Mary Loncar and her beautiful granddaughter Meridian stopped by the other day with bounty from Mary’s well-tended garden—cauliflower, broccoli, peas, red cabbage, summer squash, white onions, and green beans.
An hour later a handful of those green beans were on my lunch plate. I didn’t cook them or even cut them. I just set them down in a happy tangle, eating them raw, the same way I would a French fry.
Eating Mary’s green beans like this made me think of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me in which the young filmmaker decides to see what would happen if he ate nothing but McDonald’s for an entire month.
Before launching his fast food experiment, Morgan takes us with him as he pays visits to doctors and health professionals. They put Morgan through the paces, determine he is in fine form, and then they try to argue him out of this crazy idea of his.
Ignoring these pleas, Morgan dives in. Just three days into his new diet, he is already complaining about not feeling his best. Within a week, he has packed on the pounds and reports he’s starting to feel lethargic and depressed.
Determined to complete his assignment, Morgan powers his way through Big Macs and mountains of fries. His complexion grows pasty and his digestion is off. By week three, his medical team is begging him to stop. His weight is up, his blood pressure too, and every part of his bloodwork is concerning; he’s literally poisoning himself.
Alarmed by the rapid decline of his previously healthy patient, Morgan’s primary care physician has him promise that if heexperiences chest pains or if the whites of his eyes suddenly turn yellow Morgan will go straight to the hospital.
Morgan makes it through the month, but barely. His girlfriend, a professional vegan chef, swoops in as soon as his experiment is over and begins feeding him organic kale and quinoa.
As I listen to Jesus this morning, I hear in his voice the wise, caring tones of Morgan’s doctors as they consult with him mid-binge. Jesus, too, wants what is best for us. He wants us to thrive. He wants us to experience and enjoy what later in John’s gospel he will call abundant life.
In last week’s gospel lesson Jesus fed the multitudes a nutritious, generous meal of bread and fish. Everyone ate their fill. Indeed, there was so much of everything that it took 12 huge baskets to hold the leftovers.
When Jesus and his disciples move on, many who had feasted that day chase after them. They are hoping for more of this fast food Jesus is offering. And while Jesus would never judge someone for being hungry, he sees how dangerous this chasing after him is, spiritually speaking. It’s like living on a diet of McDonalds, gobbling up what is quick and easy. Racing after Jesus, becoming dependent upon his generosity is not a healthy pursuit. Like a cheap soda, it goes down easy but spiritually speaking is full of empty calories.
And so Jesus speaks to people’s need to have their deeper hungers satisfied, to receive true and lasting sustenance. “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus says.
When Jesus utters these words I hear echoes of the wise prophet Isaiah who said to God’s people “Come, all of you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaiah 55:1)
In other words, come feast on all the good things that God in God’s generosity places before you. Come, eat your fill of the life to which God calls you—a life of hope, kinship, grace, and beauty. A life of freedom and possibility. A life akin to Eden. A life that costs nothing—except that we step into it and away from what, like Morgan’s diet, can deaden and sometimes even kill us.
The old axiom “we are what we eat” is true not only for things like green beans and Micky D’s. We are what we eat is true off the plate, as well. The relationships we cultivate can strengthen or weaken us. The ways we spend our time can enliven or deplete us. The thoughts we entertain can foster wellness or take us down difficult roads. The habits we hone can contribute to our overall happiness or send us sailing over a cliff.
By our choices, we are daily nourished—or not. By what we take into ourselves, we find joyful satiation or nagging dissatisfaction. Like the crowd in our lesson, we can chase after what does not last or, as Jesus suggests, we can tap into something enduring, something eternal.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says of himself in John this morning. I’m with Jesus scholar Marcus Borg who suggests that whenever Jesus makes “I am” statements what he is doing is different than what we do when we make claims about ourselves.
Jesus’ doesn’t mean “I’m all that and a bag of chips” when Jesus says I am the bread of life or I am the way, the truth, and the life, I am the true vine, I am the light of the world.
What Jesus is really saying when he says “I am” is more like “How I am.” “How I am is the bread of life. How I am is the light of the world. How I am is the way, truth, and life.”
Jesus isn’t looking for admirers. He’s looking for apprentices, people eager to learn the ways of coming alive, of being fully human. In other words, Jesus is hoping we will develop appetites for learning how to engage in what blesses and uplifts—ourselves and others. How to be peaceful. How to be in a rewarding, growing, right relationship with God who sustains and steadies us, even in the midst of troubles and trials. Especially then.
Years ago I had an experience that convinced me that Jesus isn’t terribly concerned about what labels I ascribe to him. What he cares about is helping me learn to live the way he lived, to care about what he cared about, and to go where he would go—and to whom—if he were here in the flesh himself.
What Jesus cares about is companioning me and encouraging me as I make my way through life learning how to live as he lived and how to love as he loved. Said another way, what Jesus is hoping is that I’ll adopt his diet—not his daily meal plan but his spiritual and relational diet. His way of being in the world. A way that he already knows is deeply satisfying and its own rich reward.
This, I think, is what it means to believe in Jesus. The word believe comes from the old English “by life.” I believe in Jesus to the extent that I live my life in the ways he did. Ways he insisted connect a person to the eternal, to the satisfactions of the heart and soul.
Like most folks, I forget I have choices for how I’m going to live, what I’m going to “eat” in the course of a day.
When I forget I have choices and I act out of impulse and habit rather than intentionality, I regularly resemble the old television commercial where someone inhales a candy bar and then realizes she could just as easily have had a can of V-8.
Don’t get me wrong now. This isn’t about virtue. This isn’t about being some kind of ideal Christian. It’s about being aware enough, and sometimes disciplined enough, to make wise choices. To make the choices I know will leave me feeling whole and satisfied rather than the way Morgan felt after too many McGriddles.
Just before they moved in June, my neighbors borrowed something of minor consequence and promptly forgot to return it. A week went by. Then two weeks. Then three and four and then five.
At first I wasn’t bothered but as time passed, I began to feel a little resentful. Then I began to get irritated. And then I got caught in a consumption loop of judgmental thoughts, each like a French fry—salty and greasy and strangely sweet—each bite leaving me wanting another, then another. I was bingeing on unkind, untrue thoughts.
None of this satisfied me, of course. None of this was nourishing. None of this contributed in any way to a healthy mind, a sound body, or a sense of well-being as a friend to incredibly precious people.
I was no different than those who chased after Jesus for more bread thinking that would satisfy them. Except I wasn’t chasing after a hunk of barley loaf. Just the same, I was pursuing something that only made me hungry for more.
Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He came to teach us how to live. Not how to fawn over him or say the right things about him. Jesus came to teach us how to live and love. How to feast on what truly matters and to genuinely lose our appetites for what does not.
And so he taught to give up chewing on the gristle of someone’s mistakes or missteps. Forgive, he says, cleanse your palate of what did or didn’t happen; begin anew.
Jesus taught us to give up worrying about tomorrow—a day, a reality that doesn’t even exist—so that we might step fully into the gift that is today, into the eternal now where God is present and anything is possible.
Jesus taught us to pray for those who are difficult to love or like. Not because this is a nice thing to do, a noble pursuit even, but because prayer is the secret sauce that transforms even the most bitter of bitternesses. Prayer for a challenging person or group of people may not change them but it certainly changes our appetite for “othering.”
Years ago I went to my doctor and told her “I want you to tell me to lose weight.” Her kind eyes took me in and then she said “I can’t. That’s an inside job.”
The life to which Jesus calls us is a life where we come more and more to a place of genuinely wanting to live as he lived. Not a life where we follow his teachings because we’re afraid of the consequences or where we hope for the sweet dessert of heaven after a life-long “meal” on earth that we didn’t particularly enjoy.
Everything Jesus teaches is for our sake. Not his. Not God’s. Everything he teaches, he himself chose and lived. Everything he encourages, he himself made a priority and a practice.
And everything he offers, now, today, is so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Not later. Not occasionally. But ongoingly.
And so it is that Jesus, the very Bread of Life, joins us day in and day out, moment by moment, until we, like the people in the crowd that day say with enthusiasm and earnestness “Sir, give us this bread always.” Yes, give us this bread, this way, this life, always.
Let us pray together:
O God, you know us well. You know how often we prefer to feast on the things that don’t satisfy: comparing ourselves to others, ruminating on things that don’t matter, holding our hearts at arms’ length, indulging pessimism, and sometimes even dipping into hate. You know how easily we consume what is not good for us.
Nurture in us keener awareness of—and respect for—our true appetites, so that we can feast well. Give us your satisfying soul food and help us lose interest in the fast food we so often are inclined to reach for and gobble up. In other words, satisfy us. Today and every day.
All this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.