I,like many people this week, have been mesmerised by the accounts of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The whole event was captivating for so many reasons: such as the sense of hope in the air; the apparent defeat of the ghosts of racism in the USA and a sense of renewed purpose in global relations. Alongside all of these for me, however, was the incredible sight of over a million people gathered in Washington drawn to celebrate but also to give voice to a deep hunger for peace, for change and for a better world. One of Barack Obama’s talents seems to be to awaken in people a hunger for something deeper and more nourishing that the current political scene has been able to provide.
It is striking, therefore, to read this evening’s gospel reading with this great crowd in mind. Here, almost immediately, we meet another crowd who were also following a leader and whose whole discussion with Jesus — which reached its famous culmination with the words ‘I am the bread of life’ – was also about hunger. John’s crowd, excited by the feeding of the five thousand, that came just before this in John’s gospel sought out Jesus in the hope of something more. What they seemed to be hoping for was a steady supply of miraculous food; no wonder they were drawn by the thought of miraculous bread that would last forever – the ultimate in long-life bead.
The ensuing conversation between Jesus and the crowd, as so often in John’s gospel, led to layer upon layer of confusion. It seem that the author of John’s gospel like all the best comic writers knew that the profoundest truths can often be communicated best by people getting the wrong end of the stick over and over again. After an extensive amount of Jesus talking about one thing and the people thinking he is talking about another, eventually Jesus reveals that what he is really talking about is himself: not something that you can carry off, hide in a cupboard and use for your own advantage, but something that provides eternally lasting nourishment and refreshment.
An intriguing part of John’s narrative is the words that he uses for bread. The bread that Jesus provided in the feeding of the five thousand was barley bread, which was, by all accounts, the worst possible quality bread. It was made from the cheapest grain and often contained grit and other substances that wore people’s teeth away and made it very difficult to digest. The bread he talks about here when he declared that he is the ‘bread of life’, is a different kind of bread – the best you can get. Not only will this bread last for ever, it is the tastiest, most nourishing kind of bread you can possibly hope to find.
What Jesus really seems to be challenging the crowd to think about is what it is that nourishes them. They became excited and pursued Jesus after experiencing poor quality, hard to digest bread the nourishment of which would soon pass, causing them to be hungry again. What Jesus was trying to show the crowd was that even their most exaggerated vision of what they might have was too small, too narrow and ultimately unsatisfying. Jesus was trying to get them to see – and to choose – an entirely different kind of nourishment: the best quality, eternally lasting, deeply nourishing kind.
Of course the problem is that then as now, people – myself included – are notoriously bad at choosing good quality nourishment. Given an entirely free choice of food, despite the fact that I know its bad for me, has no lasting value and positive negative qualities I will time and time again choose a piece of chocolate cake rather than a piece of fruit. It is an odd quirk of the human make-up that most of us seem almost congenitally unable to choose those things that are best for us. Even saying that phrase — ‘best for us’ — makes me feel overwhelmed by the desire to rush out and choose something inappropriate.
So often that which we think we need, is comforting for a while but quickly passes to leave a sense of deep emptiness which just grows and grows. What the crowd thought they most needed was physical nourishment; what Jesus was trying to get them to see was that there are deeper and greater needs even than food.
Of course the problem is, that if we take this passage too literally, we end up with a deeply unhealthy attitude – this passage, among others, can be seen to lead to what Rudolph Bell memorably and disturbingly called Holy Annorexia – the tendency, particularly but not exclusively among women, to fast to the point of death as a result of their Christian faith. This is not what Jesus means here: the sustenance that Jesus provides is not instead of normal food but over and beyond it. The nourishment that Jesus offers fills the hunger and thirst that lies deep down at the very core of many of our beings.
In a sense, the world in which we live is a living, breathing testimony to this fact. We have, in fact, invented long-life bread, and meat and vegetables, and fruit and almost any other nourishment we might hope to find. Technically it is no longer necessary for anyone to be malnourished – though it is the tragedy of our age that we have the means but not the capacity to ensure the nourishment of everyone.
Reading the Newspapers and watching the news this week, reinforces Jesus’ point. Even in these worrying, cash limited, financially concerning times, most people in Britain have enough food to eat and enough water to drink…and yet we find ourselves to be a nation of people malnourished by too much food, addicted to self-destructive life-styles, driven to borrow and spend far more than we can sustain. Statistics show that 20% of people will suffer depression at some point in their life. Now I’m not trying to suggest, in a facile and saccharine way, that Jesus will solve your problems and make you happy.
Instead, what I think that Jesus was trying to draw our attention to is this deeper question about nourishment. We, like the crowd that followed Jesus, seem to give so much of our attention to activities that cannot with the best will in the world fill the gnawing, nagging hungers deep within. To return to Barack Obama for a moment, in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, Obama talked about his time in Chicago as a community organiser and the importance of the task of helping people to work out what it is that they really need. I think that the genius of Obama is that he has not lost this skill and seems to be adept at drawing out what American society, and indeed the world as a whole, might need.
To those people gathered to welcome Obama this week, to the crowd who pursued Jesus with such passion, and to us here this evening two questions resound
– what is it that makes you achingly and yearningly hungry?
– what might fill your need?
Barack Obama is clear that he, alone cannot provide the world’s answers; Jesus did provide an answer, in the somewhat enigmatic words: ‘I am the bread of life’. What I believe he was pointing to here is that a life centred not on what we want or even think we need but on Jesus, the bread of life, in prayer, in worship, in community and in action, we will find – sometimes to our surprise – our deepest needs met, our yearnings fulfilled and our hunger satisfied.
Dr. Paula Gooder, Canon Theologian, Birmingham
25th January 2009