How many here have ever fasted for any reason?
Most of the fasting practiced in our culture it is not spiritual fasting. People fast to out of vanity or to show their will power. Some feel ashamed of their bodies and try fasting in hope that they will feel better. An extreme form of this kind of fasting is anorexia. Some will fast for to attract attention to a cause or to gain political power – calling it a hunger strike,. Then there is the grueling fast everyone over 50 needs to go through from time to time to prepare for a colonoscopy.
But biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes. Two passages of scripture set the tone for Christian fasting. The first is from Matthew 5 and a scripture assigned to every Ash Wednesday. From this passage we see that fasting giving and praying go hand in hand. Fasting is as much a part of Christian practice as giving and praying. We also see that Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. Richard Foster points out, however, that this is not a command to fast. Fasting was a common practice of his day, and he was giving instructions on how to do in right relationship to God and neighbor.
Interestingly enough, Jesus and his disciples did not fast in the three years before his death. People actually criticized them for eating and drinking too much. Jesus replied that the wedding guests should not mourn while the bridegroom is with them. “The kingdom of God had come among them in present power. The Bridegroom was in their midst; it was a time of feasting, not fasting. Jesus promised the time of fasting would come after – when he would be absent from his disciples. Fasting is appropriate now as we join with the communion of saints who have been waiting for Christ to come again.
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster mentions the Didache – an ancient Christian document that gives us many clues about how the early church worshiped. It mentions that the people fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. Centuries later John Wesley adopted this teaching and required his preachers to do so as well.
Here in New England there were times when the Annual Conference issued a call for prayer and fasting on a particular day. On Friday September 1, 1826 such a request was made. That year the camp meeting held for South Walpole’s District participated in the fast. A participant reported. “We believe the Great Head of the church was well pleased with this appointment; for such a display of his glory and power is seldom witnessed by mortals as was realized during Friday night. I think many will long remember that night with pleasure and rejoicing.” Such fasts were still being conducted here in 1871 when all Methodists were called to fast and pray on behalf of the camp meetings taking place. That way even those who remained home could participate in imploring God for a revival. But even by then fasting was going out of fashion. Richard Foster says he could not find a single book written on the subject between 1861 and 1954.
Though I grew up in the church, the first person I encountered who practiced spiritual fasting was Michelle, a friend in college who became my prayer partner. She was a devout Catholic and through her I learned about a number of practices I had not been exposed to within the United Methodist Church. Later during my college years I dated a Jewish man and had my first experience of group fasting when I accompanied him to Yom Kippur services. It surely helped me persist knowing that everyone I was with was fasting too, and it was so nice to break the fast together when the prayers were finished.
But fasting hasn’t become a regular discipline for me. I took part in an Oxfam fast one day during seminary – and we gave all the money we would have spent on food that day to those who were truly hungry. When I met Joe he had been fasting once a week and encouraged me to join him. I tried it on and off for a couple of years until I became pregnant.
But I think fasting is the hardest spiritual discipline for me. Food is my reward. I eat to celebrate. I eat for comfort. I eat when I’m bored. I’m also wary of diets in general and struggle with body image. So I worry that my motives will be mixed at best when I fast as a spiritual discipline. And now that I have children to feed I wonder if I could successfully fast even while I’m feeding them.
Do you find fasting unattractive, or difficult?
So what’s the point of fasting? As one person asked, “does God want us to experience deprivation?” John Wesley insisted that Fasting could glorify our Father in heaven. But how?
Foster claims that, “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.” Pride, anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – whatever is within us surfaces during fasting. Once these come to light we can rejoice, clinging to the promise God made at our baptism – that we are God’s beloved – and that healing of these vices is available through the power of Christ. This is one way that fasting and prayer go hand in hand. As we notice the shadow sides of you that surface we need to journal about them, and offer them to God in prayer.
Fasting also helps us become more aware that God sustains us, not only with food but “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” In the call to worship this morning we remembered that we live in the midst of a land flowing with milk and honey (and French fries and chocolate and pizza and ice cream and strawberries in February….) we remember to that our first fruits came from God and we dare to set them down before the Lord and celebrate all the good things that God has given us. In that way fasting turns into feasting; as we abstain from food we feat on the word of God.
The ability to set our food down leads to justice. For in fasting we learn that we don’t need as much as we thought we did. And we are set free to share more with those who are truly hungry and thirsty. We become free to take on the work God is calling us to do, even though we don’t get respectable pay in worldly standards. This extends to other kinds of fasting, exercising self-control over our desires for clothing, entertainment, status symbols, vehicles with all the bells and whistles.
Fasting is also a curb against gluttony. In his little book Disordered Loves about the seven deadly sins, William Stafford writes, “It is in the strength of that food (Christ – his word, body and blood) that Christians can begin to appreciate hunger rightly. Israel learned to live by the word of God only through forty years of eating nothing but a daily ration of manna. Jesus’ sonship came to a point during his forty days of hunger. Hunger is crucial. There are other foods we crave that we must not eat, and ways of eating we must unlearn. There are hungers that have to grow sharper if our other hungers are to give way to them. It was once the universal custom that one came to the feast of the Eucharist only after fasting from all lesser foods. Christian gluttons need to learn how to be hungry for God. For that reason, Christians must fast.”
Isn’t that amazing – fasting is a way to cultivate our hunger for God!
Fasting can also help us learn how to eat. In Stafford’s words, “Perhaps food and drink have been your chief comfort and chief pleasure, and you are fat. Perhaps they seem nasty and distasteful, and you are thin. Perhaps food has chiefly been a means of…power [no dessert if you don’t clean your room]. Then Christian fasting means learning honest hunger and thankful eating.” When I’ve been on retreats at monasteries or convents we have often taken our meals in silence. We often listen to music to cover the sound of one another’s chewing. But I’ve learned that food tastes so much better when I focus only on what I’m eating, and how I eat it. I am conscientious about putting my fork down between mouthfuls rather than gobble my food. And I to actually taste the flavors in my mouth, the ingredients of a salad, butter on fresh baked bread, when I eat quietly with others who do likewise. I become mindful, and thus ever more thankful for what God has given me.
If you have not fasting as a spiritual disciple before, or not in a long while, and would like to give it a try this week I’ve included Richard Foster’s advice in the bulletin. If you choose to fast from food, try a partial fast for 24 hours so that you’re only missing two meals. Drink water and fresh juices as you go along. Follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 5 – don’t let anyone who doesn’t need to, know. Go about your day as normal and as you feel the physical effects let it remind you to connect with God in prayer. Keep a song and an attitude of worship in your heart. Break your fast with a light meal of fresh fruits and vegetables. If you choose to fast from something other than food, you may also start with a 24 hour period and use it to cultivate the same spiritual and emotional attitude through your day. However you fast, start by remembering your baptism. Let God’s name for you, Beloved ring in your ears all day long. When anything negative from deep within you surfaces, remember to lift it up to Jesus who will gladly exchange them for the spiritual gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The Devil, playing on Jesus hunger, gave the first test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to really live.” As we practice fasting this week may we feasting on God’s word, remembering that the abundance we have is a gift, and be thankful.