Grandparents can be wonderful storytellers. They can fill you in on bits of your history that happened before you were born. They can fill their stories with fanciful, wild imaginary happenings, or they can visit the doom and gloom of the past on to you.
My grandfather was one of those people, but mostly he was about doom and gloom. What occupied his mind was the time that the Romans sacked Jerusalem, our old home city. This was before I was born, so the story, for me as an eleven year old, was full of excitement and adventure. But for grandfather it was a different matter. He never got over having to pack up the family and flee from his home. It was compounded by the death of his daughter, my mother, soon after they had arrived in Corinth. Having to travel while so heavily pregnant took it’s toll, and a day or so after I was born, she died. Grandfather’s anger and grief remained close to the surface until he too died.
I would try and distract him by asking him to tell me other stories about what it was like before that momentous event. As a first generation Jewish immigrant, I wanted to know more about my people and heritage. We attended Synagogue each Sabbath, and I heard the stories from the Torah about God and his covenant with us, but I wanted to know more. Then one day grandfather obliged by telling me about a miracle worker.
The story, as I remember it, went like this.
People in my grandfather’s village heard about a man who was performing miracles, especially healings. He was a young Rabbi, who also taught a lot about our God. Granddad wasn’t all that interested in that part of it, but the miracles caught his attention. A few of the people in his village swore they had witnessed such things, so when word came that he would be in the district, the whole village – along with several other neighbouring villages – flocked out to the countryside to see him. For some of them the need was real and urgent. They hungered for healing. For grandfather? Well….he didn’t want to be outdone. He wanted his own miracle to tell to his children and grandchildren about. So he went along with them. For him it was a side show.
He was not disappointed. This young man, Jesus of Nazareth, walked among the crowd touching and healing. As if that wasn’t enough, he then took a few loaves of bread and some fish and turned them into enough food to feed the lot of them – five thousand by grandfather’s estimate – topped off with leftovers! (Matthew 14:13-21)
Grandfather went home and dined out on this story for months to come.
I was rapt! But he had said very little about this Jesus, so I asked him what became of him
“I dunno. Can’t remember.” Then after some thought: “Oh, now that I come to think of it, he ended up in Jerusalem and was strung up by the authorities for some reason or another. That was just before we moved there.”
I was disappointed. I wanted to know more, but could get no further information from my source. As I grew older I had a sneaking suspicion that grandfather’s story was exaggerated in order to feed my childish imagination. Five thousand indeed! I ask you.
Meanwhile our life in Corinth went on. We continued to attend Synagogue week by week, although I suspect grandfather did so out of staunch commitment to his Jewishness rather than love of God. He still hadn’t forgiven him for Jerusalem. Then one Sabbath after we had been in Corinth for about twenty years, I heard people there talking about ‘Followers of the Way’, and how they were now called ‘Christians’, and believed that the same Jesus granddad had told me about was the Messiah. Apparently they had worshiped with our congregation for some time, until the leaders expelled them for not keeping the Jewish laws. Since a number of those who had joined the sect were gentiles, it was felt that they were corrupting the purity of Jewish orthodoxy. These ‘Christians’, it would seem, were not held in very high regard by our congregation.
However, my curiosity was aroused, so I went back to granddad.
“Christians?! Ha!!” he said. “What would they know about the suffering we’ve been through? Most of them are gentiles anyway.”
And that was all he had to say on the subject.
But I kept my ear to the ground, and eventually overheard a conversation in the market place that directed me to some members of the sect. They invited me to attend their meetings, which, since they were held on the first day of the week and not the Sabbath, I was able to do.
They were on the whole a friendly lot. And they talked about Jesus, which, let’s face it, was why I was there. I felt quite welcome, except for one thing – I was not allowed to take part in their sacred meal unless I was baptised. When I thought about this man who fed (according to granddad) five thousand people without asking any questions, this insistence on initiation seemed ludicrous, and I bridled at it. But the teachings and stories about Jesus kept me coming back again and again.
Some stories I had to take with a pinch of salt, like the account of his resurrection. I might have been able to stomach healing and feeding, but resurrection? I decided I was too old for such fairytales. But my companions were insistent that it was absolutely true, as had Paul in his letters. Again I ended up shelving my objections in favour of curiosity.
Sometimes an elder would read from Jewish scripture about the Messiah to come, and sometimes from a treasured letter from this Paul. It seems that he wasn’t an original disciple. In fact he persecuted the church for exactly the same reasons as were expressed in my Synagogue. But then he experienced a miraculous conversion. From then on he travelled extensively preaching the Good News about Jesus all over the Mediterranean and founding churches, one of which I was attending. In fact there were several people there who remembered him in person before his death in Rome.
But these letters were not about nostalgic reminiscing. They were full of teaching and sometimes strong correction. And one of them caught my attention, because it was about breaking bread again. In one of his letters Paul wrote:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – NRSV)
This was something different. Such insight into an intimate gathering spoke of another aspect of this Jesus, a more personal profile. I compared it to him breaking the bread in granddad’s story. But this was no showy miracle – it was an actual giving of himself, if the account was to believed. I began to feel a new affinity with this Jesus, as though he met some hunger in me, a hunger I could not yet identify. I wanted to know more.
Then came a new document, in the form of a scroll, written by one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew. A copy was delivered to us by a church member from another city. This collection of stories and eyewitness accounts was far bigger than any of Paul’s letters, and could only be read bit by bit. But the effect on our little community was electrifying. This was the first detailed account we had of Jesus’ life and ministry, apart from scraps of stories gleaned from those who had been there, and since they were dying out, most of that was second or third hand. We savoured every detail. Week by week I heard about more miracles, which thrilled me no end.
Then one memorable Sunday our elder read a story so familiar to me that I almost fell off my chair. It was the story my grandfather had told me, the feeding of the five thousand. I couldn’t believed my ears! So it was true! I was so excited, but before I could tell the others about granddad’s account, the elder led us through his insights into the story, about Jesus multiplying the small gifts we offer, and handing them back to us to distribute out there in the world.. “Feeding isn’t just about us,” he said, “but needs to be offered to the hungry out there.” It made me see it all in a different light, and I wondered if I had been seeing Jesus as granddad did – just a miracle worker there to satisfy my thirst for the spectacular.
I began to pay more attention to the stories, and by the time we got to the incident that Paul had written about, the Passover meal, my Jesus had taken on more flesh, more meaning, and I began to see what the others meant when they talked about the meal that I as yet had no access to. I also understood for the first time that such a meal demanded the sort of commitment I had been so reluctant to make.
The account of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion moved me deeply. I wondered how I could have dismissed him so easily. Then there was the resurrection. Related with such clarity it was difficult to refute the sincerity of my companions in their solid belief in what I had felt was a fairytale.
It took some time, but this Jesus became more and more real to me as my disbelief eroded. I had to admit that all my searching was actually a hunger that could not be satisfied by a mere show of the supernatural. It required a deeper knowledge and actual experience of the person of Jesus, and that was slowly happening.
Eventually I gave in – not so much to the demands of the church, but to the love of this man who seemed to have been calling me for so long, and whose love had begun to permeate my life. Easter, the big celebration of his resurrection, happened later that year, and so did my baptism, along with several other candidates. We spent Holy Week in retreat, fasting and praying, reading and re-reading the stories leading up to this final miracle of life out of death, before the celebration.
And what a celebration it was! And what a feast afterwards! As the celebrant spoke the words from Paul’s letter I felt a deep reverence that has never left me. Each Eucharist (as it was called) became a profound act of worship and partaking in Christ himself. This breaking of the bread held a significance that was not present in grandfather’s telling of his story. It seems that the hunger I had felt my whole life was satisfied in a way that centuries of Jewish tradition and granddad’s storytelling could not.
I tried to speak to him about it all, but his bitterness was completely entrenched, and he simply waved me away angrily. He died soon after my baptism, without realising what an incredible person he had witnessed breaking bread so long ago, and I grieved for my loss, and his. But I also hope that the forgiveness shown by Jesus in his lifetime would spill over into grandfather, even if he was dead to us.
Hunger is a funny thing. Often we don’t even know we’re hungry or, indeed, what we hunger for, until bread is placed before us. I thank God that I found out, even if it was through the memories of a cantankerous old man.
© Rev’d. Sr. Sandra Sears CSBC
9 August 2017
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- From Saul to Paul
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