal discussion, and few occasions were provided for table fellowship. Sharing dinner with one another usually depended on the initiative of individuals. The fellowship with brothers and sisters from the visibly divided churches was reminiscent of the ministry to the homeless. While in the Cappadocian region of Turkey, Christians and Muslims continue to share the local neighborhood ovens and eat the bread together in their homes, that kind of ecumenical fellowship seems unthinkable in most Christian communities of the West. Bishop Azariah’s call in 1927 for ecumenism as friendship echoes unheard in many halls that shelter the participants of the modern ecumenical movement. Sharing bread with one another is an exception—breaking bread together at the Lord’s Supper an impossibility. The churches are serving tables in different houses.

The churches are conscious of the lack of fellowship, the separation of church and everyday living, the isolation of sanctuaries, and the divisions among Christians. Christian ideas perpetuate those divisions at the cost of an ecumenical praxis that stirs up unity and fellowship. What can we do to change the picture? Who is responsible for change? Who is interested in change? When can we move from being people who talk about the Lord’s Supper to people of the Lord’s Supper? When can we finally move from people of the eucharist to people of bread? How do we stop collaborating in our separations and start becoming companions–people who share their bread with one another?

[Modified from Wolfgang Vondey, People of Bread: Rediscovering Ecclesiology (New York: Paulist Press, 2008), vii-ix].

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Wolfgang Vondey
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One Response to “People of Bread”

  1. Paul Palma says:

    Well stated. Let’s be people who can come together freely– “dine as one” so to speak, not allowing financial status, affiliation, or cultural background to disenchant us from genuine fellowship (oikonomia). If we can find this unity at the table, then come, everyone, to the table.

    I also appreciate Dr. Vondey’s enumeration of house-hold fellowship in the recent publication of Pneuma: “Pentecostal Ecclesiology and Eucharistic Hospitality: Toward a Systematic and Ecumenical Account of the Church.” Here is proposed a ground by which members of our community and the labors of a Renewal Studies agenda can find place and common ground. That is, when we allow our perspective to exceed ordinary means in an offering of gratitude extending even to the outer limits of the creation-sphere and the environment all around us. Perhaps the believing community, and those engaging in renewal theological dialogue, can achieve (i.e. meet collectively) in a tradition at the table that accentuates consideration for others as well as a move beyond the physical forms (the bread and wine) to a state of transcendent contemplation.

    So then we stand with the Fathers of our Christian faith—St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas—in a rich legacy that asserts our collective grounds for fellowship, an ecumenics of hospitality and even entrance into the vital presence of God. Augustine, the common father of the church Catholic and Protestant denominations, confesses the bread (a physical reality) is a means by which the primary reality (namely Christ) is made known to each participant (Homilies on the First Epistle of John (3.5)). Further, the great scholastic doctor Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (3a.76.1, and 3a.76.3) testifies to the incomprehensibility of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in which substance is transformed into substance (sed substantia in substantiam) and the elements become the very reality of the body of the Son of Man—also the Church.