Shalom is one of those big words. It defies easy definition. Peace. Harmony. Justice. Wholeness. Well-being for all. All these work. But for me, more than anything else, shalom means a meal. This is why. By the time we arrived in Zimbabwe, a terrible drought had decimated the entire southern region of Africa. In the rural areas the scenario was the same wherever we went. “Where is your food?” we would ask. “We have no food,” came the response. “Only God can save us now.” Whenever we made a delivery of basic food items and supplies to those who needed it most, the women would fall to the ground, weeping, and then they would spring to their feet, singing the praises of God. Their singing and dancing exuded shalom. Shalom meant a meal they could share.
Our Shona friends taught us that the best place to receive God’s gift of shalom was around a meal. Experienced thousands of times in our own culture, the meal took on heightened significance in that African context. For almost all Africans, meals establish relationships as well as sustain the life of a community. The meal shapes the participants—forms a bond—makes them one. The more we reflected on all this, the more we discovered the connections between meals and shalom in the biblical witness. Neighbors and families. Planting and harvest. Eating and Sharing. Shalom emerges in these rhythms of life in which God becomes real, tangible, life-giving. Peace and justice, joy and plenty inhabit shalom; shalom inhabits a meal.
Shalom emerges in these rhythms of life in which God becomes real, tangible, life-giving.
Perhaps this is one reason why all religions put meals in the center of their practice. And those of us in the Christian tradition have a very special meal around which our common life revolves—Eucharist—our family thanksgiving meal. This Sacrament, as we also call it, creates a particular community with a peculiar calling in the world. Two particular aspects of this meal, I think, point in the direction of shalom.
First, the Lord’s Supper unites believers with Christ in a community of joy. It’s not too much to say that the Sacrament forms the church—the one, holy, apostolic community of God’s grace. As St. Paul observes in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). Shalom is all about unity in diversity. This meal re-members us. It puts us back together, and the keynote of our koinonia (community) is joy.
Our hearts are open wide
To make the Savior room:
And lo! The Lamb, the crucified,
The sinner's friend is come!
His presence makes the feast,
And now our bosoms feel
The glory not to be expressed,
The joy unspeakable.
Shalom means joy around a table where everyone is invited and everyone has a place.
Secondly, this “Holy Mystery” forms us into a missional community for witness and service in the world. Shalom not only means experiencing peace and joy in our own hearts. Shalom means partnering with God in God’s good work of reconciliation and restoration in the world. Shalom is not shalom until it is given away. I love the practice of some Christians in Ghana. They don’t receive the bread and wine of the meal kneeling at a communion railing or in the safety and security of a sanctuary. They actually receive the elements at the exits of the church building. The “distribution” is their final act of worship together in community. They are told, “This is food for your journey. May it strengthen you for all that lies ahead. Share what you received here freely with others.” They are fed as they take their next steps back into the world. Sometimes they are even given extra food to share with their neighbors. Now that is shalom! Shalom means blessing the world with our abundance so that all may be fed.
Shalom is not shalom until it is given away.
Shalom means a meal; eat, share, love.