What Do You Really Want?
The crowds went looking for Jesus. They wanted something. This should remind us of the interaction with the disciples in chapter 1. Two of John’s disciples hear the witness of their master and follow Jesus. He turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” They, in turn, ask, “where are you staying?” The crowds mirror this behavior. So, the gospel writer invites us to wonder about the crowds. What are they looking for?
Jesus knows this is the question and reminds them of their desire. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26, NRSV). They are looking for food security in a time when the basics to sustain life are becoming harder to count on.
But we know they are looking for more than a steady supply of loaves. The day before, they wanted to seize Jesus physically and make him their “bread king.” They weren’t looking for more bread. The crowd was looking for a revolution. That’s what it means to declare someone your king when there’s already someone on the throne.
Jesus has no interest in becoming a short-lived bread king. He calls the crowd to desire something more, something deeper, something higher. Physical bread is a necessary beginning. And a revolution is indeed on the way. But that revolution regards the fate of the cosmos, not merely the political games of a backwater province in an empire that – no matter its claims of “Roma Aeterna” – was part of the perishing world.
A focus for preaching on this text could center on this question. What do you want? You’re here – physically in a worship space, virtually online, or personally as a reader. What are you looking for? Do you seek some variety of the loaves and fish, a response to some physical necessity? Do you seek some sort of regime change, in your life or in your community? Or perhaps you long for something more, something deeper, something higher.
What do you want? That is the question that drives a consumer economy. Whatever you want – no matter how trivial – someone would like to respond to that desire for a price. But the consumer economy is more than that. It is an economy based on the need for unending, insatiable desire. If ever most of us thought we had enough – were enough – the entire consumer economy would crash and burn.
We witnessed this to some extent during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. As people stayed home, cooked for themselves, made do with what they had, and refrained from driving, significant parts of the consumer economy went into a death spiral. Other parts of the economy benefitted greatly, to be sure. But we had a taste of what it would mean to the system if people stopped buying things as a matter of course. It was, in economic terms, apocalyptic.
What do you want? Do you want the endless stream of stuff flowing through your fingers that defines late-stage, consumer-driven capitalism in our time? William Cavanaugh, whom I have mentioned previously, discusses the collision between consumerism and the Eucharist in chapter two of his excellent 2008 book, Being Consumed.
“The economy as it is currently structured,” Cavanaugh writes, “would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have’” (Kindle Locations 524-525). But there is no danger of that happening he observes. Our consumer culture forms us not only to desire more, but also never to believe we have enough. In addition, that culture forms us to experience that dissatisfaction as a positive good, a kind of emotional stimulant that gets us up and going.
Cavanaugh asserts, “Consumer culture is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguably more powerful than Christianity” (Kindle Location 529). He argues that this formative system trains us to see the goods of this world as ends in themselves rather than as means to more worthwhile ends.
“The constant renewal of desire is what gets us out of bed in the morning,” he writes. “We desire because we are alive. Created things, however, though essentially good, always fail fully to satisfy because they are not ultimate. They are time-bound, not infinite. Created things fall apart, and we lose interest in them over time” (Kindle Locations 548-550). In the language of our gospel text, created things are things that will perish.
Consumerism does not lead us to put our trust in perishable things, Cavanaugh argues. In fact, it leads us to a certain detachment from our stuff. Consumerism is not about accumulating stuff. It is about shopping, the pursuit of new stuff to replace what we already have. It is about the chase, not the prize. “The restlessness of consumerism,” Cavanaugh writes, “causes us constantly to seek new material objects” (Kindle Locations 551-552).
The stuff we buy is, therefore, not really an end in itself. It is, rather, the means to a different end. The stuff is the drug that temporarily satisfies our hunger for novelty. But it can never be enough. Indeed, “enough” is regarded as something bad in a consumerist economy. The stuff we buy is a way to satisfy our hunger for “more.”
In contrast, Christian formation leads us to see created things as pointers toward the goodness of God. “In the Christian tradition, detachment from material goods means using them as a means to a greater end, and the greater end is greater attachment to God and to our fellow human beings,” Cavanaugh argues. “In consumerism, detachment means standing back from all people, times, and places, and appropriating our choices for private use” (Kindle Locations 581-583).
What do you want? Do you want a system where Desire is the divinity you worship? Or do you want a discipline where all desires lead to the One who is the end (the goal and fulfillment) of all desires? “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus tells the crowd, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27, NRSV).
Cavanaugh meditates on the Eucharist as the vehicle of Christian formation that can cure our addiction to consumerism. We are consumers, he notes. We eat to live. But our desires go deeper than bread and circuses – if we are to be fully human. “The insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace in the consumption of Jesus’ body and blood,” he writes (Kindle Location 593).
In the Christian understanding of the Eucharist, we not only consume the gifts of God in Christ. In fact, Cavanaugh argues, we are also consumed. We are also taken up into the Body of Christ. He quotes St. Augustine in this regard: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me” (from Augustine’s Confessions).
This mode of being consumed changes us into food for the life of the world. And it makes us part of the Body of Christ, finding our meaning and purpose in giving life to others. “If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours,” he concludes, “breaks down in the body of Christ” (Kindle Locations 620-621).
He suggests several concrete ways to enter into disciplines that combat consumerism. These disciplines do not make me less attached to my stuff, paradoxically, but more attached. For example, he urges us to make more of our own things. I work with wood and have built about a third of the furniture in our home. This work has two effects. On the one hand, I am reluctant to part with things into which I have poured myself. On the other hand, I am grateful for the goodness that God has poured through me into that stuff. These are anti-consumerist practices.
We seek to grow and preserve as much of our own food as we can. So far, that’s not a paying economic proposition, although I can vouch that the quality and freshness of the food is much higher than that we can purchase in most stores. The practice of gardening puts us in touch, literally, with dirt and growing things – with the processes of life. This practice leads us to a deeper connection with Creation and a sense of gratitude for all things.
There’s a debate about whether John 6 should be read metaphorically or sacramentally. I think that’s a false distinction. The Bread of Life discourse is not about the rituals of worship. It is about how we view Creation.
Jesus calls us to view the whole of Creation as a sacrament that points us to God. “A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God’s good creation, potential signs of the glory of God; things become come less disposable, more filled with meaning,” Cavanaugh writes. “At the same time, a sacramental view sees things only as signs whose meaning is only completely fulfilled if they promote the good of communion with God and with other people” (Kindle Locations 645-647).
What are you looking for? What do you want? We Christians would argue that people are looking for God. What they want is more of God. The challenge for us Christians is to form and respond to that holy desire.
References and Resources
Bojer, Johan. The Great Hunger . Kindle Edition.
William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.