Physical hunger and spiritual hunger. Jesus nourished both in His ministry on Earth and both appear in this week’s passage from John’s gospel. Often, we become consumed by the urgency of acute needs, like where or when we will next eat. These acute needs can impact our ability to recognize the deeper, holistic, spiritual hunger we all experience. It’s a fact of life, and one we easily miss. And, as Vernon writes, we can learn from Jesus’ example in tending to the physical hunger of others before ever approaching the subject of spiritual hunger.
John 6: 24-35
24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered 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. 27 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The crowds are pursuing Jesus, but why did people follow Jesus? It turns out that many, if not most, followed Jesus because they misunderstood him. They were looking for specific concrete relief from the hardship of their lives. If they were hungry, they wanted food. If they were sick, they wanted healing. Jesus often provided those things and, he was so impressive that the people wanted to ‘forcibly make him their king.’ But though it was certainly true that Jesus responded to the concrete needs in front of him, those responses belonged to a larger mission that was almost universally misunderstood.
Most of us are familiar with the aphorism, ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime.’ If someone is hungry, we of course need to find ways to offer food. But that will never be a sufficient response. Jesus knew this. He wanted his followers to have a life-giving way of living but as he says to the crowd, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” The crowd could not look beyond the fact that their bellies were full. But if you measure life by a full belly, your well being will be short lived. You will have nothing to rely upon when you are hungry.
The problem is that in real life, we will have times when we are full and times that we are empty—times we feel safe and times we are afraid—–times we are healthy and times we are grievously injured or ill. And perhaps most importantly, there will be times we feel deeply connected with God and others in which we feel isolated and abandoned. I know of no one who has not had to deal with both ends of life’s continuum. The temptation is to define the good life by only half of life’s experiences—a full belly. Our sense of well being, our sense of fullness, becomes how we determine whether or not we have a good life. But, as Jesus points out, the experiences of fullness in life are transient. After the best meal, we will be hungry again. Eternal life, and perhaps ironically, the abundant life includes both our fullness and our emptiness.
It is very difficult to realize that an abundant life is not about our particular well being. Eternal life means living all of life. It is about our ability to trust God and seek to love—whether we are full or empty. Eternal life is living in the present—and, as I said last week, engaging as best we can with what we have. We trust that we are not measured by how much we can engage or whether we are adequate. We do what we can, and trust. That is what Jesus demonstrated on the cross and I think that is what he meant when he said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Believing in him means completely inverting what humans call good and bad. Believing in him becomes a way of life in which we engage the entire world and in which our entire lives belong to God. Our job is to live and love in it. It is nearly humanly incomprehensible to consider crucifixion as anything except bad. Yet for Jesus it was part of his life. And he lived it in relationship with God. Jesus trusted that God was present with him in every experience of his life—the empty and the full. Even Jesus did not get to decide.
But, Jesus is misunderstood once again. The people ask the wrong questions. What should we do to receive this bread and how can we be sure you’re who you say you are. Show us a sign. They could not see that they had just been fed, without having to ‘do’ anything and they had missed the point of God’s graciousness. And they missed the sign of Jesus’ willingness to faithfully use what he had. In ordinary life, we do the same things. We want to know what to do, what is enough and we seek proofs for God. We get caught up in our immediate needs and our ways of understanding.
I think that was what was going on with the people following Jesus. In all fairness most of the people who were following lived on the edge. They could not be sure that there would be food on any particular day. It was no wonder they focused on what seemed like a solution to the hardship of their lives. It is hard to talk about spiritual values when you are hungry. And in real life, an emphasis on spirituality can become a pious disregard for the severity of human need. But please notice, before Jesus tried to teach the spiritual dimensions of hunger and fullness, he fed the people.
There is sometimes a false dichotomy between spiritual people and social justice people. We can not claim to be in relationship with God—no matter how hard we study, meditate, worship or pray—if we are not mindful of the needs of others. If we limit our focus to our personal relationship with God, we make our faith about our well being rather than following Jesus. Likewise, if we try to establish our faithfulness by our service, we will soon be depleted. We must have a spiritual base. We must realize our limits but realize our efforts matter. Otherwise we will be swallowed by the needs around us. The spiritual life leads to service and service is enabled by the spiritual life. There can be a different emphasis depending upon our individual gifts but they cannot be separated.
Jesus is challenging us to rely upon God whether we are full or hungry. In comparison to the majority of humanity, we are full. We are not hungry. We have homes and relative safety. But we like those first century Christians should not count on our bounty. We are not entitled and such bounty is perishable.
Choose the bread of life. It will sustain and nourish you in all of life. Let it be so.