Comfort food, survival food, banquet food
When I was attending the pre-Israel Pilgrimage seminar in Ohio this past week along with 19 other pastors, somehow the discussion meandered to the topic of comfort
food. It may have been influenced by the fact that we were, at that moment, sitting in the Cheesecake Factory. “Pasta – anything with pasta!” was one opinion. Pizza was mine – with decent sauce and plenty of cheese. Comfort food is for when you are hungry – not necessarily for food – but hungry deep down – and food seems to be the next-best-thing.
Comfort food is different from survival food. If you are in a position of needing survival food, you will probably eat anything that is edible – and your body will use it to keep you going. If you are eating survival food, it does not matter how it is seasoned, whether it is hot, or even if you like it. Survival food is about keeping life going for one more day.
Banquet food is something altogether different. Banquet food is meant to be rich and complex; from succulent hors d’oeuvre all the way to a sumptuous desert, the point is to overwhelm your senses with delight.
3 Foods, 3 States of being
Those three different ways of thinking of and using food represent, for me, three corresponding states of being. Comfort food is what I think about when something has gone wrong, or at least contrary to my plan for the world. It’s for times of stress and anxiety, times of uncertainty and concern – perhaps times of illness or loss.
Survival food corresponds to times of darkness, the valley of the shadow of death; times when despair has swallowed hope, when the boat I’m in feels like it’s sinking; when depression has stamped all the joy out of life; when doubt has made a mockery of everything that formerly felt so certain.
Banquet food is all about hopes and dreams for the future – the banquet at the end of time – a time when the wrongs have been righted, the injustices overcome, the battles won, when the lion and lamb lie down together in peace, plenty and security. The perfect banquet is about a vision of life as it could be, or should be, and one day will be.
I wonder which of these three kinds of food you are looking for today? Where is your hunger? Is it for comfort and reassurance because this is a difficult time? Is it worse than that; is is for survival – for hanging on for one more day? Or is it for hope to be restored, for a future you can believe in? I believe that we all have hungry hearts; let’s look at this text before us.
Jesus’ audacious claim
We begin with Jesus’ audacious claim:
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
What could this possibly mean, and how could it ever be true?
The word “bread” can mean both bread and food in general; the text we read today exploits that wide range of possibilities. In the days of Jesus, and in fact all the way until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived at the bare subsistence level.
For the people Jesus was talking to, literal bread comprised at least half of their daily intake of calories. Bread was survival food; remove it and life is threatened. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he was saying something very fundamental. “Jesus is the sustenance of life at its most basic level.”
The hungry people of Jesus’ day were not exactly tripping over themselves to get in the serving line just because Jesus said that; they were (justifiably?) skeptical:
41 Then the Judeans began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Complaints from the Wilderness
Jesus responded deliberately in a way that made their present situation an echo of another time in the past.
43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.
The word “complain” is the same word as “grumble” – it is the word that became the defining characteristic of the Israelites in the wilderness. They complained to Moses – about the lack of water, about the lack of bread – and even about the manna that they grew weary of – even survival food can get boring.
By using this word, Jesus was linking the two situations: the people of his time, with the Israelites in the wilderness. I think we can make the link to our times as well; hunger can make a person ouchy – my family knows this of me. Hungry people are not happy people. Hungry hearts make for hurting people.
The Patron sends the broker to the clients
Jesus then responds to these grumbling, hungry people in a way that seems at first, odd:
44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.
The basis of the complaint against Jesus was simple: “we know who you are – and there is no way you can be the solution to our deepest hunger.” Jesus’ answer is that he is more than what he seems. He is in fact a person who has been sent to meet their needs.
In Jesus’ day, everyone was socially networked in ways far more profound than Facebook friendships. The social networks of Jesus’ day involved wealthy Patron families who had numerous poor clients who depended on them for day-labor employment and protection. Often there were brokers for the patrons who were sent to do the patron’s will among the hungry clients. Jesus was saying: “I’m not just a local boy, I’m the broker here. God, the ultimate Patron of all good gifts has “sent” me to satisfy your hunger.”
So how is this hunger going to be satisfied? This is where the many meanings of that word “bread” come it, and so does the link to the Israelites in the wilderness. It was their habit to refer to Moses as the source of their daily manna. “Moses,” they would say, “fed us with bread in the wilderness – the bread that came down from on high.”
Moses was also considered the source of another “bread” that fed them as well – the bread of torah – the scriptures. Moses came down from the heights of the mountain bearing the torah – the law – which was meant to be God’s way of feeding his people spiritually.
Jesus first corrects the perception that these two kinds of food, manna and torah, came from Moses – Moses was not the Patron of these gifts, God was; Moses was just the broker. Now, Jesus is saying, he is the new broker of God’s feeding – he is the one whose teaching the people should hear. In fact, this fulfills what the prophets had predicted:
45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
So what is this new teaching that will be the bread for the people – the food they most hunger for to satisfy their deepest needs? Jesus continues:
47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”
Jesus is our bread – practically
This is the heart of our faith: that Jesus himself is what we need to satisfy the deepest hunger we have. Whether we are in need of comfort food because we are hungry for some certainty in troubled times, or whether we need survival food to get us through to tomorrow because we are in the darkness, or whether we need the banquet, our hope that this whole thing has a meaning and is going somewhere – Jesus is the solution.
This is not just theoretically or mystically true, this is a concrete reality. Jesus feeds us by teaching us that God is as hungry to be with us as we are hungry to know him; that God is our loving, caring Father in heaven who knows our needs even before we ask, and who invites us to come to him as children. He is there for us when we need his comforting assurance, he is with us through the darkest night, and he is there to vouchsafe our future as both source and destination.
Jesus is our bread because learning his lifestyle fills all kinds of voids and empty spaces in our hearts. A life focused on ourselves would leave us empty – in fact starving spiritually. But the Jesus-life, the life lived for others, in ministry to one another and service to people in need, the life spent giving instead of vacuously accumulating, offering instead of hoarding, sharing instead of protecting – that kind of life feeds our hungry hearts.
Jesus is our bread because through him we commune with God, alongside sisters and brothers from every tribe, every race, every nation and every language, united in the one Body of Christ.
As Bernard of Clairvaux said back in the 12th century:
We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.