32 Words

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Sometime during my theological education, I learned to be suspicious of the sermon series. It was long enough ago that I can’t remember who told me, but the message stuck: there are two kinds of sermons in the world, biblical and thematic. (You can guess which one we were told to prefer.)

Well, I see that as a false dichotomy now. In fact, I think a sermon series, when done well, can help lectionary preachers address the problem of biblical illiteracy we talked about last week.
By connecting some of the Sunday passages via a series, we can weave some of the disparate strands of the lectionary into a narrative whole and more easily invite people to make the biblical story their own. Since we’ll be spending the next four weeks in the farewell discourses in John, the opportunity seems ripe to try it out. So for this week and the next three, I will reflect with you on Jesus’ Easter Farewell — parting words for disciples then and now.

First things first: It may feel like a bit of a leap for your hearers to dive back into the middle of John after Easter Sunday, two post-resurrection appearances (Easter 2&3), and the good shepherd (Easter 4). But you can explain that in these chapters Jesus is preparing his disciples for life after Easter, which means, of course, life without him being physically present. In the framework of the lectionary, these readings are intended to prepare us for Jesus’ ascension and the sending of the spirit at Pentecost. The scene that serves as backdrop to all four readings is a tense one. It is just after Jesus has shared a final meal with his disciples. And in this context we see a Jesus who simultaneously is in absolute command of the situation — this is, after all, John’s Jesus — and yet speaks with a tenderness to his disciples that we rarely imagine.

Sermon Series, Part 1: 32 Words

Have you come across the website 22words ? It sponsors an on-going challenge of expressing yourself on some matter in 22 words or less. There are different categories, like “my life so far” or “which Star Wars character are you and why.” You have to answer each one with only 22 words. One of my favorites, in the category of “describe your greatest experience,” is, “I am in a hospital. A nurse hands me a screaming baby and I sat there, looking down, and said, ‘Hello son.'”

In these few verses at the end of John 13, Jesus takes up a similar challenge. His response, admittedly, runs 32 words in English (I haven’t checked the Greek), but the effect is the same. For in these 32 words he leaves his disciples with as clear a summary of the Christian life as one could possible want. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should also love another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What gives Jesus’ statement power is not only its brevity but its focus. It’s the one thing — perhaps, if push comes to shove, the one and only thing — Jesus wants his disciples to know and remember when he is gone: love one another. Not “Evangelize one another.” Not “Keep each other accountable.” Not “Give more money to the church.” Not “Resist temptation.” Not “Make me proud.” Not any of the other hundred things we regularly hear lifted up as the pinnacle and priority of the Christian life, but rather this: “Love one another.”

Keep in mind where we are in John’s story of Jesus. It is the eve of the crucifixion, and Jesus knows he will be leaving his disciples shortly. In that context, he offers them departing instructions and words of farewell — four chapters and more, in fact, of departing instructions and words of farewell! Yet all of them can be boiled down to these first thirty-two, words he himself has just embodied and modeled by washing their feet, by serving them, by calling them friends.

When you think about it, these few words articulate the simplest and most difficult command Jesus could have given. Simple because on any given day, at almost any given moment, we usually know, deep down, what the most loving thing to do for those around us is. Yet doing it is another matter. So many things get in the way — we are too busy, or tired, or focused on a goal, or impatient, or angry, or…. Yet Jesus is adamant. To be a disciple is to love one another. Not only that, but others will recognize the disciples — then and now — by whether we love one another.

So here are two ideas to help our hearers — okay, really, to help all of us! — follow Jesus’ command. First, remind us that we can do this. We are those for whom Christ died and for whom Christ lives. We are those who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are those who are invited into the fellowship of the Son of Man who died for the sake of the world, the God who sent him, and the Spirit who serves as our advocate and counselor. This is something we can do.

Second, remind us that this is something we are already doing. Sometimes the best thing you can do to form a good habit is to encourage where it is already happening. A hundred times a week or more, we do  love one another, and by helping us see that, you can encourage us to love even more. So perhaps you could issue your own 22 word challenge (or 32 if you’re feeling particularly generous!): ask you hearers to look for acts of love — their own and those of others — and email them to your church office this week. Tell them that you’ll collect them and either refer to them in a future sermon, share them in the bulletin or newsletter, or post them on the church’s website. In this way, you can start keeping a “log of love” and help your people grow in their joyful obedience to Jesus’ command. You’ll be surprised at how powerful those thirty-two words still are.

Thanks, again, Working Preacher, for your fidelity to Christ’s Word and to the preaching office. What you do matters…more than ever! (Look — 22 words, in the category of “tell someone you’re grateful for them.”)

Yours in Christ,

PS: I’ve received a couple dozen responses to my question of last week — I’ll take that up in a letter to you after Pentecost. Thanks for sending your responses, and it’s not to late to do so if you still want; send it to cbp@luthersem.edu.