‘call the members of the Uniting Church to a week of prayer and fasting for justice for Indigenous Australians, culminating in a public prayer vigil at Parliament House in Canberra to be led by the UAICC Chairperson and the President’ (12.37).
We’re used to prayer in the UCA – weeks of prayer, even. But fasting isn’t so common. It’s part of the tradition we inherit – both Calvin and Wesley taught about fasting as a Biblical practice and it’s mentioned in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. And it’s not that fasting is unknown in the UCA today either. A ministry called ‘Uniting Prayer and Fasting’ resources many individuals and communities to benefit from the practice. But to call the whole UCA to a week of prayer and fasting is still pretty unusual.
That week is being planned to place early next year, but I think it would be a good idea to start getting our heads around what it might mean sooner rather than later. And what better time to begin that than at the beginning of Lent?
But Lenten fasting isn’t part of the UCA’s tradition – quite the opposite! I think we need to understand why that might be as we begin to think what a week of prayer and fasting for justice for Indigenous Australians might involve. So let me explain what happened to Lenten fasting in our tradition.
During Lent I keep a little basket of chocolate eggs in my office. I like to have them to offer to visitors. Sometimes – like this week when I’m teaching – I take them to classes to pass around among the students. I’ve even shared them during worship, with the peace. It’s odd behaviour, I admit. While other Christians are giving up chocolate for Lent, I’m giving out chocolate. Mind you, I haven’t had too many complaints!
I adopted this ‘Lenten largesse’ as a symbol. It’s a reminder of the Uniting Church’s roots in the Swiss Reformation. For as much as the German Reformation began in October 1517 with Martin Luther publicly nailing his ‘Ninety Five Theses’ to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the Swiss Reformation began privately, in Lent 1522, with the sharing of food.
Christoph Froschaur was a Zurich printer. It had been a very busy few weeks for him. He had been rushing to complete a new edition of St Paul’s letters for the Frankfurt fair. At last it was done. At the end of the final day’s work he asked his wife to go out and buy meat to feed their workers and house guests. In due course two large, steaming, smoked sausages were brought to the table and cut up to be shared around.
But that was only the beginning. Soon sausage eating broke out all over Zurich. Not only sausages, there was a rumour that some priests had enjoyed pork on Palm Sunday. It was all too much, and a judicial enquiry was initiated. Heads would roll over this.
But over what? What’s wrong with all this sausage eating? It was Lent. That’s what was wrong. For as long as anyone could remember the church had required that people observe a Lenten fast from meat. The civil authorities enforced that requirement. These sausage eaters were deliberately flouting the regulations. It couldn’t be ignored.
Froschaur defended his meal on practical grounds. After hard work his workers needed the nourishment of meat, and although fish was permitted, it was too expensive. But there is no doubt that it was a highly symbolic occasion. It may not have been premeditated, but this sausage sizzle was always going to cause a stir.
The meal took place on the eve of the first fasting Sunday of Lent. According to folk memory, there were twelve guests at this table too. Three priests were among them. And one of them was Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli is remembered as the pioneer of the Swiss Reformation, and at this time he had already made public his objections to compulsory fasting. In an earlier political dispute he had railed at the hypocrisy of the religious authorities who had shown no scruples about the hiring out of soldiers to fight and be killed in other states’ wars but were uncompromising on fasting. They can’t bring themselves to permit meat eating, Zwingli said, but they’re quite happy to sell human flesh to foreigners.
In any case, scripture did not require fasting and was clear enough in its criticism of compulsory fasting. This was the compelling issue for Zwingli. The church was placing its own traditions above the witness of the Bible.
So, although out of respect for ‘the weak’ Zwingli ate none of the sausage himself, when the controversy broke out he came quickly to the defence of his friends. A fortnight later he preached a sermon ‘Concerning Choice and Liberty Respecting Food’. It runs to fifty closely printed pages in the edition I have. It involves long, detailed expositions of relevant biblical texts. But the point is sharp and concise: ‘If you don’t want to eat meat, don’t eat meat; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter!’
Christian freedom: that was the principle at stake. The liberty of the sinner who has been justified by grace alone. No religious rule, no kind of ‘spiritual correctness’ is to be set between the forgiven sinner and God. Christ has set us free from the need to justify yourselves. That’s what all that undisciplined sausage eating was about. For the Christians of Zurich it was a symbol and celebration of their assurance of salvation. When it came to sausages in Lent 1522, the meal was the message: Christ has set us free!
The doctrine of Christian freedom was an indispensable dimension of the Gospel, and it has been a characteristic mark of Reformed churches ever since. It’s this insight into the Gospel which lies behind the attitude to church law in our own Basis of Union. In paragraph seventeen we recognise the necessity of keeping our rules and regulations ‘under constant review’, affirming that ‘The law of the church will speak of the free obedience of the children of God’. Or again, in paragraph ten we undertake, not to chain ourselves to the past but to listen to the witness of our Reformation forebears ‘in the obedience and freedom of faith’. Being a disciple is a costly business – there’s no doubt about that. But whatever obedience to Christ demands of us, we purchase nothing by our success as disciples and we forfeit nothing when we fail. For God’s love and healing is freely ours already in Christ.
Zwingli was willing to put his head on the block for that Gospel. In the series of official enquiries which followed he lost the toleration of the church authorities and was branded a schismatic. But he won the trust of the Christians of Zurich, and the support and protection of the civil leaders. The Reformation was underway, and it all began with a sausage sizzle.
So every time Lent comes around I stock up today’s ‘forbidden food’, chocolate. I offer it around and remember Froschauer, Zwingli and especially the freedom which is ours in Christ. And if it’s Swiss chocolate, so much the better!