An Abundant Lent
Mark 2: 18-22
John 6: 25-29
John 10: 7-10
As someone who has endured an eating-disorder, who still often obsesses about food portions and the cold, hard pounds on the scale, I hesitate to preach a sermon on the holiness of fasting. The Spirit leads where it will, though, to paraphrase a certain Someone.
It seems odd to begin a sermon about fasting with Gospel scripture where Jesus: a) explains why his disciples don’t need to fast, and b) describes his work as giving abundance to his followers.
Jesus tells the Pharisees his disciples don’t need to do it. Jesus says he has come to give abundant life to all who believe in him. Here we are, talking about the need to fast, audaciously calling it “holy,” determined, as a church, to reclaim it as a spiritual exercise.
Though it seems counterintuitive, Jesus’ words from Mark, and John, are the perfect places to start within a conversation about Christian fasting. At its heart, fasting is all about experiencing Jesus, abundantly. Fasting isn’t about doing without. Fasting is about doing with more. Fasting is about feasting on the abundant presence of Christ.
Before we get to the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, in Mark, we need to have a better understanding about where the Pharisees are coming from when they confront Jesus. We need to understand a little bit about what fasting means in the Old Testament, the religious worldview of the Pharisees, and most of Jesus’ contemporaries.
The Jewish folks of Jesus’ day embraced two reasons for fasting: atonement, and supplication. They believed that fasting was for both the individual, and the community. Individuals fasted because they recognized that they had sinned, and fasting was an act of atonement for their moral failings. The community itself also fasted as an act of penance for national sin. For instance, Joel chapters one and two call for a fast because the people of Judah collectively were guilty of not being faithful to God’s covenant love. Individuals fasted as an act of supplication. When someone had an urgent need in their life, either on behalf of themselves or for a loved one, they often fasted as part of their journey of prayer. We see this periodically in some of the Psalms, for instance. Prophets—like the aforementioned Joel—also called for national fasts, either on the eve of a disaster, or in its’ aftermath. As a contemporary corollary, think about how “religious” America became in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks.
When John the Baptist preached his call for repentance, of course, his followers would have coupled repentance with fasting. It was part of their religious custom. With Israel under Roman rule, and folks looking for God’s deliverance, the Pharisees and other religious leaders would, of course, encourage all the people to fast, as both an act of atonement and supplication.
Jesus and his disciples, and their affinity for eating dinner in the homes of various and sundry people, coupled with their lack of fasting, raises eyebrows, and concerns. In the context of the religious worldview of the day, it is counter-cultural, to the extreme. For astute, dedicated scholars of the law like the Pharisees, and for righteous, earnest searchers like John the Baptist’s disciples, Jesus’ negligence to fast, or his failure to teach the practice of fasting, is downright dangerous, and heretical.
Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “abundant” in his conversation with the Pharisees in Mark, he could have. It is implied, for sure. With him and his disciples, it’s one long wedding party. He’s the bridegroom. The disciples are the bride. The bride shouldn’t fast during the wedding party—that would be so inappropriate. The bride should enjoy the loving presence of the bridegroom, grow in that love, and let the relationship blossom. Fasting will come later for the bride, Jesus says, but not now. Now, the bridegroom is here, and the bride should find her best self in her reflection within her bridegroom’s eyes.
The bride doesn’t fast. She feasts on the abundance of love as she bridegroom whisks her onto the dance floor.
As long as Jesus is with them, eye-to-eye, face-to-face, the disciples must worship, adore, and learn. Fasting comes later. Now they should dedicate themselves to the enthralling abundance of Emmanuel—God with us.
And Emmanuel gives the hungry bread. Emmanuel breaks the bread and multiples it. Emmanuel shares the fish, and creates manifold nourishment.
When the crowds want more, Jesus tells them that the bread he gives to the world is like the manna God gave to the children of Israel: it’s soul food; it’s grub that saves, not just sustains, life. Just a few words, just a handful of sentences later, Jesus reveals to them, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus not only blesses, breaks, and shares the bread that sustains and saves. Jesus is that bread. This is an abundant feast. This is abundant love.
Not long afterward, Jesus adds layers to his teaching, expressing more of his divine being. He begins by repeating the Father’s words to Moses: I Am.
I am the gate for the sheep.
I am the door.
Thieves break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy. I Am enters the door giving life, and giving it abundantly. Think about the racism; think about the prejudice; think about the wars and the violence; think about the addiction and the economic scarcity of our society today. These are the thieves which break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy, life. I Am, Jesus, enters the world to give life: dignified, whole, holy, abundant life.
I do encourage you to fast this Lent. I believe that when we fast, we are not merely fasting from something; we are not embracing scarcity in some masochistic way. I believe that when we fast, we are surrendering ourselves, allowing ourselves to experience the abundance of Christ’s presence, to be transformed by the abundance of God’s love.
The Early Church fasted for much the same reason the Jewish folks did: they fasted as an expression of atonement, as a ritual of supplication. They also fasted as a means—as a means to feel more fully the self-giving love of Jesus, by giving the Lord something of themselves. They fasted, and they gave the food they ordinarily would have eaten to the poor. They fasted, and they spent the time they would have spent eating, in prayer and meditation, instead.
Traditionally, the Church has always seen fasting as a way to enter into abundance: the abundant present of Christ, the abundant light of God’s love. Fasting isn’t dieting. Fasting isn’t embracing anorexia. Fasting isn’t insane twenty-four hour periods of malnourishment, and not taking care of ourselves. We can fast from food, for portions of the day. For instance, we can fast at lunch, and spend that time in Bible study, and prayer. Fasting isn’t just about food.
We can fast from whatever keeps us from fully experiencing God. We can fast from our I-phone and Androids. We can fast from the narcissistic or voyeuristic nature of social media, particularly the Facebook newsfeed.We can fast from television. We can fast from gossip. We can fast from negative thinking. We can fast from anything and everything that stands in the way of us giving ourselves over to God, and to God’s love.
Such a spiritual exercise isn’t an embrace of scarcity or austerity.
Such a spiritual exercise is just that—it’s spiritual. It’s a spiritual leap of faith, a joyful jump into the abundance of Christ’s presence, the richness of God’s love.
It’s holy fasting.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.