I have come to love many of the Hebrew Bible stories of the Israelites, the chosen of God, because they are such sharp observations of the human condition. We can hear the whole congregation of the Israelites complaining to Moses and Aaron – “Oh woe is me, the Lord has taken us out of Egypt and into the wilderness in the name of freedom but we are clearly going to die here! Why couldn’t we have been left in comfortable captivity where at least we had enough to eat!” We can make fun of the Israelites because it is all so long ago and so far away. (Revised Common Lectionary Exodus 16:2-4,9-19; Psalm 78:22-28; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35.) And yet if we reflect for just one moment we have to admit there is a lot of us in their complaining.
What is it about us? We are a hungry species: we are always hungry for what we do not have, restless to be where we are not, and dissatisfied with what we once thought would satisfy us. We are indeed the sons and daughters of the Israelites, grandchildren of those who followed Jesus looking for bread that would satisfy.
I remember that as a young would-be social worker one of the theories of human personality development was by Maslow who had a model of the hierarchy of human need. It was often depicted as a pyramid with physiological needs for food, water, sleep, sex and warmth down the bottom. Then he suggested there were needs for safety such as shelter, social order etc. Then we need to know we belong to the group and are loved. Then we need to be esteemed, to be recognised for our talents and uniqueness. And then, the model theorised, we might be interested in and available for self actualisation.
It is a very simplistic theory but it has its uses. It is hard for a family to place emphasis on long term educational goals for their children when the roof over their heads and the grocery money is very uncertain. If, in the language of justice based welfare, we want to help people move from merely surviving to thriving we need to help people have security with the basics so that they have the energy to focus on higher order needs. As we reflected last week we should not despise the need for literal bread, for the basics of life for ourselves and for our neighbours. Rather we should live lives of gratitude when our basic needs are generously met and enable others to meet their needs too.
But Jesus points to a flaw in our human nature when he states that the people are only following him because they want bread to eat today rather than the bread of heaven. We who are well fed should not minimise the very real hunger of those who do not have enough of the material needs. But we do need to challenge this way of thinking that continually delays our spiritual work until we have had enough to eat, wear, do, places to go, people to be seen with and so on. We as a people have endless material and social wants which we now think are needs and we never get to the end of what we must have in order to be happy or fulfilled! It is the ultimate game of procrastination and avoidance!
Now none of us reading this, surely, are crass enough to want mere money or endless material items but what about that other long list of “must haves” which includes interesting experiences, travels, books read, skills mastered, profound thoughts expressed, health restored, friends made, grandchildren accomplished and so on. You get the point!
“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.” The words of Jesus should jolt us a little out of rhythm, out of the rut we tend to get in, so that we reconsider what our true needs are, so that we ask ourselves “What am I striving for? Who is it I am trying to satisfy? What is it I hunger for?”
As St Augustine said: “We are restless until we rest in you.” The Buddha is said to have come to the understanding that it is desire itself that causes suffering. And as St Paul states this morning that when Jesus ascended on high, returned to his true home, he made captivity itself a captive, and thus he was able to give his people spiritual gifts. If we wait until all our material, social, psychological needs are satisfied before we dare to live the lives we are called to, as the holy people of God and in God, then we will never get started! We will always be on that treadmill that says we need more, or we need to shine brighter, or we need to be loved better by others ... or whatever we are most hungry for!
But before we get too frustrated with the difficulty of being our human selves let us take heart that Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” All that is needed to satisfy is at hand. So let our hungry souls look upon the bread that endures for eternal life. Let us rest in what is already here and available – the love of God. Let all those desires and hungers that keep us captive be taken captive by the liberating love of God so that we are free to live lives infused by humility and generosity, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Part of why many of us come to church surely is to be reminded to rest a moment in the eternal peace and love of God, to have our desires stilled for this moment, to have our hunger met by word and sacrament. And then being so fully met and known by the love of God we re-emerge into the world God loves blinking and refreshed, challenged and encouraged, reminded and rekindled ready for life in all its fullness.
Fed and refreshed in this way our most ordinary lives can become places of grace. As we go about our ordinary lives and tasks notice the world we pass through, give thanks for sunshine or rain. As we enter into our own home or that of friends notice again how good it is to be sheltered in such generous creative ways. As we ring our family or friends and listen to their woes or mighty achievements smile to oneself and give thanks for connection and speak words of encouragement. As we attend to our livestock or the vegetables in the backyard give thanks that created life comes in so many different forms and contemplate what a privilege it is to be called to live in the midst of such various life forms. And remembering those who are no longer with us in body or time we utter simple thanks that they ever were and that we shall be united again with them in the Spirit in the fullness of eternity. Having rested in our source we are reminded of who we truly are and the preciousness of all life that we encounter. So fed by the Bread of Life we commit again to go about life with intentionality, with gratitude, with generosity and with hopefulness.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come increase in us a hunger for the Bread that does not perish.