‘The great community problem of our modern world is how to share bread.’
These words were said by George MacLeod, the Founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, several decades ago. The gap between the rich of the earth and the earth’s poor, after thirty years of narrowing following World War Two, has been followed by thirty-five years in which it has got wider – so wide that there has never been a time in human history when it was so great, or affected so many people. Truly, Lazarus is far away.
But the gospel [John 6, 1-12: Jesus feeds the five thousand] is a vivid reminder that the problem of how to share bread is not a new one. It shows Jesus living with the huge tensions that were erupting round about him, struggling to find time and space for solitude and prayer, and yet following the movement of his heart, going out in compassion to the people who crowded round him wherever he went, full of need, full of a reawakened hope. And I love it for the bit that describes how everyone ate. John reads, ‘they all had as much as they wanted.’ It contains one of the most beautiful images in the Bible, this picture of sharing, of a basic need satisfied – and no one going hungry!
But food has become an extraordinarily complex and emotive subject, full of contradictions. Cookery books dominate the bestseller lists, there are whole television channels dedicated to programmes about cooking, restaurants, food-growing, celebrity chefs, and the interesting term, ‘food pornography’ has entered our dictionary.
Obesity, especially childhood obesity, is turning into a serious national epidemic. We are confused about what constitutes healthy eating, confused by the labelling on the food we buy, confused about what the solutions might be. The emotional and psychological meanings of food are even more of a minefield; dieting, eating disorders, the role of food and meals in family and community life, the values of hospitality.
And that’s before we even start on the big questions of sustainable agriculture, factory farming, climate change, energy use, resource shortages and conflicts, trade rules and global hunger. The bottom line of almost every major global problem has got food in it somewhere. So I think it’s still very relevant that in the Lord’s Prayer, the family prayer of the church, the first plea we make, the top of the agenda, is:
’Give us today our daily bread’ Bread, of course, as well as being a real thing in itself, also stands as a symbol for other things – for homes, healthcare, work, hope, justice – all the things that Jesus was always going on about, the necessities of life, the wherewithal to sustain life.
We need to remember that food for ourselves is a material question but food for our neighbours is a spiritual one
And how does this link to the food we put on our plates? Well, it starts with what we put in our shopping trolleys We can also buy locally, especially supporting small farmers and producers, and helping our own local economies rather than buying products made outside of South Africa. When we do our grocery shop, buy a couple of extra items to donate to those in need. We could share more meals with friends and strangers. We could enjoy and give thanks for our food as a gift from God. We can cut down on junk food and eat food which is good for our bodies.
He has filled the hungry with good things…’ (Luke 1, 46-55)
This verse is from the Magnificat, Mary’s song. Hers is the great New Testament song of liberation. She anticipates the nature of glory, and she names it and she celebrates it. This is what glory looks like…
He has scattered the proud with all their plans…
He has lifted up the lowly…
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away
with empty hands.
This is how it will be. Mary is the prophet of the poor, announcing the transformed social order. The spiritual realm is embedded in economic and political reality. We are promised a cosmic liberation in which the hungry will be filled with good things. If we share the anxiety and pain, we need to remember that we also share the promise of glory.
Every Eucharist service should also remind us of our commitment to share; the bread was broken to be shared.: the prophet Amos reminds us
‘I hate your religious festivals; stop your noisy songs; instead,
let justice roll like a river, and righteousness like a stream that
never runs dry.’ (Amos 5, 21 – 24)
If we get so caught up in the perfection of our own remembrance, or the beauty of our ceremonies and prayers, or our own nourishment, that we forget that people are still hungry and we are embodied with them in Christ’s body, then we rather miss the point of Jesus the bread of life. The bread was broken to be shared.
When we envisage our feast of sufficiency, our great feast in the kingdom of God, I will be happy to forgo gala banquets in favour of a simple picnic by the lake. But we will not be a true celebration until everyone is included; the street children and the peasant farmers as well. God give us grace to share our bread.
Revd Dr Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland