Donald Trump recently resumed his rallies with lots of excited supporters in attendance. But who is in charge: the former president, or the cheering crowds? Arguably, it could be the latter because they support him only because he tells them what they want to hear, something not unknown in politics generally. Contrast that with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger who described Nelson Mandela as a great leader because he was "someone who could lead his people to a place where they have not been", something few are willing to do.
That quality of leadership is on display in tomorrow’s gospel reading (St John 6 1-21) which tells the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It was Passover and overshadowing the occasion was the mood of the Jewish people which would have been particularly nationalistic at that time.
The crowd were so impressed by Jesus that they decided to name him as King but Jesus, knowing the Roman authorities could see this as a threat, quickly distanced himself from the idea: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
This was leadershippointing people away from violence towards peace.
The feeding of the 5,000 is clearly a Eucharistic event as Jesus uses four key words found in every Eucharistic liturgy – he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. The Eucharist reminds us that Jesus enters our lives not just in the form of sermons or Bibles, but as ingested food and drink. He feeds us spiritually as well as teaches us. There is a subversive message in this event as Jesus demonstrates that the world is filled with abundance; that where bread is broken and shared, there is enough for everyone with lots to spare. He confronts the myth of scarcity which holds that there is not enough to go around so the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor. For those who are well fed it's just the way it is but as Amanda Gorman read in her poem at President Biden's inauguration: "We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, and the norms and notions of what 'just is' isn't always justice."
Due to the pandemic many have been restricted to online worship which troubled some who felt that the church was being excluded from public life. In a recent book, Candles in the Dark, the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, points to benefits gained and lessons learned. Individuals had more time for personal reflection; society rediscovered its responsibility for the most vulnerable in the community. He senses a better awareness of hidden privation and acute loneliness as well as abuse taking place behind locked doors. He speaks up for those often described as unskilled and who we depend on every day for essential services.
He has a message for the churches too, suggesting that in the past they have failed to care enough about those who can no longer physically attend services, relying on an occasional visit from the clergy as the sole point of contact. (To our shame even that is not always provided.) Referring to online worship he writes: “Now there are new and creative options; we shouldn’t see this experience as just a frustrating time of ‘making do’, but a new opening of doors . . . Of course, (Communion online) isn’t the full experience of the Eucharist, and it’s one side only of the reality of the sacrament. But if the Eucharist online helps us both to open our eyes more fully to those who are usually excluded and recognise more gladly and wonderingly the sheer thereness of the loving act of God reconciling the world to himself – well, we shall have learned something about what public life might really mean.”