“Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”
This past week was the 27th Festival of Homiletics, thus the tardy post for the column this week, Dear Working Preachers. The theme for the Festival was “Preaching as Moral Imagination.” While the preachers and lecturers offered various answers to, interpretations of, and thoughts about the theme, in my listening there was one traceable thread — are we preachers keeping Jesus’ words or not? There was no real gray area when it came to this topic, as much as many of us would like to believe or preach otherwise. Either you keep and preach Jesus’ words or you don’t.
We like to think that there is a wide spectrum for the interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ demands. We like to think that we can wiggle out of claims that require a kind of forthrightness and clarity. We like to think that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. Or, maybe we don’t think that — but a lot of other people do, in search of any loophole that might get them off the hook for actually living as Jesus lived, loving as Jesus loved.
And the hypocrisy? Don’t get me started. Those who say they “keep Jesus’ words” and yet whose words — and actions, for that matter — in no way reflect Jesus’ love. How should we and do we respond to such observable duplicity? Do we look away? Do we remain silent? And why? Because of anxiety? Too worried about the bottom line to be bold in the proclamation of God’s love? Because of fear? Too concerned about securing our future and forgetting that our future, and the future of the church, is in God’s hands? Because of misplaced conviction? Thinking that success of ministry is all up to us, leaving behind the truth that it’s in God we trust?
As the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler intimated in her lecture at the Festival, there is a fine line between apprehension about the survival of the church, about the survival of our own ministry, and our eventual complicity in the reality of evil. It’s a rather slippery slope, in fact, from assurance in our good works for the sake of the mission of the church to our collusion in maintaining the systems and institutions that exist to undermine the reign of God.
But, at some point, a preacher must insist, and the preacher is the only one who can, that there are certain truths about Jesus’ ministry and message that are not up for discussion or debate. That there are certain truths that are not a matter of a difference of opinion. That there are certain truths that simply must be said to counteract not just sinful behavior, not just mainstream maliciousness or malevolence, not just immorality, but evil itself.
It is no accident that these words of Jesus appear in the Farewell Discourse. Keeping Jesus’ words is the only thing that makes it possible to get to other side of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. And keeping Jesus’ words is the only thing that will make it possible to withstand the rejection that comes with believing that God really does love the whole world. Jesus knows what he is talking about. He knows how important this is going to be. Only two chapters later, Jesus will tell his disciples, “you will be put out of the synagogues” (John 16:2). We should anticipate the same — and perhaps therein lies our reluctance to follow through with what Jesus asks of us and with what the world needs to hear from us.
Having to keep Jesus’ words means giving witness in ways that might get us thrown out of the center, that might get us kicked out to the margins. There’s not a whole lot of power in minoritized places, at least, not the kind of power the world wants and worships. But, when we are honest, we preachers are often no different in our wants and that which we worship. Keeping our powerful places is more important than keeping Jesus’ words. Keeping our churches big and in the well-liked category is more important than keeping Jesus’ words. Keeping the status-quo so as not to upset the proverbial apple cart is more important than keeping Jesus’ words.
But Jesus reminds us that his words are more often than not heard for the truth they tell when they are spoken from those places that have a peripheral perspective.
Keep Jesus’ words, Dear Working Preachers. You can do this. And, you are not alone. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all the words Jesus has spoken to you (John 14:26).
Peace I leave with you.