This morning’s gospel lesson about Jesus being the living bread come down from heaven led me to ask this question on Facebook: “What are you hungry for?” Here’s some of the responses:
- Ann in Tennessee Ridge is hungry for another book to read.
- Jim here in Nashville is hungry for a good ol’ fashioned crawfish boil.
- Terri in Washington State wants Baja Fresh. And chocolate.
- Henrietta in Hendersonville wants peace.
- Marian in Waverly wants freedom.
- Mary Beth in Hermitage wants authentic community.
- My daughter, Ruth wants pizza.
- LeeGayle in Atlanta wants a Greek salad.
- Anne in Nashville wants a deeper spiritual life, richer friendships, and good relationships with her family.
- Deborah in Murfressboro is hungry for an end to racism.
- Harriett in New York is hungry for justice.
- Jackson in Nashville wants respect and truth for everyone.
- Kristi in Nashville wants a deep, intimate relationship with God, a clear sense of calling, love and safety for the children of the world, and a cure for cancer!
- Nancy in DC is hungry to find out what she is hungry for.
- Karla in Maryland is hungry for forgiveness.
- Brian in New York wants healthcare to become a basic civil right.
- Philip in Indiana wants everyone to get along despite political or religious differences.
- Bobby in Murfreesboro wants knowledge.
- Greg in North Carolina is hungry for people to listen to God’s will.
- Melissa in Nashville wants a clean house.
- Neal, also in Nashville, wants to tackle all of the above, but first he wants a bowl of cocoa crispies.
Such a variety of hungers, wants, and desires! Do we really think Jesus can satisfy them? Honestly, Jesus doesn’t say that’s what he will do. His invites us to hunger only for him.
The religious authorities didn’t want to hear that. Jesus’ invitation threatened them and they decided to avoid it by taking his statement about being the living bread and eating his flesh and drinking his blood literally. They argued with themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
I really can’t fault the religious authorities in this story for choosing to take Jesus’ words literally. Doing so was the easy way out. I did the same thing as I read and reread the passage in several English translations. I spent way longer than was necessary tweaking that nifty introduction that uses Facebook responses to my question, “What are you hungry for?” I wrote a paragraph about how Anne Rice used it to stir up controversy in one of her vampire books when she wove this passage into the blood-drinking lore of vampires. I tried to think of a way to tie Jesus’ words to current trends involving the wildly popular Twilightbooks and movies (which are okay for most anybody, if you can stomach them) and the HBO series True Blood (I’ve only seen the opening trailer on YouTube and based on that alone I wouldn’t recommend it).
No, I can’t fault the antagonistic religious leaders in this story because I was perfectly willing to chase the rabbits of this scripture myself. One more rabbit, then I’ll stop, I promise. Some scholars believe that it’s this passage more than anything else that gave rise to the persecution of the Early Church. People used Jesus’ words and the practice of Holy Communion to label Christians as cannibals. I doubt anyone ever really believed that, but it was an excuse to shun and even execute followers of this strange, new, Christian faith.
The reason why it’s so hard to focus on what Jesus is really saying here is because his words are so intimate. They speak of life and death and of eternal life. And all along that spectrum of existence he says this about the way we spend our time: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus wants to be as much a part of us as the food we eat. That’s too close. We’d like to believe that we know better what will satisfy our hunger
Those Facebook responses remind me that we tend to develop appetites for a multitude of things. We can stuff ourselves with even the serious, more filling side dishes like peace or justice to the point where there’s no room for the main course.
Setting aside all metaphors, here’s what I believe Jesus is saying: real, true life happens for us when we fill our lives with Jesus in every way possible. In this context, hear again the Epistle lesson from Ephesians: “be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.”
Several years ago, I started and stuck with a fitness routine. I’ve never been overweight, but I had never been in shape, either. I put the exercise part of being fit into my life fairly quickly. But the part that gave me the most trouble was the eating part. At first, I didn’t make any changes to my diet. But because I was becoming more and more physically active, I needed more calories and better food. I gradually made changes, ate more protein, scheduled more frequent, smaller meals, and decreased my consumption of sugar. Now, several years later, Cokes taste too sweet. If I eat too much fried foods, I have problems. Before these changes, I craved sugar and fried foods.
I share that story this morning because it reminds me that what we crave, our appetites, our hungers, can change if we work at it. It’s true for our bodies, and it’s true for our spirits. Increased strength and stamina are the result of sticking to a fitness program. Working out our spiritual lives results in an increased ability to love God and to love our neighbors. We can get to the point where we hunger for Jesus, where we want nothing more than to have him abide in us. Just like hunger, the fullness of Christ within us comes and goes; nobody stays full all the time. The goal is to be Christ-filled more and more often, to let love of God and love of neighbor motivate us more frequently.
Getting there, changing our eating habits so to speak, isn’t easy. It takes discipline. But we don’t have to do it all by ourselves. Luckily for us, we are invited to a banquet table laden with traditions that work to make room for Christ within us. These disciplines are a means of grace; they are ways that we encounter the living God as revealed to us through the life, death, and resurrection of the Bread of Life, Jesus.
In the Methodist tradition, these disciplines are also called works of piety and works of mercy. The works of piety include prayer, searching the scriptures (meaning reading them, hearing them, and meditating on them), Holy Communion, Christian community, fasting, and healthy living. The works of mercy include doing good, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding and clothing people, earning, saving and giving all you can, and opposing slavery.
That right there was a whole lot to swallow. If you want to read more about the means of grace in Methodist tradition, search “United Methodist spiritual disciplines” in Google and click on the first link. Or, visit my blog (search on my name and the word “Grace” to get there) and I’ll post a link there.
Practicing these disciplines, the means of grace, orders our lives so that God’s grace can work in us to fill us with Christ. Christ within us enables us to love God and neighbor. The more Christ with the more love flowing without.
Friday, while I was driving to work, I was listening to Marketplace on Public Radio. The interview was about a marketing battle over wine and beer sales. The man being interviewed said that 70% of women who imbibe drink wine, while the same percentage of men drink beer. He shared that both beer and wine makers are engage in an ongoing effort to increase the percentages in their favor. He ended with this statement: “We are fighting for stomach shares.”
That statement has stuck with me this weekend. Everything around me, including the Living Christ, is fight for stomach shares within me. There’s only so much I can eat. It’s up to me to practice good eating habits, to embrace the disciplines that will work to allow Christ to fill me.
I ask you what I asked my Facebook friends and what I’ve been asking myself, “What are you hungry for?” Pray about your answer during the following silence, before we sing the Hymn of Response. Name that for which you hunger. After we have time to do that, I will say again the means of grace. As I do, you might hear one that grabs your attention, sorta makes your stomach growl. Make a commitment today to make that discipline a part of your life, that it might work to open you more completely to receive into yourself Jesus, the living bread.
Remember what you’ve heard many times before. You are what you eat.
Let us pray:
Holy God, give us the courage to name that for which we hunger…
Speak to us, merciful God, a discipline that might work within us to full us with Christ: prayer, searching the scriptures, Holy Communion, Christian community, fasting, healthy living, doing good, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding and clothing people, earning, saving and giving all we can, opposing slavery.
Fill us with your Spirit, that we might leave this place to feed others in your name. Amen.