For the past three weeks now, our Sunday Gospels have been following Jesus’ long discussion about bread in John’s Gospel. Two weeks ago, the scene was introduced by Jesus’ miraculous feeding of a large, hungry crowd, which we saw was an object lesson for what the Kingdom of God is like. Last week’s reading showed how the crowd misunderstood this and was working at crossed purposes with Jesus: they wanted to be impressed by miracles and free lunch, Jesus wanted them to stop thinking with their stomachs. Today’s reading starts where last week left off, with Jesus’ famous saying: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever is faithful to me will never be thirsty.” The scene devolves from there, as the people get sidetracked and Jesus fails to keep them on topic: What Jesus wants for the people is for them to be filled up with what really matters. Today I’d like to reflect a bit more on this expansion of last week’s themes: What is it we truly hunger for, and what is it that will fill us up?
Appetite, or desire more generally, is not as straightforward as it seems on the surface, because it functions on different levels. We can want world peace (lofty and not something directly achievable), we can want a healthy relationship (also lofty but small in scope, and achievable with hard work and a willing partner), or we can want a hamburger (simple and easily achievable). I mention this because the conflict here between the crowd and Jesus is not one of belief, but one of scope. Jesus doesn’t want them to be satisfied with the immediate, physical fulfillment of their appetites. It isn’t that those appetites are bad, but that they don’t tell the whole story. The joys that come from the physical fulfillment of our appetites are fleeting; no matter how good a meal we just had, we’ll be hungry again in a few hours. Moreover, our physical bodies are only one part of our human life: We have soul, mind, or spirit too, and these need to be fed as much as our bodies. To make things more confusing, these emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs have no way to express themselves except through our bodies, and so we often get get mixed up and seek physical solutions to spiritual needs, whether that’s expressed in over-eating (or self-starving behaviours), chemical dependency, or cheap sex in place of genuine intimacy. God doesn’t take away those needs and feelings because they tell us information we need. But, he also doesn’t want us to conflate them and chase after the wrong solutions to our spiritual needs.
We need discernment, then, about what it is our bodies are telling us. Legitimate physical appetites like hunger and thirst tell us we need to eat and drink. But, the physical manifestations of spiritual and emotional needs also tell us something too. The hollowed out feeling of loneliness tells us we need community; the tension of anxiety is a warning that we don’t feel safe in the world; the fire of anger is a sign that we are experiencing or witnessing injustice; what we think of as a desire for sex is often a longing to be seen and appreciated. And so when we feel these things, we need to be able to sort out what it is our bodies are telling us, so we don’t end up eating, drinking, or having sex about our feelings, none of which will do anything to fill up what is missing.
How do we do this? Jesus offers up himself as the answer. He is the bread true bread. He offers himself as that way: Life in the interdependence of community and relationship with God, humility, and rejecting the violence and injustice of this world’s powers — these are the things that fill us up. This is thee way of Jesus, the true and living bread — a truth that we live out and participate in in the Eucharist as well as in our day-to-day life.
We see this playing out in today’s Epistle reading, Ephesians 4.25-5.2. Here, the apostle provides an array of behaviours and attitudes for the new community, as we “become imitators of God,” instead of imitating the world around us. The text asks us to shift our relationship to our desires, feelings, and appetites, so that we use our words to strengthen our relationships instead of break them down, use our anger to do justice instead of perpetuate injustice and violence, use our intellect and energy for honest gain instead of scheming and theft, and use our resources for generous giving instead of hoarding wealth. Really, it’s about living faithfully — asking how we can use what we are craving or feeling to show up for ourselves, for our communities, and for God. This is the “life to the fullest” that Jesus offers us, and it is the life that will truly fill us up.
As we’ve seen over the past couple weeks, the crowd that Jesus fed missed all this; their aim was only to be entertained by miracles and fed with free food. But Jesus wanted so much more for them. And that means he wants so much more for us too.
He is the true bread. “Lord, give us this bread always.”