john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    John 6: The famished craving and the bread of life

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 2/8/2009

    Ephesians 4.1-16 , John 6.24-35

    Over the past few weeks in our readings from the gospels we have been following Jesus as he made his way through the Galilean countryside preaching, teaching, healing. We have been following Jesus. And so have the crowds.

    Jesus can't get away from the crowds and neither can we. Hearing these gospel stories we see Jesus pursued by crowds of people, all wanting his attention, all wanting a piece of him. All wanting to touch his flesh, believing that would heal them. All holding their hands out, expecting him to feed them. In our mind's eye we picture the crowd hemming Jesus in, wanting more and more, giving him no time to himself, even to eat. They won't leave him alone. He tries to get away from them to recuperate. They just keep looking for him until they find him again.

    Here they are again, the crowd, in today's reading, searching for Jesus, who had escaped them for a while and crossed the lake. But the crowd got their boats out, and with their great numbers and their great craving to find him it wasn't long before they got to him again.

    We know that Jesus 'was moved with pity for [these crowds] because they were as sheep without a shepherd' (Mark 6:34), but they still wore him down. After a long day by the lakeside he felt harrassed to provide food for them; and in one of the most memorable actions of his entire ministry he produced enough bread and fish to feed five thousand. You'd have thought that this would have satisfied their hunger: but no, soon after, here they were again, looking for Jesus, wanting more.

    Maybe frustrated with their insatiable appetite for him Jesus said to 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."
    They ate their fill of the loaves he had given them, and immediately they were after him craving more. It's like the crowd had an eating disorder. A famished craving.

    The crowd had seen Jesus conjure food out of nowhere, and they wanted more of it. But it wasn't just about food, the crowd wanting more. The crowd had seen Jesus heal people, even without touching them, and they wanted more of that too. But it wasn't just about healing either, the crowd wanting more. They couldn't get enough of Jesus; their appetite for him was relentless; they were addicted; they were suffering a famished craving.

    A man called Gil Bailie coined that phrase, a famished craving. He says that in our society we all suffer it to some extent. He says that it isn't just about food, this famished craving, but it's a way of describing the way we crave the attention of others. This comes out especially when we think about our endless fascination with the famous.

    You'll remember me preaching last month about how the crowds treated Jesus in just the same way as we treat the famous people of our day like Michael Jackson, Michael Owen. Like the crowds who followed Jesus we follow these people endlessly - through the newspapers, through TV; we are fascinated by them; we want to have what they seem to give us. And when they go out of their way to give us something (a concert, a piece of music, a great sporting performance, bread and healing) - we are not satisfied for very long at all. We crave more from them. They impress us with something but soon it bores us - we crave a new thing from them. This craving keeps the newspapers in business constantly inventing new celebrity stories every day, feeding our fascination.

    That's what Gil Bailie means by our famished craving. It's a disorder which to some extent traps us all. And it's not just about the way we think about the famous. It's about the way we crave the attention of others around us too - the famished cravings we have for people close to us who we perhaps rely on too much to help us and fulfil us, people who we unhealthily depend on to do things for us, and even when they do those things for us we then very soon find ourselves asking them to do something more.
    John 6 shows us this very thing happening, as the crowd wavers between being impressed and being bored, craving a new sign. The crowd persistently seeks out Jesus and asks him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" This crowd "kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick." Then, they witness one of Jesus' greatest signs, his feeding of the five thousand, which they recognized as a sign. But still they keep coming, come looking for a sign. Talk about a famished craving! There is a big irony in this chapter of John: in the contrast between the crowd's famished craving and Jesus' ability to give bread that satisfies. [1]
    In their famished craving the crowd want more bread from him. They want a sign like the manna in the wilderness; They quote scripture at him to try to persuade him, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat." ' But Jesus wants them to understand that the bread that he gives is the bread that satisfies.
    John 6.32-34
    Then 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. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' They said to him, 'Sir, give us this bread always.'
    Now, we say in our prayers, 'Give us this day our daily bread'. And when we do that we know that means more than just asking God for food on the table. It also means asking God for food in our hearts, food for our minds, food for our souls.
    John 6.35
    Jesus said to [the crowds], 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
    We say in our prayers, 'Give us this day our daily bread'. And hearing Jesus say that the crowds knew that he meant more than just offering them food for the table. It also meant offering them food in their hearts, food for their minds, food for their souls.
    Jesus knows that the only food which will cure our famished craving is the food he offers. Jesus knows that to become fully human, fulfilled in their life, a person must have faith in him who can help us be healed of our famished craving for others, and instead to be fulfilled in him. What truly enables us to be fully human, fulfilled, people is this: having faith in the One who is the ground of our Being. [2]
    Now this connects with what Paul is talking about in Ephesians when he urges the believers to come to maturity in Christ. He says that our aim as Christians must be to:
    Ephesians 4.13-14
    ... come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
    It seems to me that if our heads and hearts are full of famished cravings - with those we think can fulfil us, those we think can save us, then we are likely to be like children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine. A lot of Christians, sadly, are like this - relying on the next new project, the next new mission, the next exciting new Christian song or book or dvd, the new vicar or new leader, or new kind of worship service or new community project, to keep their faith alive.

    But Paul's concern is that we should become mature Christians - that we become fully human in Christ. And this means putting away our famished cravings with these sorts of people and things, and instead feeding ourselves with the bread of life, learning to give our heads and hearts over to Jesus and to him alone.

    We need each other's help in this. Paul tells us how important it is that we encourage each other in that challenge of growing in Christian maturity. Now it is clearly true that Christian songs or books or dvds, that vicar or other leaders, that worship services or community projects, all help is to grow in our faith.
    But what also helps us to grow as members of the same body - the Body of Christ, the church, is when we accept the challenges of our brothers and sisters in Christ, about our attitudes and behaviour, about the things which are important to us, about the things which fill our heads and our hearts. Paul says that,
    Ephesians 4.15-16
    ... speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
    How dare I talk to a room full of mature adults about the need to grow up into maturity? Well, only because I can see the need for that in my own life.

    Only because I know that all too often I am motivated less by a faith in the liberating Jesus and more by a famished craving for other people and things which will ultimately never fulfil me.

    Only because I know that all too often my diet is unedifying, and that if only I could eat more of the bread of life I'd be filled, I'd be fulfilled, my cravings would fade and faith would make me whole. God help us all - whatever our maturity in years - to keep growing in our maturity in Christ, and enjoy all that goes with it. God help us to keep encouraging each other in our growth to maturity in Christ.

    [1] and [2] These sections adapted from Paul Nuechterlein's Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, PROPER 13 (July 31-Aug. 6) -- YEAR B which rely especially on Gil Bailie's audio tape series, "The Famished Craving: The Attention of Others, the Fascination for the Famous, and the Need for Faith". This in turn reflects on T.S. Eliot's poem "Gerontion", in which which the poet writes,
    And what [History] gives, gives with such supple confusions
    That the giving famishes the craving....