You are what you eat

Timothy, my son, do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know Whom I have believed, and I am sure that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit Who dwells within us. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, and among them Phygelos and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphoros, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

Second Timothy 1:8–18

The Lord spoke this parable: “A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’  But, one by one, they all began to make excuses.  The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’  And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’  And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’  So the servant came and reported this to his master.  Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’  And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’  And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.  For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’  For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Luke 14:16–24

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.  Amen.

“You are what you eat.”  Many in today’s society will take this phrase quite literally: they will see it as a call to have a better diet — “eat more healthily,” they tell us, “have your five a day.”  Others may take this saying as a metaphysical statement, “humans are just the sum of what they take in,” and will go on to reject any place for the divine — such people can be called “materialists.”  In their philosophy, everything that happens has an explanation in the physical world.  “You are what you eat.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what do you eat?  What do you put into your body?  Is it healthy?  Does it honour God?

Our society seems to be moving towards the end of religion.  Churches are closing, assets being sold off in order to make cathedrals “financially viable.”  Secularism is in the ascendency as spirituality is reduced to a “niche market.”  The secularists will say, “do religion if you like, but keep it hidden — separated from our ‘tolerant’ society.”  Yet secularism has won only because those of faith have accepted its premise, that human beings have a physical side and a spiritual side; secularism has divided the two, and when faithful accept this premise — trying to live a distinct public and private life, a life of work and a life of religion — they cannot manage to hold the two together: they either go off into a spiritualist faith, one where science can only be trusted if it agrees with their own world view, or they go off into a materialistic world where science explains everything and the religion they have left behind is only for “primitive people” who need a mythology to explain what they do not understand.

Brothers and sisters, are you living a divided life?  Are you taking part in a “secular” existence from Mondays to Saturdays followed by a “religious” existence on Sundays?  Am I?  Have we accepted the secularists’ mentality of a distinction between physical and spiritual?

“You are what you eat.”  The origin of this phrase is in the nineteenth-century German philosopher Feuerbach who said “Der Mensch ist, was er ißt,” “Man is what he eats.”  At the beginning of his book, For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory quotes this phrase but turns it around.  Instead of disproving “religion,” Fr Alexander states that in this phrase:

Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible.  In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.  Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth … is God’s instruction to men to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food]. …” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood.  He is indeed that which he eats and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man.  And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life.  It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfilment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”[1]

Fr Alexander’s book, For the Life of the World, is an excellent introduction to a Christian world-view and I strongly recommend it to all who want to deepen their faith.

“You are what you eat,” say the secularists yet we reply, with what appears to them a perplexing answer, “Yes!”  For us Christians what we eat is absolutely vital to our life.  And when we gather on the Lord’s Day, to what is sometimes referred mystically as the “Eighth day,” we gather to celebrate a banquet, a feast, a meal: we gather to become what we eat.  We are here today and the Church will offer to you and to me the most significant event in our lives, the Church will offer us Christ to eat.  And when we eat Christ, when we eat God, we become what we eat: by God’s grace we become truly human — as humanity was always meant to become — we become divine.  We go through a preparation beforehand, we are baptised and chrismated, we seek forgiveness in confession, we fast, we pray, and all this leads to our offering our mortal selves and receiving immortality.  “Oh taste and see,” says David the King, “that the Lord is good.”[2]

The Lord tells us about today’s Liturgy in the Gospel reading, “A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’”  The Lord hosts a banquet, one which unites the physical and spiritual realm.  This “physical side of being spiritual,” or “spiritual side of being physical,” does not provide just one instance of the two being united, then we get on with our lives: it reveals to us that this is how we Christians are called to live our entire lives.  Sitting down to eat a meal, doing work, preparing food, standing in prayer, playing with children all have, for us Christians, spiritual and physical meaning.  And the Lord invites us to a meal.

“But they all alike began to make excuses,” and a variety of excuses are given.  The Lord has invited you, and he has invited me: but how many of us, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, also make excuses?  How many of us set other priorities before the Lord and his banquet?  How many of us would never consider turning down an invitation from the Queen, our favourite film star or football player?  How many would reorder the rest of our lives to meet with the famous, the rich and the powerful?  Yet when we are invited, “for the King of kings and Lord of lords [who] comes to be slain and given as food for the faithful,”[3] we make our own excuses.

Today’s Gospel reveals more in the penultimate sentence, “that my house may be filled.”  It is important that we make ourselves present to the Lord and his banquet but the Lord desires more, that his feast is full.  God “desires all to be saved,” according to the Apostle Paul, “and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”[4]  This then, according to today’s Gospel, is our calling, our reason for being Orthodox: we are to accept the invitation that God has given us freely to be present at his banquet while simultaneously to “go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.”  And even more, “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”  We need to come to Christ, be with Christ, receive Christ, but also bring others to Christ, invite and compel them to come, that they may know Christ and become united with Christ.

Palestine has two seas, the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south.  The Sea of Galilee has life, fish swimming within and birds flying above, yet the Dead Sea is, as the name suggests, dead.  Why is this?  They are both fed by the Jordan River.  Yet the Sea of Galilee passes on all the water it receives and returns it as the Jordan flows south, the Dead Sea takes the blessings it receives but has no way for the water to flow out: because it tries to hold on to its blessings, without passing them on, it possesses only death.  So, too, in our life of faith, it is not enough simply to be present for the Lord’s banquet each Sunday: if we want life we must pass on this great blessing — immortality! — to others that we may have life.  The life of a Christian is a life of passing on the blessings we have received that we may receive more and be life-bearing.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you are what you eat!  Let the Eucharist be what you eat today, and every Sunday, that you may be able to pass on blessings to others and receive more in their place.  Listen out for, pray for, the cries of family, friends, neighbours, colleagues who desire Truth and point them to Christ that they too may receive immortality.  “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.”  What, my brothers and sisters, do you eat?

To our incarnate Saviour, our Bread of Life, be all glory, honour and worship, together with his unoriginate Father and the All-holy, Good and Life-giving Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Alexander Schmemann, 1982, ‘For the Life of the World,’ Crestwood NY, USA: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 11.

[2] Ps. 33:9 lxx.

[3] Hymn instead of the Cherubic Hymn, Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

[4] 1 Tim. 2:4.