When serving a meal, the host with the fewest material resources will ask if her guests have had enough to eat…
And so we come now to week’s Gospel lesson where we hear Jesus speak of being the ‘bread of life’ and his promise that ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ And while it is true that given my lack of experience (and that of most of my listeners this Sunday) with actual physical hunger, I am tempted to extrapolate this to all those sorts of hunger which I have known: hunger for recognition, for acceptance, for healing, for hope… and yes, of course, that would also be true. Jesus, no doubt, is speaking of those hungers as well. Even so, I’m going to start where Jesus does where his first listeners understood him well. With physical hunger.
Mazen Aziz, representing Egypt in the 2012 Summer Olympics, has trained for the 10,000 meter, open water swim for years. It’s a grueling race that can take upwards of 1 hour and 45 minutes, depending on the waves, current, or water temperature. But Aziz is Muslim, and with the Olympics falling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the 22-year-old athlete had to make a choice: be in top physical condition or maintain a primary tenet of his faith.
It turns out the authorities in Egypt have given Aziz a way out, that he can postpone his fast, just as Muslims who are sick or pregnant can. This won’t be true for all Muslim athletes, however. Others will have to make a much more difficult choice.
Indeed, for many the dilemma boils down to this. As Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who serves at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia, explains it, “Do I starve my body and feed my soul? Or in this month, do I starve my soul to feed my body, and my appetite for Olympic gold?” (for the whole story click here.)
Now it seems to me that understanding is not so different from the one Jesus offers now when he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
So I’m thinking now of turning my attention to the whole ancient discipline of fasting. To try it on and consider what it may teach me about hunger. Maybe this will mean fasting in ways I have not yet. Perhaps it will mean simply paying attention when I wake in the morning to the hunger I always feel before breaking that daily fast. It could be that even that would help me go deeper in my understanding of what it is to hunger for the things that matter, the food that endures, the food that is Christ’s love and power and forgiveness and hope.
- What do you think Jesus is getting at when he speaks of ‘working for the food that endures?’ Does the comparison to Muslim athletes needing to make a choice between feeding one’s soul or one’s body work? Why or why not?
- Have you ever known hunger? If so, how do you think you hear Jesus’ words today differently as a result of your experience? If not, how do you hear Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel?
- What disciplines help you keep in touch with your hunger for the ‘food that endures?’ Do you fast? How do you pray? What role does regular worship play in this for you? (And for those of us who are regular leaders of worship, how does that work for you?)