Early on in my study of the theme of food in Scripture, I spent a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and the mechanics of it, at least as it’s practiced in a lot of Reformed evangelical churches like mine. Why did Jesus and Paul center the ordinance on Jesus’ death, instead of His victorious resurrection? What’s to celebrate in that? And if it is a celebration, what kind of party food is a bland square of tasteless chalk and sickly sweet grape juice?! Why not a fragrant loaf of Challah and a rich bottle of earthy Cabernet? Aren’t those the kinds of food and drink more in line with our most sacred and only repeatable ordinance?
If I had lived during Jesus’ day and my fervor had driven me to pull a Mary Magdelene and crash the Upper Room with my well meaning offerings for the meal, the wine might have been welcome (as long as it was kosher) because the disciples were likely not flush with cash. But the mere presence of the bread would have brought the entire night to a screeching halt. Not only would I not have been welcomed, I would have been given the right hand of disfellowship by Jesus, the disciples, and all of Israel. Because my bread would have contained a substance every Jew, Jesus included, knew was supposed to be decidedly, conspicuously absent.
Challah, like most bread, contains yeast, a single-celled microorganism that feeds on the starches in flour and ferments carbon dioxide. The fermentation process is what makes dough rise, and what it its characteristic aroma, and baked bread its volume and texture. Without yeast, bread is flat, dry, and empty of any rich flavor. Just one tiny yeast cell can transform large quantities of simple flour and water into something large, and airy, and altogether other than what it was before. Which is why yeast (or leaven, as its commonly called in Scripture) was, and still is, a dominant metaphor for sin in Jesus’ day, especially the sin of pride and its many spiritually malodorous byproducts. Jesus used the metaphor Himself when talking about the Pharisees, those living, breathing metaphors of puffed-up pontification of corporate piety who reeked internally of spiritual corruption. In contrast, Jesus was gentle and lowly of heart, the one who emptied himself when he took on human flesh. He was unleavened.
As Passover marked the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a major part of the preparations involved ridding the place where the meal would take place of every crumb of bread or grain of wheat – anything that might have the slightest taint of yeast. But thanks to modern science, we know today that this was actually impossible. Yeast lives on work surfaces, on the ground, and even in the air. Given enough time, a container of flour and warm water left in any ordinary environment will eventually “bloom”, thanks to invisible rogue yeast cells that can’t be eradicated by mere human effort.
So just as no Passover meal was ever truly free of yeast, no one who ate of it was ever free of the sin yeast represented. Right in that room were men whose pride and drive for sinful self-preservation and self-enrichment would move them to words and deeds of incredible wickedness mere hours later. It would be hard to comprehend, if we didn’t see the same thing going on around us every day.
You know, for all of my Calvinism, there are many times when the depravity of mankind and the wretchedness of the world can seem somewhat theoretical, let alone the depravity of, well, me. And then there are months like this one has been. The entire world feels like it’s been turned inside out, its heart of darkness exposed and pulsing relentlessly. Men, women and children are suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of wicked men and microscopic pathogens. The state where I live is choking on the dust of dried up reservoirs, desperate for rain to water the crops that feed the entire country, but the rain refuses to come. The county where I live houses the workspaces of the wealthiest, greediest people on earth, and the living spaces of the poorest and most desperate, within an afternoon’s walk of each other. A man blessed with an astounding ability to see the world and show it back to us in a way that makes us weep with laughter, can’t see through his own pain, and makes one last, tragic, choice, so that now he makes us weep with sorrow.
So much brokenness. So much sin. So much yeast.
And the church? Jesus’ bride? The one whose job it is to proclaim to the world that there is still good news? What a mouth she’s had. Shrieking and shrewish when she should speak gently (or not at all), then purse-lipped with false piety when she should be ugly-crying over her hypocrisy at talking so much about rediscovering the gospel while she speaks and acts likes she’s never really gotten it at all.
And then there’s me.
As I’ve made my way through Ephesians this summer, I’ve returned again and again to the promises in chapter 1, all set in motion before a word of the universe was ever spoken. I want to ask God what in His own holy name He was thinking to make me a part of His plan. I can click away from the news of the evilness of the world, but never from the evil that lives and multiplies in my own heart.
The yeast of sin is still everywhere, and in everyone, as it has been since long before that Passover meal in the Upper Room.
In everyone, except for the One.
Jesus is the one man who was, and is, the sinless, yeast-less One, the unleavened Bread of Life. He was the one who in unleavened humility emptied Himself to live with us in all of our sinfulness. He, the unleavened Bread of Life became our yeast, was disfellowshipped from His own Father on the cross, and died. That death is what bought us our life. That is a death worth celebrating.
Each time we take the wine and the bread, Jesus proclaims that death to us. Through His perfect, yeastless death, the yeast of war has died, the yeast of child hunger and thirst has died. The yeast of Ebola and cancer has died. If we belong to Him through faith, our yeast of laziness and pride, greed and lust, lovelessness and anger – it has died too. And that is a death worth celebrating, as often as we meet together, and as often as we wake up in the morning, until the day Jesus comes back and death itself dies, forever.