Saturday, October 10, 2015

An Over-the-Top Promise (Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost) John 6:35-51

John 6:35-51 (Part of our 'I Am' statement sermon series) 
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan 

Upon accepting his party’s nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention, Vice President George H. W. Bush gave an address with an iconic line, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” This pledge not to tax the American people further had been a consistent part of his platform, but its prominent use in this speech, with those words, cemented it in the public consciousness. The impact of the promise was considerable, and many Bush supporters believed it helped him win the election.

As many of you remember, this line would also prove to be his undoing. Compromise had to be reached; taxes had to be raised. First Pat Buchanan in the primaries, and then Bill Clinton in the 1992 general election, relentlessly cited this line to question Bush’s trustworthiness. For George H. W. the dream of a two-term presidency died with a broken promise.

Now, of course, it's not just Republican presidential candidates who fail to remain true to their word. According to one popular fact checking website, Barack Obama has broken over a hundred campaign promises. He just never opened any with 'read my lips.' So whether the presidential candidate is Republican or Democrat, you and I are all too familiar with far-fetched campaign promises. 

Last week, we heard Jesus give an over-the-top promise. If you remember, he told the Samaritan woman at the well, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” This Sunday, instead of being like most of our politicians and backing down from his promise once elected, Jesus only ups the ante: "Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" he says, and "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry."

Maybe you’re here today and you're looking for a reason to confirm your suspicion that Christian belief is ridiculous. If this text is to be taken literally, you’ve already got it. For this statement makes no sense. But like so many times in the Scriptures Jesus’s words here point beyond the literal to a fuller, richer meaning. 

What Jesus is actually saying in this passage is little different from what Augustine of Hippo, the great pre-modern African theologian, wrote over fifteen hundred years ago, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” 

Maybe you’re here this morning and despite the fact that you’re physically nourished, healthy, and successful you’re still restless. You don’t know why and you don't know for what, but it runs deep. You're told that this deep hunger may properly be labeled a 'spiritual hunger,' and it's integral to what it means to be human.

In last week’s text, Jesus offered water, ‘living water’ that would quench a woman's spiritual thirst. This week he offers bread, the ‘bread of life’, but unlike the bread of heaven in the wilderness story that ultimately left the Israelites wanting, this bread, Jesus says, will truly satisfy.

For this water, this bread is not mere food and drink that passes away. It is a person. It is a life. The Life abundant who was poured out on a cross of wood for ‘the life of the world.’ And this Life is freely offered to you and me. To people who've been looking to quench this thirst in all the wrong places. To people who so often have no use for him until this hunger strikes. For people who have much more in common with the sketchy Samaritan woman at the well than we’d care to believe or admit.

And this is good news, because this means that Christ’s promise of eternal nourishment is not just for those who’ve earned it, but for the unworthy. For everyone. For you and for me. 

Echoing the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is saying, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat...” and have your fill. 

Now maybe you're here today and your thirst was indeed quenched by this Water; your deep hunger satisfied by this Bread, but time and decay have taken their toll. Your ‘life in the Spirit’ has been sapped. A general malaise and discontent has taken its place. You remember times, seasons even, when it was all very real, and your faith was at an all time high, but it seems so distant now, so far removed that you wonder if you'll ever get your verve back. Or if Christ really does keep his promises. Or if it was ever real at all. 

You’ve found yourself in the midst of a spiritual death where Christ seems distant, absent even, and you can't help but resonate with the words of that U2 song you're embarrassed that you like, that goes:

"You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame,
you know I believe it.

"But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.”

Notice this song is not a pre-Christian track. Earlier Bono sings that he has 'spoken with the tongue of the Angels,' 'held hands with the devil', and 'believes in the Kingdom come,' after all these things once again he feels a profound lack. Having had it all he's only come to find that he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.”

Maybe you’re here today and you too had it all only to have it slip away. Someone close to you made you a promise, broke it, and it's left you reeling. Maybe you were a model employee at a company that you loved, your self worth being directly tied to it's success, only years later to have them drop you in the blink of an eye to save a couple thousand dollars. Or maybe you raised your children in the faith, got them baptized, confirmed, and regularly took them to church, but now they’re older, with children of their own, and your grandchildren have never seen the inside of a church. Or maybe you were in a relationship with someone whom you loved who promised you forever, but they did not keep it.

Not long ago a friend of mine who's been the victim of a recent failed promise and a subsequent spiritual death, told me that he began to wonder if this over-the-top promise of Christ was merely eschatological; in other words, if it’s just a promise for the end of our lives, which seemed to him like a bum deal. But then he read texts like our Gospel lesson again and saw that while the full realization of this promise may not occur until sin, death, and brokenness have been done away with, these texts clearly speak of the in-breaking of nourishment in the here and now. To a spiritual nourishment that has very real effects whether we feel it or not. To a food and drink that fills us and heals and resurrects us from spiritual death, giving us the strength to arrive at today for our own sakes and for the life of the world. 

And this is why we go to church every Sunday, even when we don’t feel like it. We drink in the preached Word, feast on the body and blood, and say together the Creed that, although we're not feeling it, we recite anyway because emotions come and go like clouds. Like Molly Jane, who spoke so elegantly last week, we go to our devotion groups to connect with other Christians even when we half believe any of it. Finally, we give of our time and our money, not just because it’s stewardship month, but because so often it is in the giving and serving that we feel nourished and healed. 

We do all of these things not to earn God’s favor, but like the Samaritan woman, because we have it already. Because this same God who promises to be present with us in the midst of our spiritual deaths has the power to resurrect, and not just when we die, but in the midst of the deaths we experience in the here and now. 

By doing these things we walk by faith and not by sight, continuing to put one foot in front of the other as we await the One who does not promise health and wealth, romance or prestige, emotional well being or personal fulfillment, but instead promises himself. His life for you and for me in the ordinary means of bread and wine.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ is not like presidential candidates who make empty promises in order to get elected, and he’s unlike the person close to you who meant that promise when they made it only to break it. Our God is the one who keeps his promises, and he’s worthy of our trust. So come to the altar, have your fill, and be nourished today.


Now it’s stewardship time here at Calvary - St. George’s, and I know that for many of us we don’t feel like we have anything to give emotionally let alone financially. But maybe this church is a very special and important place to you where you have truly been nourished by this bread and living water. We really want to maintain it as a place where we can lay down our burdens, participate in the lives of one another, and continue to be a haven of mercy in a merciless world. If you would like the same, if this is your church, we’d ask that you’d seriously consider giving generously for the 2016 ministry year and fill out a pledge card today. Thank you. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I need an over-the-top promise that I can sink down into and find some rest. Thanks, Ben!

  3. Hi Ben--I stumbled upon your blog while on Facebook. I like the term 'over-the-top promise'. I need to be reminded of this today, and every day. Especially when the emotions come and go.

    And I especially like this quote:

    'By doing these things we walk by faith and not by sight, continuing to put one foot in front of the other as we await the One who does not promise health and wealth, romance or prestige, emotional well being or personal fulfillment, but instead promises himself.'

    There's too much 'health-and-wealth preaching' going on, and it ends up disappointing so many people. Even to the point of crushing whatever faith one might have had.