Today’s Old Testament reading is a text book example of how to care for people going through tough times.
The prophet Elijah has just had a showdown with the prophets of the Phoenician god Baal, and he should have been on a high, because he had won. But Queen Jezebel, who worshipped Baal was none too pleased about this turn of events, and was issuing death threats against him. Elijah had run for his life, out into the desert, where Jezebel wouldn’t be able to reach him.
And that is where we find him at the beginning of the reading, sunk in despair in the wilderness, wanting to die.
But God’s response is spot on – not just for Elijah, but for anyone else in a similar situation.
First, he lets Elijah say how he feels, there’s no judgement, no reproach, no cajoling from God. “ I am no better than my ancestors” Elijah howls “take away my life”. People often find it hard to cope with the distress of others. Friends will try to chivvy you up, or cross the road to avoid you if they know you are upset. But God isn’t scared of the despair Elijah feels – he lets him tell it like it is and just listens till he is done.
Then he makes sure Elijah’s physical needs are taken care of, letting him sleep, giving him food and water. No one deals well with trauma if they are tired, hungry and thirsty.
Then finally he tells him, via an angel, that he, God, has plans for Elijah. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Elijah has been talking about death, but the angel is talking about journeys. This is not the end of the road for Elijah, as he had assumed. There is a future, and he is going to be part of it. When we have no hope for ourselves, the hope and trust that others have in us becomes absolutely vital, helping us to lift our eyes from the ground and see a new horizon.
God gives Elijah food for the journey, not just in the form of a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water, but in the form of compassionate understanding and hope for the future. This is what gets him going again and keeps him going.
Food for the journey, food for those who hunger and thirst – that’s what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading too. He has just fed 5000 people miraculously with five loaves and two fishes, and the crowd come after him, hoping for a repeat performance – who wouldn’t? There is such a thing as a free lunch after all, it seems, and they want more of it. But Jesus tells them that the food they need isn’t just loaves and fishes. What he offers them is no less than himself, his own life. If they have that, they will never be hungry and thirsty again, no matter what happens. He reminds them of the food God gave for another journey in their history, the manna in the wilderness that he had given as they travelled from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Now, though, he gives them living bread, which doesn’t just keep them alive in body for a day or two, but gives them spiritual life that lasts for ever.
So, God feeds us with the food we really need, say these readings, and that is a pretty basic idea in Christian faith. People usually come to God initially because they are hungry for something, and they stick with faith because somehow they find it feeds and strengthens them. But what is it that we are being fed with? What is this food God gives us, and how do we take it in?
The most obvious “food” that Christians encounter is the bread and wine of the Eucharist – obvious because it looks and tastes like food, I suppose. But perhaps because of that there’s a danger we can end up thinking of it as some sort of magic, a “holy pill” which will automatically sustain us spiritually all by itself. That’s not the case, and thinking like that is a danger the Church has had to repeatedly rediscover and guard against. That’s why the sharing of bread and wine is set in the context of a service which includes things like confession and the Peace. We can’t be nourished by God if we are at loggerheads with each other and with him. We read the Bible and think about our faith too, so that we can understand what we are being strengthened for, and we finish with that injunction to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. The Eucharist makes us aware in a very real way of God’s presence with us, but if we treat the bread and wine as magic we actually reduce its power to change us rather than increasing it.
This kind of magical thinking horrified the Protestant reformers of the 16th Century. Their stripped down version of Christian faith was designed to remove anything that smacked of superstition.
I expect they would have been much more comfortable with the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, which put a different slant on what it means to eat the “living bread”.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He says. The Protestant Reformation was strong on the importance of individual belief. Salvation came by faith, through grace, not through rituals or works, they said. It was having personal faith which strengthened and sustained you – that was God’s food to you. But their approach can be just as misleading and sterile as the magical thinking they fought against.
It all comes down to what you mean by the word “believe”.
When we talk about beliefs today, we tend to mean the ideas we accept as true, the things we give intellectual assent to. It is all about what is going on in our heads. But the Greek word the Gospel writers used doesn’t mean that at all. They used the noun “pistis” and the related verb “pisteuo”, which meant “to have allegiance to, to be faithful to, to trust”. It was abouyt your whole life, and who you committed it to, not just your personal opinions about a particular set of ideas. Latin translators used the noun “fides”, which was all about faithfulness - it’s why we call dogs Fido, because they are faithful friends. And to translate the verb, to say “ I believe” they used “credo” which came from the two words “cor do” to give your heart, not the drier “opinor” “to have an opinion”. Even the English word “believe” originally had a different sense – it comes from the same root as beloved – it was about what you held dear, not what you thought was logically likely.
Sorry for the long winded explanation – you can ignore it if you want to – but the point is that the nourishment we get from faith doesn’t come from agreeing with a list of intellectual ideas; the idea that God created the world, the idea that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus and so on. It isn’t ticking philosophical boxes that feeds us; it is following the person who lived out the love of God most perfectly, Jesus himself. As we do so, we learn to trust that we can live as he lived, and that it is the way in which our hungers are truly satisfied.
If you want to know what that sort of faith looks like, today’s Epistle tells us. Paul talks about speaking the truth, not letting anger take root, behaving with integrity – day to day practical things. They may seem very mundane, but “You are what you eat,” they say. If you take in the attitudes and the ways of God and make them your own, you will find yourself growing into his image, sharing the likeness of his family, able not only to find strength for yourself, but strength to share with others too.
To go back to my original questions, “what is the food God gives us for our journey and how do we receive it?” we could answer that the food for the journey is actually the journey itself. It isn’t always easy to love others, or to resist the temptation to backbiting and dishonesty, but when we try to we are driven deeper into God, deeper into ourselves, hungry for the good food of his love and ready to draw on the resources he provides.
The odd thing about Elijah’s story, if I can end where I began, is that the journey God took him on seems, on the face of it, completely unnecessary. He was led, in the end to Mount Horeb, to an encounter with God. First there was an earthquake, then a wind, then a fire, but God wasn’t in any of these, the Bible says. Then there was a still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, depending what translation you read – anyway, something quiet and apparently undramatic – but it was in this that Elijah truly heard God’s voice, and his message for the future. There is no logical reason why Elijah had to traipse all the way to Horeb for this at all. God is everywhere, and he could have just as easily spoken to Elijah right there and then under the broom tree if he had wanted to. But somehow that journey was one Elijah needed to make, because each step of it made him aware once again of his need of God, and of God’s love for him.
How do we feed on the living bread of God? Yes, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, shared in the context of our worship together. Yes, in the stories of faith and the ideas of Christians who have thought about them before us. But the spiritual nutrients that these things contain will only truly be released in our lives as we begin to do what we are called to, to live in love, as Christ loved us.