“The Choice Before Us is Stark.” – Dennis Ormseth
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 31 – August 6, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78: 23-29
Ephesians 4: 1-16
John 6: 24-35
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” John 6:27. “Food that perishes,” “food that endures” or more simply, as Raymond Brown translates this favorite verb of John, “food that lasts”: What is the meaning of this distinction? The verb is menein, meaning to remain, abide, stay, or dwell on. John likes to use the verb menein, Brown points out, “to express the permanency of relationship between Father and Son and between Son and Christian.” The word designates the “indwelling” that “is the essential constitutive principle of all Christian life” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII. New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 510- 11). The usage modifying food is so striking precisely because as we know food, at least from a strictly physiological point of view, all of it perishes. By its very nature as that which fuels life in a biological system, it does not remain what it is. Norman Wirzba explains, citing Leon Kass’ careful analysis of the activity of eating:
. . . nourishing is “the activity of self-renewal as well as self-fueling, self-maintenance, self-healing, and self-maturation. Its essence: the transformation of materials, from other to selfsame, by the organism itself . . . to preserve and to serve the organism as a living, performing whole.” The eating self retains its form or distinctness by destroying the identity of what is eaten. Eating, in other words, absorbs the other into me. Though another’s materiality temporarily persists in my materiality, its “form,” that which makes it distinct and different from me, no longer exists. The absorption of another’s form into my being introduces us to one of the great paradoxes of eating: to preserve the form of my life, the form of another’s life must end. “Eating is at once form preserving and form deforming. What was distinct and whole gets broken down and homogenized, in order to preserve the distinctness and wholeness of the feeder.”
Thus, comments Wirzba, “viewed physiologically, we do not really abide with our food because in the eating of it we also destroy it” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 156. The quotation is from Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 31).
What then are we to make of the notion of a “food that lasts,” or better, a food with which we can indeed “abide,” not in the sense of a temporarily shared materiality, but a permanent, mutual abiding, “’for eternal life”? The distinction between perishing and abiding foods clearly has to do, not with the food as such, but rather with the eating of the food. Reading the sixth chapter of John with its feeding of five thousand and the related recollection of Israel’s eating of manna in the wilderness, Wirzba explains, we see that there are actually “two forms of eating:”
There is the kind of eating in which another is absorbed into me so that I can live. We can call this ‘natural’ or physiological eating because it is the eating that all living creatures do to maintain their existence. It correlates with manna and bread, the material stuff that meets a nutritional need. But there is also the kind of eating in which the other is not simply absorbed by me. Rather than absorbing others I remember and thus host them, invite and welcome them to enter into my affective and moral imagination, and so am transformed from within. With this kind of eating I am inspired, corrected, and nourished by the other without the other being completely destroyed (Wirzba, p. 157).
It is this second eating, then, that John has in mind when Jesus identifies himself as “the bread of God” that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” In this case, the “other, that is, Jesus, continues to live on in me not as de-formed matter but as food that in-forms and re-forms life from the inside. This is eating founded on mutual abiding.” Describing this abiding as “participation,” Wirzba suggests, avoids the connotation of an absorption that would signal the end of the relationship: “Jesus abiding in us does not mean that he ceases to be. Instead, he becomes the destabilizing presence within who can put personal desire and agency on a new path” (Ibid.).
What precisely is the relationship between these two kinds of eating, if any? Are they entirely separate or even opposed to each other? Or can they occur concurrently and in some way interactively? The question has obvious relevance to the Eucharistic practice of the church, in which both kinds of eating occur simultaneously; we will explore that aspect of the question in our comments on the more explicitly Eucharistic sections of the Bread of Life discourse (John 6: 35-59). Here we are concerned more generally with the relevance of the distinction for the care of creation.
In the exchange between Jesus and those who have pursued him all the way around the Sea of Galilee, the distinction between the two kinds of eating is subject of an extended discourse. Their eating, Jesus understands, was of the first kind, important for them only because they had “eaten their fill of the loaves.” They should, he tells them, instead seek “food that endures for eternal life.” When they respond with the reminder that Moses had given them “bread from heaven,” he corrects their recollection in two ways: first, the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness was the gift, not of Moses, but of Jesus’ Father. Interestingly, that is the very point emphasized by the selection of verses for our first reading from Exodus 16, which ends after the people see the manna on the ground and ask, “What is it?”, with Moses’ answer, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (v. 15, emphasis ours). But secondly, what was given by God then God gives also now. Their pursuit of him, however, showed Jesus that they had not truly participated in terms of the second kind of eating. Like the Israelites who continued in bondage under the ethos of empire in spite of their liberation, they, too, were concerned only to “eat their fill.”
The exchange thus opens up a greater scope of consideration with respect to the significance of these texts for care of creation. The story of manna in the wilderness is part of the great narrative of the exodus of the people from Egypt. Whether or not Raymond Brown is correct in suggesting that John has brought the story of the feeding into the observance of Passover for precisely this reason (see Brown, p. 245), the juxtaposition of this text with our Gospel reading is powerfully illuminating, placing as it does the meaning of this “essential constitutive principle of all Christian life” in the context of this crucial narrative of the Old Testament. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,” the people complain to Moses. Their complaint captures rather dramatically our own situation in a world of increasing energy and food demands we seek to satisfy in order to sustain our way of life in creation. One might consider here, for instance, the narrative of the great migration into the wilderness of America that comes, eventually, to the point of exhausting the “natural resources” that sustain us. Or, even more comprehensively, the history of the immense increase of population world-wide, made possible in significant measure by the American-led industrialization of our relationship to Earth, and occasion for our country to dominate world commerce so as to continue to service those demands. The situation calls forth a cry of urgent need: have we come this far in our quest for freedom from oppression only to fall under the spell of the fear of death, and so willingly return this “whole assembly” of collective humanity, the American nation in the forefront, to the conditions of slavery under empire, all in order to be able “to eat our fill of bread”?
With only a slight shift in focus, from bread to fuel taken more generally, the exchange in our text relates significantly to the crisis of global climate change. Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone essay puts the dilemma facing us in starkest terms: our consumption of fossil fuels, he notes, threatens to disrupt and eventually even destroy the viability of human life, once we contribute more carbon to the atmosphere than the 565 gigatons that is projected, at current rates of burning, to increase global average temperatures more than two degrees Celsius, which is likely to happen in the short period of sixteen years. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, “a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios, McKibben notes, “the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies,” is 2,795 gigatons. We may think of the situation this way, McKibben suggests: Two degrees Celsius is
. . . the legal drinking limit –equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit—the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
Although technically still beneath the ground, these fuels are
economically aboveground—it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide—those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
The choice before us is stark. As McKibben puts it, “you can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet—but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends” (“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe—and that make clear who the real enemy is.” Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/new/global-warming’s terrifying new math).
Is that the way the story of our life ends? Will “they ate their fill of bread” be the epitaph for our culture? Psalm 78 presents a narrative that projects that dreadful possibility as a possible outcome of the history of the faithlessness of God’s people. As the appointed verses remind us, the people in the wilderness “ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance. . . They ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved” (78:25, 29). But the psalmist goes on to say, in verses that follow after those appointed for our reading,
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while their food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them,
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.
In spite of all this they still sinned;
they did not believe in his wonders.
So he made their days vanish like a breath,
and their years in terror (78:32-33).
The people had experienced of the disruption of creation’s harmony under the imperial order in Egypt (which we would today identify as ecological disaster); God “led [them] out like sheep:”
He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid;
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies” (78:53)
But God’s definitive response to their faithlessness, in the psalmists view, was his establishment of Zion: “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever” Psalm 78 ends with this strong expectation of a sanctuary that abides like the earth because of God’s choice of David as “shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel’, his inheritance.” But as we have seen, this expectation of an enduring sanctuary is also disappointed: the story of Jesus, as we have read it from Mark’s Gospel, is that the temple and its associated state will not remain.
Accordingly, must we now recapitulate this unhappy story, because of our craving for “bread?” Or does the “’Bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” actually finally save us? Might the one on whom the presence of God is relocated from the temple, opening up a whole new era for the story of God’s people, offer the possibility of deep and universal transformation sufficient to bringing us back from the abyss of irreversible climate disaster?
Our texts in a number of ways confirm that possibility. Our first lesson, Gordon Lathrop, suggests, indicates a longing for “the people to eat another kind of bread; a dependence on the will and work of God that is carrying them through wilderness hardship to freedom. The text itself begins to point toward eating as an active metaphor for faith” (“Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000, Minneapolis; Augsburg Fortress, 2000, p. 123). The gospel reading urges the gathered community to find the “food that gives life to the world” in the specific identity of the Crucified-risen Jesus as the life-giving presence of God. Such is the food that feeds faith” (Ibid., pp. 122-23). But the benefit is not only to “faith” alone. With Jesus as the source of the life of the world, as Norman Wirzba writes, those who feed on him
. . . are challenged to relate to other in a new way. Rather than engaging them primarily in utilitarian terms, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, eaters of Jesus are invited to extend his ministries of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. These are ministries that require us to remember others and keep them in our hearts and minds. Remembering Jesus, in other words, inspires us to remember others. Eaters of Jesus thus becomes hosts to the world who consider, respect, and serve the integrity of those who so-abide with them. In this co-abiding we honor the grace of life and witness to the power of love as the desire for another to freely be and develop.
There is the reality of Christian community to which our second lesson gives witness; ‘a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unit of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-2). The circle of care does not stop with other humans, however: it is worth emphasizing that nothing we eat can any longer be regarded simply as fuel to be absorbed. As Wirzba puts it,
As a food stuff, the other is physically absorbed into my body. But received as a gift of God, as a member of creation benefited by God’s attention, care, and blessing, the other also continues to live in me as a remembered presence. As re-membered, I must henceforth attempt to eat in ways that better honor and protect the sanctity of its life. All life becomes a sign and sacrament of God’s love, a witness to the costliness and mystery of life and death, and so becomes the inspiration to greater attention and care. (Wirzba, pp. 157-58).
As we shall see, it is precisely this linkage between the human and non-human in our world that the Christian practice of Eucharistic eating addresses.