“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”-Jn 6:35
The Gospel readings in this season of the church between Christmas and Lent spotlight Jesus as the sustainer of our lives; he turns water into wine, feeds the 5000 with a few loaves-he is the bread of life. Our Gospel readings say that if you eat of the bread of life, you won’t ever hunger or thirst. I have tasted of the bread of life, Jesus Christ, and know that you have; by reading God’s word, by church and communion, in prayer-and for me it has changed my life. But never hunger and never thirst? I have to admit that this is not my experience and what I see in the world around me. After all, what about believers in the third world who are physically are hungry and thirsty on a daily basis? What about all the people in our modern world, some believers, who are emotionally and spiritually starving for connection and meaning and find it in so many destructive ways? What about the way that we believers all are so hungry, me first, for appreciation, recognition, for love?
One way to explain away Jesus’ words is to just say he was using a figure of speech, exaggerating, he said those who come to him shall never hunger or thirst, but what he meant was you will be less hungry and less thirsty and much better off. But that is not what he said, and we believe God says what he means and does not lie. I think the only way to square Jesus’ words with our human condition is to realize that this is a work in progress-which if we take note-is in Jesus’ very words. Jesus said he was the bread of life, and so it would make sense that it is our life’s work to learn to come to him to be filled. Maybe the problem is not with our being hungry, it is answering the life-long question of what we are truly hungry for. Now nobody likes hard questions that take a lifetime to answer. We would much rather have a short-cut answer to our hungers, and so did the crowds in the Gospel reading today. God, if you are God, why don’t you just feed those who are hungry for food, fill those who are spiritually empty, gives me the money, fame and success I so hunger for in this world.
Ok, let’s try it your way, says God. Here is your success and wealth. Does that satisfy you? Here is all the food you can eat and all the desires of your heart. Are you fulfilled? No one truly is satisfied when they get what they want, because we’ll always want more. That is exactly what happens in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus miraculously feeds more than 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes. But, lo and behold what happens a few hours later? Everyone is hungry again. In fact, now that they have gotten a taste of what God can do, their stomachs and their souls expanded and they want even more. So great was their hunger and need, that Jesus had to take for the hills, while they searched high and low to seek him out.
Well isn’t this strange? Why would Jesus, God incarnate, give the people food that made them more and not less hungry? And why would Jesus first love, and then leave, this mass of people who now hungered for more of him? These of course aren’t abstract questions, they are our questions. Why does believing in God make us hungry for the good, the true and the righteous, yet in this world there is so much evil, untruth and wickedness? And why can’t we seem to find Jesus when we need him most? When our daughter has an unexpected cancer diagnosis? When our child is addicted to opioids? When we are simply overwhelmed with the burdens and fears of daily live?
Well the people who have tasted a bit of Jesus, the Bread of Life, go looking for him. They saw Jesus go up on the mountain by himself and they finally try to pin him down. When they do, Jesus challenges 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…” As often happens, Jesus’ one liners give us a window into heaven, and in this case, explains why God allows us, even encourages us to stay hungry. Because it is just too easy to be temporarily satisfied, filled by things of this world-the comforts, the wealth, the honors-which do not nourish us in the long run. That’s the spirit of Jesus’ striking fourth beatitude “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In other words, says Jesus, happy are those who are hungry; hungry for the things that are eternal, that are of God. Happy are those who seek God and the good of others as the work of a lifetime, with the drive that they would seek food if hungry, or water if thirsty.
For it seems that the more we eat of the bread of life and come near Jesus Christ, the more we hunger for the eternal things of God; faith, hope, love and charity. Jesus feed his people and then hides from them in the hills for the same reason that we nurture our children in study, in good behavior and in worship-but then let them go-so that all of our virtues might become theirs. Jesus plants within us a taste for, a hunger and a love for God the Father-but then he let’s go-so that His love might become ours.
So in the next few weeks, in the lead up to Lent, let us reflect on our hunger. What do we hunger for? Do we realize that we are not so much hungry for comfort, wealth and leisure as we are for wholeness, peace and purpose? These are the things that only Christ can offer. We might then ask ourselves, “How hungry am I? How much do I want Christ who offers wholeness and peace and purpose?” I pray that in this way we stay hungry. That we immerse ourselves in Scriptures and worship and acts of compassion to stay hungry and seek fulfillment in Christ over a lifetime. Because Jesus calls the hungry blessed, and eating his bread expands our appetite–it is for us simply to ensure that our hunger is for that which nourishes.