I wonder when you last felt really hungry? I remember the first time I went on a retreat after becoming a vegan. The elderly catholic nuns who did the cooking were lovely, but not very clued up about nutrition. The first night the standard option was quiche and chips. I was dismayed to find the vegan alternative to the quiche was a little plate of cooked carrots. I was hungry all weekend – I had plenty of food, but very little protein. I needed something like lentils with sufficient protein to stop me from being hungry, cold and without energy. I learnt my lesson and now I never travel without protein bars.
Because hunger is not always about the quantity of food – it’s often about the nutrients. That’s why in relatively affluent countries like ours and the USA the poorest people are often overweight – cheap white bread and sugary biscuits lead to blood sugar spikes followed by dips leading to a cycle of being always hungry. However much you eat of the wrong things it won’t feel like enough.
When Jesus says that he is the bread of life he promises that those who come to him will never be hungry again. The bread of life satisfies. People hunger after many different things – material goods, pleasure, status – I could go on and on. But none of those things are actually satisfying. When we try to fill the void within us with anything but the bread of life, our hunger comes back, and we are stuck in a cycle of chasing satisfaction and never finding it. In the words of Isaiah “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good”. We will always feel empty until we eat the bread that Jesus offers us.
Thirst is another matter. Most people can survive 3 weeks without eating, but only 3 days without water. Thirst is an urgent need, and although we need a diversity of food, generally water is the only thing we need to stop feeling thirsty. If spiritual hunger is about feeling dissatisfied with life, spiritual thirst is about the need for God now, this instant. We recognise it when it is quenched – beautiful words from the Bible or a favourite hymn can go straight to heart, and we know that we are in the presence of God. With practice, even stopping to focus on our breathing for a moment can remind us of the love and joy that surrounds us. We feel like we have drunk a long cool glass of water. For many people the hymn sums it up: “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you”.
The amazing thing is that the food that satisfies and the water that quenches thirst are available to everyone. God has no favourites. Jesus said, “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away”.
But the first words of today’s reading from Acts are chilling. “And Saul approved of their killing him”. You can’t get much worse than that. Saul was an educated man with a good upbringing, yet he encouraged the mob to stone the apostle Stephen to death when his only offence was preaching the word of God. Saul committed the ultimate sin of claiming that an evil act was the will of God. He didn’t commit the violence himself, but motivated others to hate crimes. Think Northern Ireland during the troubles, or the Taliban today. The people who incite hatred. Yet Saul became known as St Paul after his dramatic conversion. He ate of the living bread and drank of the water of life. I will quote his words in a few minutes: “The bread which we break, is it not a sharing of the body of Christ”.
Jesus’ promise to every one of us is ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. The only condition for receiving the gift is to come with empty hands. And to take our seat next to all the other children of God, from every possible background, who might not be quite as respectable as we would like.