The Hunger Inside: How Jesus Feeds Our Deepest Hunger at His Table

By Brad Roth

Many of us receive the Lord’s Supper every week. Most of us struggle to talk about why and how it’s so important to us. It is important, though. How many other things do we do with such regularity, year-round, for a lifetime?

So it’s refreshing to meet someone who can talk about Holy Communion in plain language while also leaving us wanting to learn more about the extensive conversations Christians have had for millennia about the Eucharist.

That’s the third different term we’ve used for this meal thing Jesus tells us to do. What’s up with that? In The Hunger Inside: How the Meal Jesus Gave Transforms Lives, Brad Roth reminds us that the Lord’s Supper changes us. It transforms our lives and expands our communities. Pastor Roth knows we’re all hungry, and he knows who can feed us.
Thanks to Lee Ann Pomrenke for introducing us to Brad. And thanks to Brad for agreeing to talk awesome communion, cranky church life, and joyous-in-a-minor-key hymnody with us.

What first got you interested in theology and pastoring as professional pursuits?

I grew up on a farm in small-town central Illinois. We were in church every Sunday, and I believed what I was taught. Jesus used my childhood church to get a hold of me at a young age. I studied religion in college and New Testament/early Christianity in graduate school. I had some idea of becoming an academic, but more than anything I just wanted to study and know the Bible and history and theology.

My vocation to ministry dawned on me slowly. It was kind of a migratory instinct, and it took me across the territory of my abiding love for Jesus, a fascination with the Scriptures, and a commitment to living out my faith in the community of the church. After a few years of living in big city Boston and serving in different lay capacities in our little congregation, I headed off to the Mennonite seminary in Indiana. I’ve since served rural congregations in Washington State, the mountains of Peru, and now Kansas. It’s been a sixteen-year run so far. I keep relearning that though I chose my pastoral vocation, Jesus chose it for me first.

What was your experience of the Lord’s Supper as a child and adolescent, and how formative was that for you?

I grew up in the Evangelical Mennonite Church, one flavor of Mennonite that had been on a long arc out of the Mennonite world. I treasure that church. They taught me to love Jesus and love the Bible. But communion just didn’t factor very highly in the faith we practiced. At sparse intervals, we partook of little grains of sacred hardtack and a thimble full of red juice, and it was all “just a symbol.” Jesus said “do this,” and we did. ‘Nuff said.

In graduate school, reading folks like Ignatius of Antioch and other church fathers, I realized just how central the Eucharist was to most Christians through the ages. I was peering in at a kind of alien culture, and it fascinated me. To adapt John Henry Newman’s quip: “to be deep in history is to cease to be” Evangelical Mennonite. That proved true for me, at least on communion, though I would later go on to join and become a minister in the mainstream Mennonite church where I still am today.

What Jesus nurtures at his table is a relationship.

I began reading the New Testament with new eyes and seeing communion all over the place in ways that are no doubt pedestrian to folks raised in more liturgically-minded traditions—stories like the Emmaus road in Luke 24 or Jesus feeding the 5,000. Without having the language to describe it, I developed a sense of the real presence of Christ. Once the possibility of really encountering Christ in the bread and cup took hold of me, all sorts of things opened up in my heart and got called into question. I’ve been on a journey ever since, trying to figure out what all of that means.

The Hunger Inside is my communion memoir. I draw on powerful deep sources from across the history of both the Eastern and Western churches but as someone who has had to find his way without a prescribed path. I’ve got a kind of kid-in-a-bread-shop eye that lets me draw generously on diverse Really Big Thinkers and Saints.

We take Jesus at his word, especially when he says “given for you.” Yet none of us are invited to the table in all worship settings. Do you have hope for a more ecumenical communion across traditions?

My ambitions are small: I just want to spark the next Reformation. If the first Reformation was about reclaiming the centrality of the word, then maybe now it’s time to put the table back where it belongs.

The beautiful thing is that there are signs of this happening in some quarters. Professor Winfield Bevins has talked about “neo-liturgical churches” cropping up. It’s the ancient-future “convergence” Robert Webber predicted. I can’t say if any of this will lead to changes to official policy about who’s admitted to the Eurcharist in some churches, but it seems to me that this shared love for the table that’s developing will take us to places of unity where our doctrine will have to catch up.

Already one hears of Catholic priests exercising pastoral sensitivity to allow non-Catholic Christians to receive the Eucharist. This a possibility permitted in canon law under circumstances of “grave and pressing need.” There are leaders recognizing just how grave and pressing our common hunger for Christ is.

Some claims you make in the book will please folks from certain traditions while provoking others. Do you say anything that might impassion all of us?

Can’t we just all get along? I’m a Mennonite, ya know!

My fear is that because of the way “communion-speak” is so denominationally siloed, everyone will find something in the book to dislike. I’m especially biting my nails about how the pros will treat it—historians might pick at my inattention to their special niche, theologians might object to me working synthetically across traditions.

If I had to point to something that can get a bunch of folks riled up, I would say it’s my deep dive into the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist. That discussion is certain to get under the skin of dyed-in-the-wool Protestants. Sacrifice is one of those live-wire topics. The Reformers reserved their pointiest diatribes for it. And free-church types who don’t see much of anything of substance taking place in the Eucharist balk most at sacrifice.

Without trying to make the case here, I’ll just say that I think sacrifice is a gap in a lot of our theologies. I can’t grasp how the Lord’s Supper would work if not by re-presenting the timeless power of Jesus’ blood poured out for us on the cross. The meal mediates what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. Biblical worship was sacrificial worship. Jesus didn’t change that when he gave us the Eucharist.

The book description says you take a narrative-driven approach to understanding communion?

Yes. I live and breathe Scripture, so the Bible’s on every page of this book. And I’ve used stories—my own and those of others—as doorways into understanding communion. I’m a preacher after all. I’ve always got my ear to the ground for a good story! Partly, this is a strategic choice: I want the book to be engaging. Just like most others, stacks of theology footnotes make my eyes glaze. More importantly, I’m convinced that shared stories can take us places doctrinal subtleties can’t. What Jesus nurtures at his table is a relationship, and stories are relational in ways that doctrine is not necessarily.

It’s not only ancient Romans who find it odd that Christians eat and drink the body and blood of their God. What does it mean that we masticate and consume Jesus?

It wasn’t just backbench disciples in Capernaum who have gotten thrown off by Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Take 6:53: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus even shifts in that chapter from the usual word for “eat” to the more evocative Greek word trogo, which means “chew.” What’s Jesus getting at?

There’s long been a vein in Christian thought that has taken Jesus’ statement in a crudely realistic way. Thomas Aquinas sometimes gets painted by Protestants as the literalist poster boy, but in developing the doctrine of transubstantiation, Aquinas was actually seeking to square the literal-symbolical circle. He wrote that we do not receive Christ’s body and blood as meat “torn from a carcass or sold in a butcher’s stall.” At its best, the church has not understood Jesus to be saying that the bread and wine turn into flesh and blood in the sense that you could spot the cells under a microscope. Something more subtle is afoot.

In Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, I think he’s making a gloss on the Passover (John 6:4). In a symbolic sense, Jesus has become the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world, and this reality is signed through the bread and cup. But it’s more than just a symbol. Jesus truly communicates his total and personal self—his flesh and blood—to his people at the table. But it’s his self as the wondrously real bedrock of creation. Christ ascended to “fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). “Flesh” and “blood” are the best words for describing the symbolic, real, personal, and total encounter with Jesus we are offered at the table, and “chew” points to the ordinary, earthy, and desperately human way we meet him. It’s the mystery of the Incarnation in three words.

We’ve been talking about the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, which has eucharistic overtones but also discusses Christ’s descent to “demand homage” as well as two verses filled with heavenly visions. How do you describe the connection between our regular receiving of communion and the eternal life that awaits us?

Pondering this hymn gives us a clue into the power of the Lord’s table to hold together Incarnation and Consummation and bring us into Christ’s presence here and now. The word I go to is “foretaste.” The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of eternity. In the Supper, we experience in an immediate and refractive way what we will know wholly and clearly in eternity. The movement in the Bible also runs the other way—God has reached definitively toward us in Christ. “Look, God’s home is now among his people!” (Revelation 21:3 NLT).

The Lord’s table shows us that God is with us here. But it also summons us on toward a further horizon. Heaven and earth kiss at the Lord’s table.

About the Author

Brad Roth lives in rural Moundridge, Kansas, with his wife and three sons, where he serves as pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church. Brad is a graduate of Augustana College, Harvard Divinity School, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He blogs on seeing God in the everyday at

All These Ashes: A Lenten Reflection

By Liv Larson Andrews

All these ashes.

At the small urban congregation I serve, we concluded Transfiguration Sunday by singing “All of Us Go Down to the Dust,” ELW 223. The repeated Alleluias helped us confront the grave and the dust: the terrible news of war, the housing crisis in our city, the strained relationships among family and friends at this point in the pandemic.

A little Alleluia goes a long way.

We will bury this Alleluia now. But on Sunday it aided our fellowship and led us to the Eucharist, since we now share the meal following the dismissal in our gymnasium where we can take off our masks more safely and keep physical distance. Ah, the ashen reminders that are our COVID protocols. Mask, vaccination, abundant hand sanitizer. Everyone here is mortal, fragile.

Ashes, ashes.

Like several stanzas of a well-written hymn text, there’s a lot going on in these ashes. What will you sing this Lent to explore the layers of meaning here?

There is ash that evokes the dirt of the earth. Ash that is the good soil, the nutritive source, the garden compost. Ashen dirt that will yet yield life. Turn it over, encounter the lively bacteria. Smell summer’s produce waiting to grow.

Then there is ash that evokes burning, annihilation, and destruction. Ash that coats the windows in a city being bombed. Choking ash in the throats of refugee mothers who cannot find food or a safe place to sleep for their children. Homes, schools, sanctuaries, hospitals, train stations and art museums all burned to ash because of greed, power plays, and waste.

All this is here in these ashes. The little clay dish of ash that the presider holds, maybe with a smidge of oil, contains these many realities in a simple sign. Garden nutrition and terrible chokehold are both present here. Life-giving hope and death-dealing fear are entwined in these ashes. And still, we bend to put them on our bodies, singing, “Remember.”

Maybe the music of this Ash Wednesday needs to be a bridge between consoling prayers for peace and cries for change in the streets that our throats also long to raise. We grieve the costs of our unjust systems while also lamenting their existence. Maybe the way we sing can help us find the energy to organize change. I’m feeling that the voice of Joel (call a solemn fast) and the voice Isaiah (away with your dumb rituals) need to be side by side in one Lenten songbook this year.

Lord Whose Love in Humble Service, ELW 712

Today, we will sing ELW 712, “Lord Whose Love in Humble Service,” at our evening Ash Wednesday service. It moves beautifully between our need to call for a moment of reflection—a fast of our attention—and our need to center our focus on the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. It points to all kinds of human suffering, “still your children wander homeless, still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom, still in grief we mourn our dead.”

Consecrating the move from devotion to Jesus to action in community, the hymn meets me where I am this Lent. Three of the four stanzas use the word “love.” Theologian and good-trouble-maker Cornel West teaches that “justice is what love looks in public.” The love sung of here points to our buried Alleluias acting seed-like, going underground in us to bear fruitful living in due time.

Singing and music-making are essential to helping those seeds germinating in ourselves, our congregations, and our communities. Malkia Devich Cyril writes that to give our hands to the work of freedom and social change, we must first give our bodies to the work of grief.

Now is not the time for numbness or forgetting—we don’t sing to escape. Now is the day of salvation. And because there is so much suffering to grieve, we fast. But even in our fasting we keep singing. We sing to deepen our encounter with pain and suffering so that it can become good soil within and between us. “Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go.”


About the Author

Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. She lives about two blocks from the Spokane River with her spouse and two sons. She serves on the board of directors at the Grünewald Guild and on the advisory council for the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. She participated in the Collegeville Institute program Writing to Change the World with Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove in fall 2017.