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Accept No Substitutes:
Earthly Appetites, Heavenly Bread, and Human Wholeness

For Sunday August 2, 2009

Lectionary Readings

(Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a or Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15

Psalm 51:1–12 or Psalm 78:23–29

Ephesians 4:1–16

John 6:24–35

           In his film The Girlfriend Experience (2009), director Steven Soderbergh suggests that the need to love and be loved, to know and be known, is so deeply embedded in human nature that we will do almost anything to get it. We will even pay for it, whether to a psychotherapist, to a personal trainer like Chris, or to a [jumi/essayer.php],000 an hour "escort" like Chris's live-in girlfriend, Chelsea (played by Sasha Grey, who in real life has starred in 167 porn films, according to the Internet Movie Database).

Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson.

           Chelsea sells sex, of course, but what these very wealthy and deeply lonely men want is a "girl friend experience." They want to take a peaceful drive on a lazy afternoon, eat a leisurely dinner at a fancy restaurant, and talk about all the things that you'd talk about in a "real" relationship — how work went that day, the kids, the job. Chelsea pretends to offer genuine companionship and they willingly fool themselves that they receive it. But things unravel when Chelsea and her clients drop their guard and transgress business boundaries to reveal themselves to each other as real human beings rather than as mere partners in a transaction. Since human love can't be bought or sold, Chelsea and her clients seek something they can't get and forfeit their closest approximations in what they already have.

           We shouldn't be too harsh on Chelsea's clients who pay for sex to get love. After Israel anointed David as king, he crushed his enemies and conquered Jerusalem. He renovated the city and renamed it after himself, built elaborate public memorials, and constructed a palace for himself. He forged political treaties and economic agreements with Hiram, king of Tyre. David took more and more concubines for himself. He took more and more wives, and fathered more and more children. When that wasn't enough he took one more woman, Bathsheba, and murdered her husband Uriah. But more and more was never enough to satisfy David's instincts and impulses.

           Money, sex, war, fame, and political power are only a few of the ways that we try to fulfill the deepest desires of human nature. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal compared our insatiable desires to an abyss that must be filled: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself" (Pensees 148/428).

Sarah Palin.
Sarah Palin.

           Similarly, in his autobiography Surprised By Joy, CS Lewis suggests that joy points beyond itself; he describes it as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world." In his sermon "The Weight of Glory" he compared this deep longing to "a desire for our own far off country." Like Pascal, Lewis believed that these natural longings could only be filled with a supernatural object, by God himself who alone can fulfill them with his indwelling presence.

           One of the most famous and insightful sentences in all of Christian history comes from the first page of Saint Augustine's Confessions. As the book unfolds, we learn that Augustine had extensive experiences with unfulfilled desire. And so as if to give his conclusion beforehand, in the very first paragraph of the book he writes, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” An insatiable craving, a psychic abyss, unsatisfied desire and desires, and the deep longing for a far away land — all these point to and find fulfillment in God alone, despite our many failed experiments with all sorts of substitutes.

           In John's gospel, Jesus describes himself with seven "I am" sayings. It's likely that this is an intentional literary reference to Yahweh himself who identifies himself to Moses as "I am" (Exodus 3:14, John 8:58). Jesus compares himself to light in darkness (8:12), a gate to a safe pasture (10:9), a good shepherd who sacrifices himself for his sheep (10:11), the resurrection and the life who conquers death (11:25), and the true vine who fulfills Israel's destiny (15:1, Isaiah 5).

           And just as he compared himself to "living water" that quenches our thirst (John 4), Jesus also identifies himself as the one who satisfies our deepest hungers: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (6:35). The ancient Hebrews ate miraculous manna from heaven in the desert (Exodus 16), says Jesus, but they nevertheless died. Jesus, in contrast, says that "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (6:51).

Governor Mark Sanford.
Governer Mark Sanford.

           If this sounds scandalous to our modern ears, we can console ourselves that it also did to the original audience two thousand years ago. They dismissed Jesus's claim as a hard saying. Who can accept this, they protested? From that time on, says the gospel, "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (6:66).

           The late night comedians will have their laughs, but in Michael Jackson's tortured life and tragic death, in Sarah Palin's manic and meandering resignation speech, and in Governor Mark Sanford's stream-of-consciousness public confessions, we see warning flares of deep human longings. I have my own laundry list, and am thankful that I don't suffer from their media (over)exposure. They remind me of Augustine's prayer just a few pages later in his Confessions: “Turn us, O God of Hosts, show us Thy countenance, and we shall be whole. For wherever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows, even though it is riveted upon things beautiful.”

For further reflection

* Cf. Saint Irenaeus (c.115–202): "The glory of God is man fully alive."

Image credits: (1); (2) Open Salon; and (3) The Moderate Voice.