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Bread, Wine and Climate Change

16:47 31/08/2021
Bread, Wine and Climate Change

Will your preaching of ‘climate change’ encourage the congregation to eat less meat, or put more insulation in their lofts? Should climate change make any difference to the way we approach the worship life of our church; especially the central act of worship – Eucharist or holy communion?

Climate change is an experience; something we’re all going through – we, and with us the natural world. It’s an experience which we are (at least partly) causing. Likewise worship, including the Eucharist, is also an experience of the church. We cause it repeatedly.

Both climate change and Eucharist are with us all the time, in the sense that they are settings which shape the way we see life and affect the way we act on what we see. They are ways of looking at the world which can influence each other. Should our awareness of and attitude to climate change affect the way we share bread and wine, and the other way round? I think so.

There’s no pure way of looking at climate change; or of approaching the Eucharist. They come in contexts. We understand them through our perspectives, both personal perspectives and perspectives we share with others (fellow Christians). These perspectives change, and can be changed. Preaching is one way of changing them.

Climate change can reveal ‘new treasures’ (Mt.13:52) of insight in the Bible. The Bible can reveal new treasures in our understanding of the world and our place in it. There are new things to be learned about our relationship with God, with each other and with the natural world by letting our understandings and experiences of climate change and Eucharist ‘talk’ and ‘listen’ to each other.

An important and powerful way of communicating is through metaphor: talking about one thing in terms of another, seeing one as a sign of another. This is not decoration or ‘mere poetry’; metaphor is a form of truth, or a way of linking two kinds of truth.

Begin with bread.

It’s a food. It’s also a multiple metaphor. ‘Bread’ can be a secular metaphor for all food, for ‘food security’ as defined by FAO1. Today, food security is available to some but not others, to rich but not to poor. The poor are denied it in part by farming methods and in part by climate change. Intensive farming methods destroy eco-systems. Climate change destroys crops by flood and drought.

Bread is the product of God-given natural growth. It’s also the product of human hands. It’s the result of a partnership. 

We now know that this partnership isn’t working as it should. Some wheat is grown in fields cared for as an eco-system, then made into bread and distributed in ways respectful of the environment. But much wheat is grown intensively in fields treated as factories and then manufactured into bread, packaged and transported in ways which emit too much greenhouse gas. The difference is in the management of bread-making, in the human stewardship of the process, in the way we understand our relationship with the natural world and its Creator.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Mt. 6:11) can signify an appeal to God for life’s essentials, spiritual and material. The story of bread in the wilderness (Ex.16.) can be read as one in which bread from heaven is a sign of God’s spiritual care for His people. It can also be understood as a symbol of an economy based on the idea that food-creation is God’s gift rather than one in which food is the compensation for slavery to production and consumption (in this case, of bricks; Ex. 5: 7-9).

Where our stewardship of farming is faulty, our partnership with God the Creator is not working. ‘Bread’ thus becomes a metaphor, a symbol, for a failing partnership; and we are responsible for its failure. Yet this is the bread, a symbol of our failure, which the church, following Jesus’ command, regularly brings to the communion table. We bring it to share as most sacred symbol, a compressed metaphor for the person of Christ himself: ‘I am the bread of life’ (Jn.6:35).

Consider wine.

Like bread, it’s produced in different ways, some ecological, some intensive. Like bread it is a product of nature and human skill, of partnership between Creator and his stewards. As secular metaphor it is an adjunct of social celebration (Ps. 104: 14,15; Eccl. 9:7), at weddings (like Cana) and harvest.2

Biblically, vineyard and wine are metaphors for God’s land and people (Lev. 25: 23). Repeatedly (eg. Isa. 5:1;7) we are told, the vineyard has been mismanaged by the stewards, allowing the diseases of idolatry and injustice to take hold, with damage to the land and agriculture as a result (Amos 4:9). A disastrous fate awaits the vineyard and its keepers. However, In the OT, the same agricultural metaphors describe God’ reconciliation with His people, a return to living in harmony with nature (Mic.4: 3,4; Zech. 3:10).

In the NT the vineyard and wine metaphor is reinterpreted to point to Jesus. Jesus and his rejection is now the focus of the vineyard metaphor (Mk. 12: 1-12). Jesus is the creator of the new wine which symbolizes the start of a new ‘marriage’ relationship between God and Gods people in Him (Jn. 2: 1-11). The marriage is a metaphor for God’s covenant with his people (Isa. 54:5). Jesus is the heart of the new covenant of peace. Jesus was in on the beginning of creation (Jn.1: 1-3; Col. 1-15). So in Jesus we discover the redefinition and re-affirmation of God’s re-creational covenant, the rainbow covenant with ‘all living creatures’ and ‘the earth’ (Gen.9: 8-17).

So it is with the wine as with the bread. We bring to the table products, symbols, of a broken partnership, a failed stewardship. And as with bread, so with wine, Christ transforms the substance with a new sign. The wine becomes His sacrifice and our way back into a new creational covenant. We celebrate and make our commitment to a new triple partnership, with God in Christ, with each other as His stewards, and with the natural world.

Are we preachers ready for grafting onto the vine (Rom.11:9) ready to bear fruit?

Paul Johns


1 FAO definition of food security 2019: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

2 In our food secure part of the world, with global supply chains to feed us, we are disconnected with the risks associated with harvest, and thus from the urge to celebrate when ‘all is safely gathered in’.