So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus 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.
– John 6:24-35
“You are what you eat” was a popular saying in the 1960s. It was the title of a book published in 1940. But the origin and truth of this statement go much further and deeper. In 1863 the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “Man is what he eats.” Before him a Frenchman named Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” And before that a first century Jew named Jesus said, “Eat perishable food and you will die. Eat food that endures and you will have eternal life,” or words to that effect. What we take in, the way in which we nourish ourselves, determines our health and well being not only physically but emotionally, and spiritually. Ultimately, it determines whether we are alive or dead.
“You are what you eat” is not simply about the food on our plates. It is a deeply religious idea. Hunger is not merely a physical condition. Hunger is first of all a spiritual state and at its deepest reality it is hunger for God. Human beings are by nature hungry. We eat in order to live. Behind all our hungers, desires, and longings is our desire for God. That desire, however, does not originate in us. Rather, it is actually a response to God’s desire for us. There exists between God and humanity a mutual longing and desire – a hunger for one another.
God creates humanity to be hungry and then offers to satisfy that hunger with God’s own life and attributes. That is the food that endures, the bread come down from heaven that gives life to the world. It is the bread of joy, peace, humility, surrender, unity, beauty, generosity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, wisdom, truth, faith, hope, love. This is the bread that satisfies. This is the bread of life embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. We take him into our selves in order that we might become him. After all, we are what we eat.
Sometimes, however, we settle for the illusion of being full rather than seeking the reality of divine presence, the reality of satisfaction. That is what the crowd in today’s gospel is seeking. Like them we often search for food that perishes instead of food that endures. Just one day ago they ate their fill of bread and fish. Five loaves and two fish filled 5000 people. Today they are back for more. They ate the fish and bread but missed the divine presence so abundantly before them. “Do not work for the food that perishes but for food that endures to eternal life,” Jesus tells them. Unless they change their appetite they will return empty tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that….
I suspect most of us know what that is like – the emptiness, restlessness, and hunger that never go away – the continual searching day after day. We eat, become full, but are never really satisfied. More often than not, in those times, we have eaten the food that perishes. We have eaten the bread of fear, sorrow, loss, judgment, anger, resentment, arrogance, lies, self-doubt, ego, false-pride, self-hatred, regret, power, control. And we are left empty.
Everyday we choose the food we will eat. Everyday we choose the food we will feed others – our friends and families, those in need, strangers, our enemies, the world, even the church. This choice is not a simple process. There seems to be something in us that wants both the bread that endures and the bread that perishes. In all honesty I know there are times I would like to grab a loaf of anger and go whack someone and there have been times when I have sat alone eating the bread of self-pity. And I also know this. That food has left me emptier than before I ate of it.
So the battle goes on within us – the battle between our hunger for food that endures and our hunger for food that perishes. It truly is a matter of life and death. A parable from the Native American tradition summarizes well this battle and its significance.
An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.”
“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.”
“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”