The Old Testament reading set for Holy Communion today is 1 Kings 18:41-46. I am struck by these words: ‘Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for here is a sound of rushing rain.”’
The context is this. After decades of turmoil, and four regicidal dynasties, Ahab comes to the throne of Israel, and makes a marriage alliance with Sidon to the north. His queen, Jezebel, presides over a great revival of worship of the rain- and crop-fertility god Baal. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah appears from nowhere to stand before Ahab and declare that there would no longer be rain, or even dew, in the land, except by his word. A mere mortal, usurping a god in his realm, his sphere of influence and command. Elijah then disappears, as abruptly as he had appeared; and Yahweh, the god who had made a covenant with Abraham and liberated his descendants from slavery in Egypt, establishing them in this long-promised land if they would stand before him as Abraham had done, sends this Elijah to the Wadi Cherith. There, he will have water to drink, and Yahweh would send ravens to supply him with (carrion) meat.
Eventually, the seasonal brook runs dry. Yahweh sends Elijah to Zarephath, to a widow whom he has appointed to provide for him. Finding her, he asks her for water, and for bread. She tells him that she has no bread, only a handful of flour and the last of her oil: indeed, she is gathering sticks to make a fire to make scones for herself and her son, a last meal after which they will wait to die. Elijah tells her not to fear: if she first makes a scone for him, she will find that the flour and oil will not run out, but, on Yahweh’s reputation, would be renewed from now until the rains returned.
After three years of drought, Yahweh sends Elijah back to Ahab, to challenge the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of his mother Asherah, who ate at the queen’s table, to a contest: which god will answer? The outcome is decisive: the prophets of Baal first shed their own blood in petition to an unmoved god before their blood flows at Elijah’s hand. When news reaches Jezebel (1 Kings 19), she vows that Elijah’s blood will be shed in vengeance. Elijah runs for his life, wanting only to die of thirst before he is tortured and murdered. But an angel comes to him, with a jar of water and a cake of freshly baked bread. 1 Kings 17 & 19 frame 1 Kings 18 with Yahweh’s provision of food and drink.
In the latter part of Solomon’s reign, before the kingdom was torn in two, the king over Israel in Jerusalem had proclaimed, “I know that there is nothing better for [his successors, and their subjects] than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13). This forms the backdrop to Ahab’s accusation to Elijah, and Elijah’s retort, that each is ‘the troubler of Israel’ (1 Kings 18:17, 18). But it also forms the backdrop to Elijah, having been vindicated by Yahweh’s defeat of Baal, telling his enemy, Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for here is a sound of rushing rain.”
It is a stunning statement, to desire that your enemy enters the best thing that can be experienced, the gift of God, even when they have been dead set against receiving that gift or letting anyone else receive it either. To eat and drink. We don’t know when we may be cut short, but for now we can respond.
This is why Jesus charges his followers to remember him by eating and drinking together.
This is why we share bread and wine—and why it is so egregious an error to withhold Communion from anyone who wishes to receive this gift of God. And why we eat together in other settings: with the homeless, with the isolated elderly, with children, with asylum seekers, and with political leaders—with anyone who is willing to sit and eat with us.
In our own context, facing food shortage crises, where increasing numbers of our neighbours struggle to feed themselves and their families as a result of grievous government policies at home and abroad, Elijah holds out to us a key organising and tangible ethic. Justice and mercy, in our eating and drinking.