Psalm 23 (Voices United 747), Mark 6:30-44
The word, ‘communion’ means first of all ‘sharing’ in the Oxford dictionary. But when we use it in the church, it is a Sacrament to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I wish that the church would emphasize‘ the sharing’ aspect of the service more prominently. Today’s miracle story, the feeding of thousands, should also be understood as a story of sharing. But first let me begin with a story from Africa.
I worked for eight years in Lesotho, a country in Southern Africa during the 1970`s. The church I was sent to work with, has the communion service held only once or twice a year jointly with several neighboring congregations which share a minister. This is because of a dire shortage of ordained ministers and because the church was too poor to pay full time ordained ministers for all congregations.. By the way, the most of the congregations are looked after by trained and certified part-time lay preachers under the supervision of an ordained minister, who often looks after several congregations. Most of lay preachers are full time farmers or teachers. It has been like this for years. So such an occasion as a joint communion has come to be called ‘mokete.’ or a feast. It commands the attendance of a few hundred to a thousand people. The host congregation provides a meal for the whole crowd after the communion service. People come from near and far on foot and horseback, sometimes taking a whole day to get there. It`s a joyful occasion which many congregations share together. A host congregation hold a special fund raising to feed the whole crowd.
In the communion service, everyone goes to the alter and takes a bit of bread and sip wine from a common cup. It can take sometimes hours to serve a thousand people in this way. Long hours don’t bother them; people sing their favorite hymns and spend the day visiting friends waiting for their turn to be served. It feels more like a giant party rather than a worship service. When I first officiated at such a communion service in Lesotho, I was surprised by the number of elders surrounding the bread and wine. They formed a circle like an honor guard. I had a double shock when I found them pushing people away after they took communion. People were hungry. So everybody tried to take as big a chunk of bread as possible. This was quite a revelation because I never thought of communion as food. For me, it had been a ceremony with a symbolic bit of bread-like substance and a drop of liquid with an undefinable taste. But we must remember that in the early church, when the communion service was held, it was always a liturgy at the beginning of the communal meal. The Communion service in Lesotho recovered that style out of necessity.
The Act of Apostles in chapter six records such occasions where people met for communion which was followed by a meal. However, sometimes distribution of food was not done justly and some people like foreigners and widows were discriminated against and had to go hungry. This was why the elders were elected for the first time in the history of the church to help the apostles administer the communion so that the elements and food were shared equally.
The clue to understanding the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish lies in the significance of sharing. And the meaning of our communion service should be understood as a symbolic act of sharing the goodness of life with others. It should remind us that all the necessities of life must be held in common. Communion which is not followed by a life of sharing in the community is meaningless. We must remember that Jesus himself shared his own life with us.
Many people believe that the story of the feeding of five thousand is a miracle which proves Jesus was God. There are a few problems with this interpretation. For one thing, many scientific-minded people think this is ridiculous. It could never happen. Secondly, for persons like me and others, we know that there are many other religions which have similar miracle stories: it does not prove that Jesus Christ was the son of God because of this miracle. For me, if we are a community of people who love each other, this is a story to stress the importance of sharing with others.
According to the Gospel of John, five loaves and two fish belonged to a boy. The Bible does not say if the boy offered the food willingly or if the disciples just confiscated them. The point is that one boy fed five thousand people with what he was carrying for his lunch, because it was shared. When people share precious things, miracles happen. To give up something important for others is the message of this story. The boy gave up all he had, not what he could spare. Also it tells us that when people give up something precious for others, something amazing happens.
When I went to Africa, I was young and immature. I don’t think I was a racist, but there was one thing that I disliked about the local people. It was begging. I just didn’t like being surrounded by He told me that, the Basotho have a culture of communalisms, something which we who live in a culture of individualism should think carefully about. The Basotho still hold a notion that everything is a gift of God, and belongs to everybody. When one has more than others, it is natural that one shares with those who don’t. He suggested that next time I ran into someone – a beggar who wanted something from me, I should see how the beggar would react if I also ask something from him. So that’s what I did when a shepherd boy wanted money from me. I said, “Ke lapile. Mphe lijo.” – “I’m hungry. Give me food.” in response. Immediately without hesitation, he pulled out a roasted corn on the cob from his tattered blanket. I was embarrassed because I lied but the boy thought I was serious. I had to take his gift. Probably that was his only meal for the day. But he gave it to me, because I said I was hungry. Then I realized that we in the west have lost something precious which bound a society together.
We have lost a spirit of sharing things that belong to everybody. This is why the world practically ignores starving people in Africa. We are more concern about increasing our wealth which are already more than enough. Not many people want to think about a staggering number of people who are starving. Last week a news report gave a figure of one billion people on the earth who are starving. And it is not because we lack food supplies. Even in the countries where people are starving, people can produce food. Food shortage is cause by poverty, not by shortage of food. There is food but people can not buy it. Where there are people who can produce food, they have no access to bank credit like our farmers do. But the current economic system does not allow that. Food production is a highly competitive business. Rich countries which can afford so much credit to the food producers produce so much surplus food. We don’t want more competitors in Africa who can supply food much cheaper than we can. Rich countries give our surplus food rather than changing global economic equation. We want them to remain beggars. We do not want any more competitor in the already crowded food market.
Here is the crux of the matter. Just like the boy who gave up all he had so that Jesus could feed the thousands, are we prepared to sacrifice our well established position in the global economy in order to make African to be food sufficient? Communion is about sharing. True sharing is not giving what we have in surplus, but giving up something that forces us to sacrifice our affluence. Jesus gave his own life to share. If we are ready to give up something so precious that it hurts in the giving, there will be a miracle just like five loaves of bread and two fish fed thousands at the time of Jesus. Just like a Jewish folk tale of Stone soup.