Patrons of the apostles would open their doors to the tens, sometimes a hundred or so, people that would come looking to participate in the worship that took place in local “house churches”. Archaeological evidence assumes that Corinthians, Thessalonians, Colossians and others across the Eastern Mediterranean communed over roasted produce and livestock to give thanks and praise their God. The night before Jesus Christ was crucified marked, what could be argued, one of the most important meals in history.
“Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat,” Jesus said to the apostles in Luke chapter 22. Over the meal, Jesus, “took bread, gave thanks, and broke it,” Luke said. Following the bread was the cup, but Christ partook of neither.
He was crucified the next day.
The example first century Christians set for fellowship has been followed for almost 2,000 years and is still thriving today. Every Sunday, at some places Saturday, Christians gather together to partake in communion, one of the holy sacraments. Unleavened bread, which represents Christ’s body, and the fruit of the vine, which represents his blood, are passed around for members to partake in. Both act as reminders of Christ’s death on the cross that day after the Passover meal.
At Central Presbyterian Church off Main Street in Russellville, Pastor Brian Brock is making sure that the tradition not only stays alive but shows a little love.
“We were trying to recreate what the apostolic church was doing,” Brock said, hands clasped behind his head. He had just handed over a sample of the homemade communion bread his congregation is served every Wednesday night and one Sunday a month. The firm, but giving, flaky bread is sweet and leaves a buttery taste in your mouth; it’s hard to believe members wouldn’t sneak another piece.
“It makes for a nice presentation,” Brock said.
The perfectly browned creation is challah bread, often pronounced “hol-ah.” It’s a Jewish egg bread that has assumed Eastern and Central European roots. “It’s not as difficult as I thought it was,” Brock said.
Brock’s particular recipe calls for honey, bread flour, salt, oil, eggs and yeast. Other popular ingredients include water and all-purpose flour. Some recipes follow closely to ingredients and processes found in 1 Kings and others refer to Exodus chapter 12. White flour, gluten free bread, skillet made, or unleaven, we have proven more than once that communion bread can be adapted to modern congregations.
“I wanted to continue the tradition for communion, and no one around here bakes challah,” Brock said. “I realized if I was going to do it, I had to do it myself.”
The idea came to him after he attended a gathering that aimed to recreate apostolic worship. He brought home what challah bread was left over and his family loved it. One snowy day, upon his family’s request for more, he looked up his own recipe and has been making it ever since. “Other traditions in Christianity, and any of the orthodox religions, they have rituals built in to prepare oneself for the act of leading worship,” Brock began. “They have prayers they say while they’re dressing. For me, the act of getting ready for worship really was making sure the batteries in the microphone are okay and making sure everything was loaded properly into my teleprompter app, then throwing on my robe and heading to the sanctuary. That’s great if it’s just going to a job.”
For Brock, the time he spends preparing for and leading services is more than “just a job.”
“I get to think about the act of worship while I’m rolling out and braiding the bread,” Brock said. “For me there’s prayer and I get to think about who’s consuming it, who’s coming to the table and why they’re doing it. It’s almost become ritual for me to prepare for worship.”
While it became a spiritual ritual for Brock, he wanted to instill in his congregation that the act of communion itself was not to become a service ritual, monotonous and just a part of the life of a Christian. “I took a class on the Eucharist and we were talking about the importance of the elements. What we serve really does matter for people to have an experience,” Brock said. “Too often we think of church being the ‘head stuff.’ It needs to be a full, enriching encounter that engages the senses.”
Getting up to partake in communion, fellowshipping with brethren as you consume the body and blood of Christ, tasting the honey of the sweet challah bread, Brock believes every aspect makes an impact on that special time with God. “The bigger thing about it is being able to connect with the people through the act,” Brock said. “Communion should be something enjoyed, not something endured.”
Just like Christ poured out his love for all sinners on the cross, so does Brock pour out his love for his congregation when he takes the time to make communion bread every other week.
“It’s my way of saying to the congregation ‘love you.’” Brock’s affection has been positively received by his congregation. “Part of it was I got a sense the congregation not only appreciated the effort, but liked the bread.”
The experience from both Brock and his congregation only go so far. He also stresses the need to collectively experience communion and do so in the same manner the first century churches did. “In a small way we’re living out the idea. We’re not supposed to think about it; we’re supposed to do it.”
The same applies to all facets of the Christian life — being a good neighbor, having reverence for God, portraying Christ’s love to spouses. Communion is just a focused snap shot of the larger life of a Christian. “It’s not just something we do,” Brock said. “It’s who we are.”
For now, it doesn’t look like any other communion bread will do. “I have, on occasion, gotten to the point where I’ve had to visit someone in the hospital and I had to run by Kroger to pick up a loaf of bread. It didn’t have the same feeling.” Brock baking the bread fulfills what he envisions as communion, both before, during, and after service. “It is a way for me to stop and take time out and say for this period of time, this is important.”
Despite Brock’s dedication to his congregation now, he wasn’t always a proponent of carrying on the family business. “There are pastors in each generation of my family,” Brock said. Spanning six generations, grandfathers and great-grandfathers alike have been preaching in Presbyterian churches. “It was not my wheelhouse,” Brock said. “It is hard living a life in a fishbowl all the time.” After struggling through “teenage rebelliousness,” it wasn’t until his six-year stint in the Navy that he had “another one of those God moments.”
“My buddies and I were in Dubai,” Brock said. “We were getting ready to hit the big road in the center of Dubai while everyone is going 90 miles an hour, when the cab driver picks that moment to turn around and ask us, ‘are you Christians?’” Brock laughed. “It haunted me a bit because I didn’t know exactly how to answer it.” Brock’s answer came after his return to the United States.
“I started praying about it,” Brock said. “I went back to my minister and asked, ‘how do you know you’re called into ministry?’” His decision came to him just months later as he was looking into Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” Brock said, remembering the day he toured campus. He remained in Austin, Texas, for three years.
From Austin, to “the coal fields of South Carolina,” to Arkansas, Brock has worked his way up from youth minister to leading pastor of Central Presbyterian off Main Street. Celebrating his sixth year at Central, Brock agrees that Arkansas was a good fit. “It’s been a wonderful place for us,” Brock said.
The future of his congregation relies in his understanding for communion. “Doing this gets back to the notion that it matters,” Brock said. “If the only person it matters to is me, that’s okay, because in my call to serve the people it matters. It’s not just something to check off a box. People are actually engaged and having an encounter with the risen Lord through baking a loaf of bread.”