It’s not hard to find images in our various news media of hunger: there are pictures of bread lines in war-torn areas, with children frantically groping for whatever food is being handed out. A documentary by Daniel Karslake released last year explored the fact that every 3.6 seconds somewhere in the world another person dies of hunger, usually a child under the age of five. All this is not front page breaking news for most of us. We’ve heard much of it before.
Material I receive from Second Harvest Heartland points out that when children come to school hungry, they cannot learn well. But what if the problems go much farther back than that? When children do not receive adequate nutrition in the womb and during the first three years of life, their brain development is seriously impaired, probably in some ways that cannot be made up later on. Hunger for bread is a widespread, deep-rooted human condition.
Of course if they had been keeping statistics in 1st century Palestine, those would probably have been even more grim. An occupied nation whose resources are being siphoned off by an imperial power will undoubtedly have many suffering from hunger and malnutrition. So why, in this morning’s Gospel reading does it seem as though Jesus is almost scolding those who seek him out for bread?
Earlier in chapter 6 we read about a Jesus who was not at all indifferent to people’s hunger. Thousands had been following him, and he asked his disciples how they should feed all of them. The disciples pointed out that it would take way more than the few resources they had to give even a bit of bread to all those people. Andrew did note that there was a boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish, although that probably wouldn’t do much. But when Jesus took those small bits of food into his hands and blessed and broke them, there was more than enough for everyone, with leftovers.
Now the next day, the crowds have followed and Jesus says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Yesterday he had given them as much bread as anyone could want, today, he says…. Well, what was he saying?
Certainly he did not deny the need for food, having just addressed that the day before, but instead he called them to seek after more than that. The food that endures for eternal life. The crowd was completely baffled about what that might mean to them, and the dialogue with Jesus went around in confusing circles.
But before we get to feeling all superior because we know how the story comes out, we might ask ourselves if we have actually asked Jesus for that true food. Do we recognize what it is for which we hunger and thirst? The evidence suggests that we do not. For if we knew what we deeply want from Jesus and from eternal life, why would we be so constantly preoccupied with scratching after and accumulating other stuff?
If we move from starvation to the other end of the food spectrum, we bump up against the data on weight in our country: close to 70% of us are getting way too many calories, as reflected in national rates of obesity. Sometimes this happens because people don’t have access to nutritious food. But much of the research suggests that cravings for food represent a need to fill empty spaces in our lives with the nearest Dairy Queen Blizzard, which is much more available than time to rest, or a loving relationship, or inner quiet.
And if your issue is not food, there are plenty of other things pressing on us – a need to climb the corporate ladder and achieve recognition; a need for more in our retirement accounts; desires for security, for perfect health, for well-behaved, beautiful children. And to us, as well, Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Are we willing to seek after and name that for which we deeply hunger and thirst? Where would we look for the real questions and the true answers? The response for Christians is that we can best make this journey in the community that is the body of Christ. It is in this place, with each other, that we can hear God’s word calling to us, both in scripture and in the lives we share.
Here we can be called to account but also sustained, here we can feed and be fed. We take up regular offerings to address hunger and homelessness in our community. And It is no coincidence that our most frequently celebrated sacrament involves eating and drinking, taking in the body and blood of Christ in bread, in wine and in each other. This is so central to our life as a people, that we should not take it for granted.
Years ago I was practicing Family Medicine in Flint, Michigan, where I belonged to the large, downtown Methodist Church. I think it was my second year there that I was asked to chair the Membership and Evangelism Committee. It was the time that comes about every five or six years in most congregations, for the making of a new Pictorial Directory. As some of you may know, the congregation gets a number of pages at the beginning of the book for whatever pictures best represent the life of the church. So I put out a call for any photos people had of life at Court Street UMC.
The amazing thing as these rolled in was that all the pictures showed some event in which people were eating something – potlucks, meetings, coffee hours, Sunday School snack time. I suggested that we create a new logo for the church, showing a hand holding a doughnut with a bite taken out of it, surrounded by the words “The Church That Eats Together Stays Together”. This was before I had gone to seminary, so it was just dumb luck that I had hit on a deep theological truth.
And that truth is that when as a community we share bread, it is all Christ for us. In our coffee hours and in our Eucharist, we are joined to God and to each other. So we need to pay attention here. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The food of eternal life is the life of Christ given for us. Here is where we can find this true food, and in it, true freedom and real life.