Today’s sermon at North Presbyterian Church.
Think about your favorite food.
For me, it’s pasta (in all its glorious varieties: shells, bowties, linguine, angel hair, spaghetti, penne, rotini…). And it goes with almost any flavor (meat – chicken, steak, bacon, shellfish; vegetables; sauces – pesto, alfredo, tomato; nationalities – Italian, Asian). Pasta is my ultimate comfort food. It’s carbalicious!
When we think about food and why we eat it, the first and most obvious answer is that we crave sustenance. Our bodies need food in order to stay alive, but that’s not the only reason why we eat. Think about your favorite food again. When do you crave it? When you eat your favorite food, is it simply a matter of biological survival or is there another reason? Dry bread and water can fill our stomachs and keep us from starving to death, but comfort food feeds something else inside us: the hunger for pleasure. So, there’s more than one kind of hunger (and more than one way to satisfy it).
Some people are said to be ‘starving for attention’ and will sometimes resort to ridiculous or destructive behaviors in an effort to satisfy that need.
Poverty is a kind of hunger. The lack (or perceived lack) of access to material resources drives much of our consumer economy. For that, we have money that can buy us anything we need or want, from pancakes to politicians.
Ignorance is a kind of hunger. For that, we have information: loads and loads of information (some of it more reliable than the rest). At this particular moment in history, we have terabytes of raw data pouring down through the information superhighway at every moment of the day or night. You’ve got questions; Google’s got answers (but not necessarily good or right answers).
Loneliness is hunger. For that, people seek out all kinds of connection with each other in the form of real or simulated intimacy.
Boredom is hunger. For that, we have an endless supply of entertainment available 24 hours a day. If you don’t like what’s on one channel, or station, or website, you can just push a button and find something else that you do like.
Pain is another kind of hunger. We might not think of it as such, but those who live with chronic physical or psychological pain often describe it as a kind of gnawing, hollow emptiness that never goes away. People in pain are hungry for relief. This is a particular hunger that I encountered time and time again when I worked as a substance-abuse counselor. Most, if not all, of the recovering addicts I worked with used their drug(s) of choice as way to numb the pain they lived with. The insidious thing in this case is that the cure is often worse than the disease. The drugs they took to numb the pain ended up causing even more suffering, which drove them to seek out even more drugs, which caused even more pain… etc.
These are just a few examples of the different species of hunger that human beings experience. If we kept going, I’m sure we could name even more. And it seems like the world has some kind of product or service to offer us for every imaginable hunger of body or mind. Of all the cultures that have existed in every time and place of human history, the one we live in prides itself in being able to satisfy every whim and desire of its inhabitants. Compared to our ancestors (or to fellow humans in other parts of the world today), we live in the very lap of luxury. Even our pets live more comfortably than humans in other times and places. By all rights, we should lack for nothing.
However, that’s simply not the case. Our society has ample food, water, clothing, medicine, information, entertainment, drugs, and sex. But are we happy? Have our hungers been satisfied? No, they have not.
In fact, the great irony is that those who possess most of the aforementioned resources seem to be the most miserable of all. Nothing is ever good enough, big enough, fast enough, or pleasurable enough to finally fill that internal void they feel. Ask any investment banker: How much money is enough? Just a little bit more…
There is another kind of hunger, one that can’t be filled by any of the products or services offered in the marketplace. A famous philosopher named Blaise Pascal described such a hunger like this:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
Some, paraphrasing Pascal, have described this hunger as “a God-shaped hole” deep within the heart of every human being. Nothing else can fill it, except God and God alone. It is a spiritual hunger that cannot be satisfied by any of the products or services offered by our capitalistic society.
This is the hunger that Jesus is hinting at in today’s gospel reading when he tells us:
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Humanity’s deepest hunger is for God and Jesus offers us himself as the food we crave.
What we Christians believe about Jesus is that he is the incarnation (i.e. “embodiment”) of everything that is Divine. In the person of Jesus Christ, humanity and divinity are joined together. This is one of the things that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world: we find our connection with God, not in a sacred book or a series of devotional exercises, but in a person. And it is in this person, Christ, that we find the deepest of hungers being satisfied.
There are two ways in which Jesus satisfies our spiritual hunger: as our Chef and as our Meal.
Jesus is our Chef in the Church’s ministry of the Word. He prepares and presents that which will satisfy our hunger. Our spiritual food comes from him. The Scriptures are the menu from which he draws our sustenance. The only difference is that we don’t get to pick and choose what we will order. Chef Jesus decides what’s for dinner. Our only choice is whether we will eat what he offers. We can leave this gourmet meal untouched on our plate if we so choose, but we will walk away still hungry. Similarly, we can skip the main course and gorge ourselves on dessert, but a diet of nothing but sweets will make us simultaneously fat and malnourished. A balanced spiritual diet means that we take from the Scriptures, not just what we want to hear, but what we need to hear (whether it tastes good or not).
Jesus is our Meal in the Church’s ministry of Sacrament. The Chef becomes the Meal in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says it a little differently when it describes Jesus as both the priest who offers the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself, which is offered. Jesus says this quite explicitly in today’s gospel when he tells us that “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” In some mysterious way, the Chef is also the Meal.
We Protestants have done a very good job of recovering the ministry of the Word in the life of the Church. We have translated the Scriptures into languages that people can understand. We have placed the Bible into the hands of every believer, saying, “Take and read! These are the words of eternal life!” This is a good and necessary thing.
But we have not done so well when it comes to the ministry of Sacrament. The Eucharist has been too long neglected as a means of grace on par with the Scriptures. Too many of our churches treat it as an afterthought: a mere remembrance of past events, to be celebrated only occasionally and infrequently.
We have become like restaurant critics, who read the menu and study the recipes without ever actually tasting the food ourselves. John Calvin, the founder of our Reformed tradition, in his most famous book, warns us:
“as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what He has received from the Father, He had to become ours and to dwell within us.”
It is not enough that we know about Christ in the Scriptures; we must also come to know Christ intimately in the Sacraments. Christ dwells within us by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit as we receive his Body and Blood into our own bodies and bloodstreams.
If you’re here this morning and you find yourself still hungry inside after tasting everything the world has to offer, then you’ve come to the right place. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
Come to the Table; Come to Christ. Receive into your hands and hearts the One who is both Chef and Meal, both Priest and Sacrifice. Heed the invitation of the psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
As it says in the Book of Common Prayer: the bread and wine of the Eucharist are “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”