The Bread of Life vs. What’s Eating Us

Proper 13B/Ordinary 18B/Pentecost 10
August
5, 2012

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Psalm 51: 1-12

John 6: 24-35

According to the most recent statistics, as a nation, we are eating ourselves to death.  Even if existing obesity rates level off, 42 percent of Americans will be obese and 11 percent will be severely obese by the year 2030, a new report from the US Centers for Disease Control predicts.  If these trends continue, it will cost the US $550 billion in increased health costs due to chronic – but preventable – ailments (Washington Post).  For a really eye-popping illustration of these trends, see the slide show at http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html/, which shows the incidence of obesity across the US in a color-coded map over time, from 1985 to 2010.

While the causes of individual obesity are complex (ranging from genetic to behavioral), as a society, we are treating food as a commodity, rather than as something sacred: “One contributing factor is the fact that the way we eat has changed over the last 50 years.  Americans are eating more processed foods and eating out a lot more frequently.  The foods that are offered in restaurants, snack shops, and in vending machines are higher in sugar, calories, and fat than what we typically prepare in our own homes.  We are surrounded by food.  We’re constantly bombarded by it.  We’re consuming larger portion sizes and more calories than ever before.  Another factor is that people who live in poor and rural communities may have less access to quality grocery stores that sell healthy and affordable options” (CDC, “The Obesity Epidemic“). 

“Loaves and Fishes,” John August Swanson, 2003

In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus is faced with a likewise food-obsessed population (although for very different reasons than ours).  In Jesus’ time, starvation was the concern of the day, particularly since the Jewish Palestinian peasants were being doubly-taxed – first by Rome, then by the Temple priests (who were controlled by Rome).  Farmers were losing their family lands in droves due to debt.  In the passage immediately preceding this week’s, Jesus performs the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes, speaking directly to His audience’s desperate need for food stability.  However, in this week’s reading, the same people who were fed by the miracle are still demanding a sign from Jesus!: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?  What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat'” (John 6:30-31).

Food is connected intimately to our deepest survival instincts.  Consequently, food carries a lot of psychological weight (so to speak).  It is connected with our deepest feelings of safety and contentment – or the lack thereof, if we were deprived at an early age.  Food is always about more than just feeding the body.  It is about feeling secure and provided for.  It is about feeling loved and complete.  If there is a “hole” in our hearts where there should be feelings of love and completeness, all the food (or drugs or alcohol) in the world will never be enough to make us feel full again.

As a culture, we have moved from a place where eating was a slow, communal, family activity – focused on the people around us – to where “fast food” is now grabbed “on the go” by individuals running to meet their next appointment or to get to work on time.  Home-cooked meals – which are likely to be more nutritious – are a luxury that no one has time for anymore.  Our lives and work are alienated, and our eating is as well.  The feeding of the multitude was about more than just shoving food in peoples’ mouths.  It was about the fact that, when we all take the time to sit down to eat together, we will always have more than enough.  We will always feel fulfilled.

“The Feeding of the Five Thousand”, John Reilly, 1958

When Jesus says to the always-hungry crowed ““I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (vv.35), He is not just talking about believing that that He is the Son of God in the literal sense.  He is talking about belief that He is the Messiah (from the Hebrew “maschiach“, meaning “Anointed One”), who has been anointed to usher in a new way of living with each other that ensures that the hungry are fed and the poor are provided for.  David Ewart points out that the Greek word for “believe” (pistaous) means more than just accepting an intellectual proposition: “The force of the language here is better translated as ‘believe into, embed yourself in, abide in, give your whole self in trust to, be in total solidarity with'” (Holy Textures).  If we are in complete solidarity with Jesus, then we live as He lived – not just as harried individuals running from one place to the next, but as members of a Holy family who abide in God and in community.  That is the bread of life.

So how are we to go about treating food differently, as though it is the “Bread of Life,” and not just another mouthful on the go?  Here are some suggestions:

1)  Pray (or meditate) over meals.  When we consume our food thoughtfully, prayerfully and mindfully (instead of just shoving it in), research shows that we are more likely to “feel” full and less likely to overeat.  It also connects us to feelings of gratitude and contentment, which reduce stress.

2)  Go to a farmer’s market.  Get to know the people who provide your daily bread.  Not only does it contribute to the local economy, but it will have you eating healthier, too.

3)  Try to eat in a group at least once a month.  Have a potluck with friends.  Take time to eat together as a family.  Cook a home-cooked meal and take the time to enjoy the company as well as the food.  You’ll be surprised at how quickly you fill full (and fulfilled).

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