Sunday, January 1, 2017

You Are What You Eat

Most cells in your body have an expiration date. A stomach cell only lives for a couple of days, skin cells last about a month, and red blood cells are with you about four months. Cells in your pancreas are hard at work regulating your blood sugar for about a year. Bone cells hang on for 25 - 30 years. Only very few-- like the cells that make the lens in your eye or the muscle of your heart-- last a lifetime.

So you don't fall to pieces, your body is constantly replacing, healing and regenerating cells that are injured, dead, or just worn out from helping you do what you do. This perpetual renovation means that the cells and molecules that make your physical self are seldom all the same from one moment to the next. You are always changing. And you're constantly deciding-- subconsciously or not-- what it is you're changing to be.

That's because your body gathers its building materials, be they for your liver or your toenails, from the nutrients in your food. In this way, we literally become what we have chosen to eat. A low-nutrient diet forces our body to improvise and we end up with the biological equivalent of a house made from cardboard and packing tape. Healthy eating gives our bodies what they need to build something a little stronger and more efficient.

For thousands of years, part of healthy eating has been whole-grain breads. Interestingly, bread also plays a significant role in many Bible stories and observances. Unleavened bread remains an important culinary and symbolic part of the Passover; it was bread from heaven, called Manna, that fed the Israelites in the desert after they escaped from the Egyptians; ravens brought bread to Elijah when he was hiding from the queen; and the widow of Zaraphath had an endless supply of oil and meal to make bread after feeding the prophet the last of what she had.

In the New Testament, Satan tempted Christ in the desert to turn rocks into bread and Christ broke bread to introduce the ordinance of the Sacrament to his apostles. There are dozens more examples, but none so impressive as when Christ used five loaves of bread and a few fish to feed 5,000 people on the coasts of Galilee. Some scholars believe that it was actually closer to 15,000 including women and children. Regardless of the number, it caught the people's attention.

Most of the thousands of people who were fed on this occasion had walked 5-7 miles along the coast of the Sea of Galilee to meet Christ on the other side. The Savior had left the city by boat that morning after hearing his friend and cousin, John the Baptist, had been murdered. He had gone to be alone, but when he saw the crowd of people he had compassion on them and ministered the rest of the day to them.

When evening came, Christ encouraged the people to stay rather than making the long walk back to the city to find food. He broke five loaves of bread and a few fishes into pieces and had his disciples distribute the pieces to the crowd. After all had eaten, there were more than five loaves of bread and a few fishes left over. It was a miracle!

The first reaction of those present was to testify that "this is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world" (John 6:14), but that reality means different things to different people. This crowd was hoping it would mean a lot of free meals. "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone" (John 6:15).

Human nature has hardly changed in two thousand years. The masses today often choose not only their religious and political leaders but also their furniture store and orthodontist based on the "free bread" that can be offered. At first glance, it may even seem that Christ avoided a great opportunity here. The people wanted him to be their king! How much easier would it be to share his message as a king than as a carpenter?!

Christ explained his refusal the next day when the crowd found him in the city. "Verily, verily, I say unto you," he said, "Ye seek me, not because ye desire to keep my sayings, neither because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled" (John 6:26). The Jews wanted a temporal Messiah that would free them from Rome and put food in their bellies; Christ had come with the much greater mission to free us all from sin and death and put the gospel in our hearts so we could one day be like him.

His mission wasn't concerned with votes or consensus or popular opinion, but rather commitment and devotion and discipleship. Followers without faith aren't any better than if they hadn't followed at all.

Addressing the crowd's focus on their next meal, he concluded his explanation with an admonition to, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you" (John 6:27). Said another way, it's not the pot luck after church that nourishes our souls but the feast upon the Word that happens during church, at home and wherever else we choose to open our scriptures or go to our knees in prayer. It is by ingesting his gospel, not funeral potatoes and Jell-o, that our souls are able to heal, replace toxic habits and behaviors, and become stronger and more faithful.

With the advantage of two millenia of hindsight, it may seem easy to spot the short-sightedness of the people of Capernaum. They stood in the presence of the Creator, a god through whom all things are possible, and asked only for another loaf of bread. It is sometimes harder to recognize such smallness when our own approaches to the Divine become focused on similar requests for temporal wants or "golden goose" solutions that may be equally inappropriate and ungrateful.

Yet, we as they are often most persistent about our least important needs. When Christ refused to become their king, the crowd asked for Christ to simply provide more bread. When Christ refused again, they changed their approach and asked for the bread as a sign that he, like Moses, was doing the work of God. When Christ offered the bread of the gospel as a superior alternative to the manna their ancestors ate, the people responded, "Evermore, give us this bread," or, "That sounds great, but what we really need is something that goes with our lamb stew" (John 6:34).

Finally, in response to the crowd's oblivious persistence, Christ gave the people the formula for an endless supply of bread. "I am the bread of life," he taught, "he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). Unfortunately, the crowd was so focused on what they wanted that they did not perceive that they were being offered something much greater than a loaf of honey wheat. We can avoid their folly by zooming out to see that the formula Christ presents here-- and previously to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4:13-14)--  is fulfilled in at least two different ways.

First, Christ gives us the bread and water of His gospel as we come unto him. That is, as we exercise our faith, continue to repent and improve ourselves, make and keep sacred covenants, and receive and follow the Holy Ghost, our souls receive the nutrients they need to repair and rebuild. And just as our DNA provides the blueprints for our physical bodies to build according to our biological heritage and the available nutrients, our souls have within them the potential to be like our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother if we'll just feed it the right nutrients.

And second, Christ offers us the bread and water of the sacrament as symbols of his sacrifice for us and the covenants we have made with him. When the Lord instituted the Passover, he instructed the Israelites to both mark their doorposts with lamb's blood and consume the meat of the lamb in a special meal. The Israelites were physically saved and physically fed by their obedience. In like manner, the Lord instituted the sacrament so that we could symbolically eat the flesh of the Lamb of God and mark the doorposts of our souls with his blood. We are fed both body and spirit as we partake and delivered from sin and death through our obedience and the power of his atonement.

We witness as we partake of the sacrament that we will always remember him and keep his commandments. But what's more, Christ and the covenants we have made with him become a little more of who we are-- physically and spiritually-- as we take the sacrament each week.

Every day we decide to eat hot dogs or steaks, carrots or chips, yogurt and berries or twinkies and soda. We make the same kind of decisions about building spiritual cardboard huts or something more enduring. If we make a regular diet of the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, we will find that we will change from this moment to the next. More specifically, we will become the gospel that we have consumed and the image of the Lamb of God will radiate from our countenances. The choice is ours, but buyer beware: you are what you eat.

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