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Eucharist and Hunger: Who Gets to Eat?

Paul Galbreath

Paul Galbreath is professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. His most recent book is Re-Forming the Liturgy, Cascades Press, 2019.

O’Loughin points to the ways in which these practices provide a roadmap for the emerging practices of discipleship within the early Christian communities by weaving together the human desire for meal sharing with the meal practices of Jesus (and its emphasis on inclusion and hospitality), creating an active way of remembering the story of Jesus and exploring its significance for the life of the community.

Change came through the determined efforts of two related movements: ecumenical dialogue and the liturgical renewal movement.


The celebration of the Eucharist involves eating and drinking. Who gets to eat and drink and what they get to consume has been a much-contested matter in the history of the church. It is an issue that is worth pondering in these days when the division between the rich and poor grows exponentially each year. Further complicating matters, the climate crisis that threatens the health of the planet continues to add to the problem of food insecurity for poor people around the globe. Given these realities, access to healthy food and clean water are among the top challenges that we will face in the coming decade. The questions that are posed in this essay are these: Does our gathering around the Lord’s table have anything to do with the needs of the hungry who live in the shadows of many of our church buildings? Does communion have anything to do with the hunger pangs that our brothers and sisters feel on a daily basis? In order to address these questions, we will briefly examine snapshots in the history of the development of the Eucharist by paying attention to the role of food and drink in the practices of Christians who gather to offer thanksgiving for God’s grace.

Starting with Scripture

In the fashion of classic Reformed theology, we begin by turning to Scripture and looking at a key passage for clues about the description of one of the first communion gatherings depicted by Luke in the book of Acts. The earliest depictions underscore the primary role of food and drink and the importance of providing nourishment for everyone. Acts 2 offers a portrait of the nascent Christian community as it explored ways to maintain Jewish temple practice while also gathering to remember the life of Jesus. Following the experience of Pentecost, Luke describes the daily practices of these Jewish followers of Jesus by noting these defining features:

  1. Sharing the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, alluded to in Peter’s sermons in Acts and summed up by Luke as “devoting themselves” to the apostles’ teachings in Acts 2:42. These memories constitute the earliest kerygma as a form of gospel proclamation in which the memories of encounters with the historical Jesus signal the divine redemptive presence pictured as the reign or kingdom of God.
  2. Koinonia, or the fellowship of spending time together (it is important to note that this gathering is the result of the pilgrimage of Jews across the Mediterranean to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot in Jerusalem). Those who responded to Peter’s sermons and identified as Jewish followers of Jesus came from different places and backgrounds (for example, note the description of the Ethiopian eunuch as an example of a person of influence and wealth who is attracted to this movement). Luke contrasts this portrait by noting the presence of those who are poor and in need of the community providing for their basic needs. Taking time to get to know one another and recognizing the diversity of the community (geographically and socio-economically) is a defining feature of the Jesus movement.
  3. Daily eucharistic practice includes the sharing of a meal. Luke makes this connection to the Eucharist by using his signature linguistic reference of the “breaking of the bread” (twice, in vv. 42 and 46 just in case we miss it!), which is a phrase used throughout both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts as a theological (and potentially sacramental) claim of a central practice that stands at the middle of Jesus’ public ministry. This is a practice that becomes an identifying mark as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry and serves as a basic commitment to a meal gathering that defines the Christian community in its early decades across the vast terrain of the ancient Roman Empire. It is critical to note (especially for our purposes) that this gathering was a shared meal that provided food for all. For Luke, the daily breaking of the bread led some to sell their possessions to ensure that there was equitable access to food for all who were in need. These actions produced two tangible results: first, it brought joy to the community who shared their meals with “glad and generous hearts” (v. 46) and second, it led to a rapid growth in the community as they quickly grew in number (v. 47).
  4. Finally, Luke notes that they continued to participate in the daily prayers at the temple in Jerusalem (vv. 42 and 46). Here the continuity between the Jewish faith and the teachings of Jesus is affirmed as a practice that sustains the believers as they navigate the complex reality of making sense of the messianic claims of Jesus, particularly in light of his crucifixion and the accounts of resurrection.

Eucharist and the Early Church

Several streams of research on the historical development of the Eucharist have emphasized the centrality of food and eating in the early Christian communities. We will take a brief look at some of this work in order to help us maintain our focus on the role of hunger in the celebration of communion in the early centuries of the church. Liturgical scholars have emphasized the importance of the Didache as a key source in showing the development of Jewish table blessings (berakah) for the Christian eucharistic gathering. This text dates to mid first century CE and was written around the same time as the earliest books of the New Testament. The thanksgiving (eucharist) for the cup and the bread are given christological frameworks as a way of placing the blessing within the context of the Christian assembly. Following the sharing of the elements, “after you are satisfied with the food,” a concluding prayer offers thanks to God for providing “food and drink to men [sic] for their enjoyment” and for “spiritual food and drink” given to the Christian community.1

Another important area of research has been on the role of the Greco-Roman meals as providing a template for the central meal of early Christian communities. New Testament scholars Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig authored important works to show how widely accepted meal customs of their day were adapted by early Christian gatherings.2 The banquet tradition, shared by both religious and civic organizations, offered a familiar pattern for gathering around a shared meal. The meals were provided by a sponsor and held in homes or public spaces. They offered a time for conversation and at times even debate around stories and presentations (in this instance around the shared memories and teachings of Jesus). These gatherings were also important ways to promote core values shared by the community—including hospitality and koinonia. Andrew McGowan adds to these insights by noting the role of food in the ancient world, particularly among the poor, which would have been the majority of Christians in the first couple of centuries following Jesus’ death. McGowan notes that the daily meal for the working poor usually consisted of bread, wine, and water.3 Thus, what we have come to consider as the basic eucharistic elements were the staples of daily existence. Sponsors for the eucharist banquets/gatherings might provide other food for participants. For example, Paul describes the eucharistic meal of the church in Corinth and notes the different amounts of food and wine that are consumed by the rich and poor (an observation that provides the grounds for his ethical indictment that unequal sharing is unworthy of the name of the Lord’s Supper). Different Christian gatherings included a wide variety of foods beyond the basics of bread, water, and wine: oil, vegetables, salt, milk, honey, and olives just to name a few. The variety of food included in the meal was largely dependent on the sponsor and affluence of the community. The diversity of these practices was widely accepted until the Synod of Hippo in 393 CE restricted communion to bread, wine, and water.4

Sharing food and providing for the needy are the common ingredients in this history of eucharistic development. While scholars continue to debate theological interpretations and sociocultural influences, there is (at last!) a consensus that the basis of early eucharistic practice consists of gathering for a meal and serving the poor either by inclusion in the meal itself and/or by collecting food and funds to take food to those who were hungry.5 In his brilliant book The Eucharist Thomas O’Loughlin extends these insights by linking them with the ways in which food is central to rituals and the creation and sustenance of relationships within communities. O’Loughin points to the ways in which these practices provide a roadmap for the emerging practices of discipleship within the early Christian communities by weaving together the human desire for meal sharing with the meal practices of Jesus (and its emphasis on inclusion and hospitality), creating an active way of remembering the story of Jesus and exploring its significance for the life of the community.6 This act of remembering as a blessing around the table took the pattern offered by the historical Jesus in giving thanks and expressing our dependence on God the Father/Creator as the source of life and as the one who provides us with our daily bread. These meal practices sustained the life of the community, and its radical hospitality and commitment to providing for the poor was a major source of growth during the first couple of centuries. As Christian communities grew in size, it became increasingly difficult to preserve the centrality of the meal with its emphasis on food. O’Loughlin concludes, “Because the meal, given its place in practice and memory, could not be abandoned altogether, . . . it was curtailed until it reached a minimal point and. . . was then re-validated by a theological narrative.”7 In place of the shared eating and drinking connected to the practice of giving thanks to God, “the Eucharist became one more memory-producing ritual that could prompt minds to think of the truths of revelation where the encounter with the divine had only a mnemonic origin in something actually done by Christians.”8 Or to put it another way, the question of who gets to eat was largely left behind—both for those who participated in these gatherings and especially for those who depended on the sharing of the food that had been a central part of Christian evangelism. The symbolic tokenism of food was used as a link to reinforce a prescribed theological message that took shape around an imaginative historical version of Jesus’ Last Supper. Increasingly, eating and drinking were primarily seen as practices offered for and by the clergy, who served as guardians of the sacred memory that became reenacted at the altar.

Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

“Do this in remembrance of me.” These words of Jesus provide the dominical command that prompts John Calvin’s rejection of the medieval Roman Catholic mass. What Calvin considered as the spectacle of the mass had little in common with the New Testament portrait of the Lord’s Supper. What constitutes the “this” from Jesus’ command, though, is much more difficult to ascertain. Two key insights for Calvin were the significance of table fellowship and the desire for frequent communion by all who participated in the service. These changes represent dramatic alternatives to the practices of his day. Calvin does away with the altar in order to make the theological point that there is no sacrifice being made during the service. The significance of this move even as an architectural change must have been disorienting to worshipers. Ripped off the wall of the transept, the table was now presented as a place for gathering to receive the bread and wine. The space provides a common meeting ground for the covenant community to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is important to note, though, that while Calvin gives significant attention to the upper room/Last Supper narratives, the celebration of communion shows little actual interest in the Passover tradition. Passover remains a theological gloss in terms of an Old Testament archetype from which to draw homiletical points. It does not, however, inform the type of food placed on the table and shared by all participants. For Calvin, restoring communion in both kinds, with the bread and wine, is central to participating in the body and blood of Christ. The hope for Calvin is that this will become a regular (weekly), defining feature of Christian life shared together (and to this end household piety practices of prayer and Scripture reading are associated with family meals at home).

The hunger that Calvin seeks to cultivate and feed is nearly exclusively a spiritual hunger. Calvin’s theological fear of any form of idolatry pushes him to minimize the eating and drinking that he desperately wants to reclaim as central to regular participation around the table. On the one hand, the downplaying of materiality threatens the stress on incarnation that Calvin wants to claim as central to his theology. On the other hand, given his historical context and the tendency to accept literal objectifications of the bread and wine, one can understand and perhaps even sympathize with many of the bold moves that Calvin makes to reclaim and re-orient table practices as a basic part of Christian communal life.

Yet the question of who gets to eat is strangely codified in terms of proper participation in the covenant community. To this point, participation is defined in terms of worthiness rather than hunger (justified by a particularly forced reading of 1 Corinthians 119). Calvin’s penchant for discipline and desire to see the signs of regular participation in the life of the community serve as the norms for determining who should come to the table. Those who fail to live up to these expectations find themselves in trouble with the clerical and civil authorities. As we will see, it is this complex legacy that Presbyterians continue to struggle with as we seek to address the issues related to eucharistic celebration and hunger. 

From Spiritualization to Liturgical Renewal

The Reformed movement drew on Calvin’s fears of idolatry and his opposition to practices that resembled Roman Catholicism. This is particularly evident in credal statements like the Scots and Westminster Confessions. Calvin’s emphasis on Word and Sacrament and the restoration of the table provided openings for a recovery of eucharistic practice that drew from a broader reading of biblical narratives of Jesus’ teaching and ministry in meal gatherings in the New Testament. Rather than pursuing these possibilities, though, the biblical warrant of the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal provided the justification as well as the mood for this version of table fellowship. Calvin’s determination to link the supper with the atonement theory of his day straitjacketed the interpretive options of the gathering with the primary result of the bread and cup serving as symbolic references to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. As Calvinism spread to the “new world” it brought along an understanding of sacraments that increasingly split the “outward sign of inward grace.” Fear of materiality continued to de-emphasize the food and drink themselves, and they became tokens of little importance (a cube of bread and a sip of grape juice). The separation of the sacrament from its material elements linked with the infrequent celebration of this “spiritual supper” left the practice of communion disembodied and malnourished when it came to the question of who gets to eat and drink at the eucharistic table.

Change came through the determined efforts of two related movements: ecumenical dialogue and the liturgical renewal movement. Twentieth-century commitments to dialogue emphasized similarities between denominations and slowly chiseled away at the stereotypes that Protestants and Roman Catholics had created of one another. This worked hand in hand with an emerging emphasis on the historical development of the sacraments. Over time, these movements were key factors leading to Vatican II, which brought enormous change to eucharistic practice in the Roman Catholic Church while also prompting a critical reassessment of practices within Protestant congregations. For Roman Catholics, moving the altar to a central location and restoring communion of both bread and wine brought back connections to table fellowship. Protestant communities were inspired to focus attention on providing new eucharistic prayers (drawing on a growing shared vocabulary) while also prompting attention to the question of the frequency of celebration (in Reformed churches producing a relatively dramatic shift from quarterly to monthly celebration). While a new focus on the elements resulted in a more dramatic presentation of the breaking of the bread, it often did not lead to the sharing of this bread in ways that reconnected to the biblical/historical memory of meal practices with a particular attention on providing for the physical needs of the hungry. Nevertheless, the fruits of this attention of sacramental renewal brought noticeable change to eucharistic practice in local congregations. When these efforts came alongside a growing amount of research on the history of early eucharistic development, a new emphasis on food and concern to provide for the needy emerged alongside a strong eucharistic theology with an emphasis on hospitality.

Two key congregations illustrate the emergence of a eucharistic celebration with a commitment to recovering the roles of food: St Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco and St Lydia’s in New York City. At St. Gregory’s the architectural attention to the altar surrounded by icons of dancing saints created a setting for a liturgy that understood active participation in the service as central to creating community. The use of the altar as a place for hospitality following the service became a way to point to an implied meal in which the altar was connected to both the eucharistic elements as well as to the coffee and sweets that people ate. Linking these practices with a food pantry provided a bold way to reclaim the link between eucharistic celebration and providing for the poor. In her book Take This Bread Sara Miles testifies to the ways in which this practice brought faith to her life and modeled this connection in the life of the community and neighborhood. At St. Lydia’s, the emphasis on supper church emerged as an attempt to fully reclaim shared food as central to Christian worship and as open for all who came. The importance of the full meal as an integral component of Christian gathering and a basis for communal identity were highlighted. Other congregations adapted a simpler version of this approach, known as “brunch church,” as a way to keep food at the center of the eucharistic liturgy but ran the risk of highlighting a liturgical trend to serve the appetite of those who already had ample access to food.

COVID as Interruption: Virtual Communion as Norm

The rapid spread of COVID-19 caused a dramatic shift in communion practices. While some congregations were already experimenting with virtual communion, the pandemic accelerated the trend that quickly became widely accepted in Protestant communities. My point here is not to question the practice of virtual communion—it is surely here to stay—but to raise the question about the role of food in its current iterations.

Two central concerns have emerged from my analysis of widespread virtual communion practices. First is the tendency to try and recreate the congregation’s previous communion practices. For example, one congregation provided directions that included buying grape juice, pouring it into small cups, and cutting up small cubes of bread as preparation for the virtual communion. Minimalized elements provide a continuity between in-person and virtual communion. A second strategy is to encourage congregation members to simply choose what they want to eat and drink and to have it ready alongside their computers. While this method expands the options, it runs the risk of commodifying communion according to our individual tastes.

Ironically, both of these approaches to virtual communion are dependent on the clergy for saying the “proper words”10 that allow the gathering to be recognized and experienced as an authorized (by the session) version of the Lord’s Supper. Protestants who have long criticized the hierarchical dominance of the priesthood have adopted a practice that reifies the pastor’s words as that which provides the link for the virtual service to be recognized as communion.

Alongside the concern of clergy dominance lies our question of who gets to eat. The current forms of virtual communion reinforce the predominant practice of Eucharist as serving our own self-interests. In minimalized versions of distance communion, token amounts of food and drink deprive everyone of material sustenance and underscore a gnostic spirituality that denies the needs of our own bodies while also failing to acknowledge the rising food insecurity that plague our communities. In alternative versions, we satisfy our hunger by simply sating our own appetites while giving little thought to the growing lines at food banks in our neighborhoods. Surely the proponents of virtual communion need to take a closer look at current practices and make adjustments that connect our table fellowship to the hunger of the world.

Which Way Forward?

The central concern of this essay is to examine the history of eucharistic practice by exploring the role of food. The primary goal in this examination is to rid ourselves of insular practices by recovering that emphasis on the central role of the meal and its importance for providing food for those who are hungry. While we face difficult choices in reforming our current practices, I remain hopeful that the Spirit will move among us and prompt us to let go of our old habits and to explore new ways of gathering around the table—ways that will bring us new life and will address the pressing needs of those in our local communities. In Luke’s Gospel, we read the account of the feeding of the five thousand. A crowd has gathered to hear and respond to the teachings of Jesus. As the day wears on, the disciples become concerned that the crowd will grow restless with hunger. The disciples try to persuade Jesus to send the crowd away. Instead, Jesus orders the disciples to feed the multitude. Again, the disciples are pictured as clueless. How can we possibly find enough food to feed so many people? they ask Jesus.

I wonder if this doesn’t capture the current status of many of our churches. The problems of global hunger are clearly too much for our congregations to address. We are desperately trying to keep our churches open and worship services available in an unprecedented time of change. And yet, I am struck by the way in which Luke portrays Jesus as responding to the needs of those who are hungry. He orders the disciples to start collecting food to share with the crowd. Then, in his signature way, Luke uses his eucharistic vocabulary to present this meal as a communion service: Jesus takes, breaks, blesses, and gives the loaves of bread and sends them out to be shared along with the fish so that all will have food to eat. In this dramatic act, the disciples discover that not only is there enough food to go around but that there are baskets of leftovers that will continue to provide food for those who are hungry.

In his classic essay “Where Will the Poor Sleep?” Gustavo Gutiérrez writes, “If there is no daily friendship with the poor and an appreciation of the diversity of their desires and needs as human beings, we can transform the search for justice into a pretext.”11 In this essay, I am posing the question, Where will the poor eat? For those of us who are Reformed Christians who have taken theological pride in dedicating ourselves to reclaiming more vibrant sacramental practices, the issue of global hunger and the Eucharist presents us with a challenge and possibility. The challenge is to open up our table practice in ways that directly connect it to the physical and spiritual hunger of those in our neighborhoods. As we have seen, the historical development of eucharistic practice offers us a variety of clues and patterns that can guide us. The promise in this effort is that we are instructed in this task of evangelism by the risen Christ, who challenges us to look beyond our minimal supplies and expectations and to trust the Spirit to lead us to experience the bountiful miracle of God’s presence as we break bread and share the cup with all.


  1. The Didache, ch. 9 and 10,
  2. Dennis Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). Also Hal Taussig, In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009).
  3. Andrew McGowan, “‘The First-Fruits of God’s Creatures’: Bread, Eucharist, and the Ancient Economy,” in Full of Your Glory: Liturgy, Cosmos, Creation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2019).
  4. Andrea Bieler and Luise Schotroff, The Eucharist: Bread, Bodies, and Resurrection (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2007), 115. Note as well that the passing of a law does not mean that everyone will follow it.
  5. One important example of this pattern is outlined in Justin Martyr’s Apology, which describes the eucharistic service in terms of sharing the food, distributing it to those who are absent, and collecting contributions to provide for orphans, widows, the sick, those in prison, and visiting strangers. See Justin Martyr in Lucian Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 94.
  6. Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), 88.
  7. O’Loughlin, 93.
  8. O’Loughlin, 97.
  9. For more on this point, see Galbreath, Leading
    into the World (Lanham, MD: Rowhan & Littlefield, 2015), 21ff.
  10. Interesting to note that for Reformed Christians this required text is the so-called “words of institution” which in the Latin mass is spoken as “hoc est enim corpus meim” (“this is my body”), which many believe is the source for the colloquial expression “hocus-pocus.”
  11. Gustavo Gutiérrez, “Where Will the Poor Sleep?” in On the Side of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2015), 118.


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