Reordering your spiritual appetite
by Jim Van Yperen
If your physical life depended upon your spiritual diet, would you thrive, or starve to death? That is, if your basic food were not bread and water, but word, worship and prayer, would you enjoy feast, or suffer famine?
Reading through the Gospel of John, I’m struck with how frequently Jesus talks about basic food staples—bread, wine and water—as metaphor for spiritual health. “I am the bread of Life,” Jesus declares, “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” This statement begs questions about appetite and diet. Where is my desire? What do I hunger and thirst for? Am I seeking righteousness,[i] or some spiritual junk food, or worse, spiritual poison? Is my desire forming me toward life in Christ, or something else?
John’s Gospel describes key events around three Passover celebrations[ii]; three stories about hungering for superficial food versus spiritual food that lasts. These Passover feasts[iii] serve as markers, opening up the reality of Jesus’ character and purpose in His journey to the cross and a calling for you and me to stop our hunger games and to re-order our spiritual diet.
Before the first Passover, John takes us to a wedding, “On the third day.”[iv] Building off the Creator, “Logos” in chapter one, John recalls one image and forecasts another. Looking back to the third day of Creation, God provides food, the sustenance for life, “Let the earth produce vegetation, seed bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit.”[v] Looking ahead, John hints at the third day after the crucifixion when Jesus will be raised from the tomb. First Creation moves to New Creation. Then, with a wedding metaphor, John recalls the union of man and wife,[vi] and pre-figures a wedding supper at the Revelation, with Jesus and His Bride, the Church.
The story, of course, is about a party that has run out of wine. Jesus is summoned to help, turning 120 gallons of water into new wine. But this is not just any water. The water came from six stone jars meant for ritual cleansing, water that prepared people to offer right sacrifice. Thus, the wedding in Cana is a marker that points to the redeeming blood and cleansing work of Christ on the cross—spiritual drink for the believer.
In chapter four of John’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples pass through Samaria, stopping near a well to rest. It was noon. Jesus was hungry so he sent his disciples into town for food. Meanwhile, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Lacking a cup to dip into the well, Jesus asks the woman for a drink.[vii]
“You, a Jew, would drink from the cup of a Samaritan woman!” the woman exclaims. (No orthodox Jew would associate with a Samaritan.)
The conversation turns to specific kind of water—living water—the spiritual water that forever quenches thirst; a spring inside you that never stops welling up, a spiritual drink. With a few words, Jesus tells the woman “everything I ever did.”[viii] Now the conversation moves to worship and a question about where to worship. “Not where, but how,” Jesus responds. Just then the disciples return and the woman leaves. The disciples urge Jesus to eat. But he responds, ”My food is to do the will of my Father,” words that will be echoed again with agony in Gethsemane.
The events of the first Passover lead me to ask, “What am I consuming?” or “What am I hungry and thirsty for?” Am I listening, waiting for and seeking God’s will? Is God’s Word powerful to read and interpret me? Or, do I insist on hearing what I want to hear? Is communal worship a sacred practice—the lifeblood of New Creation—where God’s Spirit is present in truth? Or, do I come to church to have my needs met? Do I want to be confronted with my disordered appetites in light of a holy God?
The second Passover feast finds Jesus sitting on a mountain with a great crowd of people approaching. Jesus foresees a party. He asks his disciples, “Where shall we buy food for these people?”[ix] Philip calculates it would take eight months wages to buy enough food. Then Andrew speaks up, “There is a boy here with some barley loaves and few fish.” The crowd is invited to sit down. Jesus takes the bread and prays, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, who causest to come forth bread from the earth.” Jesus distributed the bread and fish, with all being fed to their full.
Then John writes about the appetite of the people. Seeing the miracle of feeding 5,000, the people began to call Jesus a “Prophet” and immediately want to make Jesus King. But, knowing their intent, and what the true cost of Messiahship will be, Jesus slipped away.
How quickly human emotions change! The next day, the topic of bread is brought up again. But this time, no crowd wants to declare Jesus King. Instead they want him to prove he is real. Apocryphal writings predicted that the Messiah, when he came, would repeat the miracle of Moses in the wilderness, calling down manna from heaven. Now, multiplying barley bread was not enough. “If Jesus was a prophet, let him bring down bread from heaven!”
“I am the Bread of Life” Jesus responds, and the crowd begins to grumble! (Just as the Israelites grumbled against Moses in the wilderness.) “I am the bread of life,” Jesus repeats. “Your forefathers ate the manna in heaven, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world . . .”
“This is a hard teaching,” the people said, “Who can accept it?”
The crowd was hungry for power. They wanted a King who would set up rule and conquer enemies. They wanted control through violence or escape. In the Jesus’ story, there is no King without a cross, no glory without sacrifice, no right before suffering wrong.
This causes me to wonder, “Have I made the difficult too easy?” When I come to the communion table do I recognize the deep meaning of what I am doing—eating flesh and drinking blood? Is my appetite truly for sacrifice—His and mine—taking to heart Jesus’ words “ “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me[x]. . . And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.[xi]”
James K.A. Smith[xii] suggests that I am what I love, and I think he is right. That is, our ultimate desire is what shapes the kind of people we become. So, we need to ask ourselves, “What do I love or desire the most?” No, not what I’m supposed to say that I love, but what my thoughts and actions actually prove to be my love. What occupies my worries, thoughts and practices in any given day? Think about it. How much time do we give toward meeting self-fulfilling appetites: for control, love, money, pride, prestige, sex, success and so on? To answer honestly, is to be embarrassed. Worse, these thoughts and habits are not neutral. Some of us are consuming a steady diet of poison—unforgiveness, bitterness, doubt—leading us into spiritual decay. Smith’s point is that these practices are shaping us toward desires that cannot fulfill and ultimately turn our heart away from the Creator God. This is why worship, prayer, hospitality, discipleship and witness are so vital—to reorder our disordered desires back to God.
God does not want to modify our behavior. He wants to transform our desire.
And so we come to the final Passover. Jesus is with His closest friends. He washes their feet and fills their minds with a way of life they cannot, and will not; understand until the Holy Spirit reminds them. Curiously, John writes nothing of a meal, except to say that it was being served.[xiii] Instead, he speaks of love and attachment to the Father, like a vine, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then he prays—for Himself, for the disciples present and for you and me, that we would be one. John relates the events of that terrible night and three long days. Just before his death John records the words of Jesus, “I am thirsty,” and “It is finished.” The One who is an everlasting well became dry for us that we may never thirst.
Fittingly, John ends his Gospel with another story about a meal. The disciples are out fishing all night without a catch. Jesus calls from shore and suggests they throw the net one more time on the other side. The net is full and they recognize it is the Lord. When they come to shore, Jesus has prepared a charcoal “with fish on it, and some bread.” When they came to breakfast, Jesus took the bread and gave it to them. Jesus was recognized in the breaking of the bread, then and now, for He is the Bread of Life.
How has Jesus reordered your desire? If your physical life depended upon your spiritual diet, would you thrive, or starve to death?
Jim Van Yperen
[i] Matthew 5:6
[ii] The Synoptic gospels speak of just one Passover, in the last week of Jesus’ life.
[iii] The first Passover is at the cleansing of the Temple (2:13); the second Passover is near the feeding of the 5,000, (6:4); and the last Passover with Jesus meeting His disciples in the Upper Room (chs. 13-18).
[iv] John 2:1
[v] Genesis 1:11
[vi] Genesis 2:24
[vii] Likely, with the disciples having left for town, Jesus had no utensil to draw water for himself.
[viii] John 4:39
[ix] John 6:1-15
[x] Luke 9:23
[xi] Luke 14:27
[xii] Page 131, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, James K.A, Smith, Baker Academic, 2009. Many of the thoughts developed in this article spring from the concepts in this great book.