The Final Countdown
April 28, 2013
Rev. Laurie Lyter
First United Presbyterian Church, Loveland, Colorado
There’s a great legend about Ernest Hemingway, who wrote such incredible pieces of fiction as The Old Man and the Sea, A Clean, Well-lighted Place, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms. The legend goes that a literary agent once challenged the author – who is well known for his pithy, direct writing style – to tell a story in only six words. Hemingway rose to the challenge with the following sentence:
For sale: baby shoes; never worn.
Since that time, the movement of the six word story has come in waves – everything from literary magazines to youtube campaigns – to see just how much meaning we can convey in a very few words. It’s not particularly easy to do.
Recently, author David Heims researched a smattering of contemporary theologians for an article in the magazine The Christian Century, asking them to summarize their faith in Christ and understanding of the Gospel in seven words or less.
Lutheran scholar Martin E. Marty wrote “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow”. Theologian and ethicist Donald W. Shriver writes “Divinely persistent, God really loves us”. The poet Mary Karr offers, “We are the Church of Infinite Chances”. Professor Ellen Charry writes “the wall of hostility has come down”.
Author and theologian Walter Brueggemann’s gospel, expectedly, is complex and densely packed — “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making”. Brueggemann says he only used six words, and rested on the seventh. M. Craig Barnes, the newly minted President of Princeton Theological Seminary, gets it down to four words: “We live by grace.”
The reality is that preachers, philosophers, professors, and theologians have been attempting to synthesize, analyze, and convey Scripture to others for centuries now, and most of us use quite a lot of words to do it. We take a verse or chapter at a time and try to weave in complex theological ideas, contemporary references, context, translations, and so forth, all in the mostly vain hope that we can make these stories make sense – if not to others, then at least to our own minds.
In the never-ending attempt to speak about Scripture, millions more words have been written and spoken. The eminent theologian Karl Barth’s masterwork, Church Dogmatics, took nearly thirty five years to write. It is thirteen volumes of systematic theology on topics like Revelation, Creation, and Atonement. It contains more than six million words.
The Bible is a big, daunting collection of Words all on its own. There are seven hundred seventy three thousand, six hundred and ninety two words in the King James Bible – five hundred ninety two thousand four hundred and thirty nine in the old testament, and a comparatively brief one hundred and eighty one thousand two hundred and fifty three in the New Testament.
The Bible sometimes gets a bad reputation for being too verbose – all those stories with confusing names and lineage of intolerable length – but it’s got some great moments of distilled clarity. The Great Commission, for example, in Matthew 28 clocks in at a mere four verses, and is the summary of the great command of what the followers of Christ were and are meant to do.
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Not bad on the brevity scale. But Scripture encapsulates another major command in even less space – the eleven little words of the golden rule of Luke 6: 31- Do to others as you would have them do to you.
But what if a challenge similar to the one presented to Hemingway came to us – to tell the story of our faith in six words or less.
How about the beginning of the Gospel of John – in which we learn about the everlasting nature of The Word in six short words “The light shines in the darkness”. No matter what bleakness the world presents or how cruel humanity can be, nothing will ever put out that everlasting, glorious light. That, for many of us, is the heart and soul of the Gospel.
Or, perhaps instead, we could try the five words in Deuteronomy 6:5 Love the Lord your God. The verse is repeated in Micah and again the gospels, and is followed up with the way in which we should love God – with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength – but the simplicity of the command stands on it’s own two feet – or five words, as it were.
That kind of love can seem a bit too passive for some, though. Instead, perhaps, the contrast of joy and suffering in Scripture and in our lives comes to the forefront. Coming out of the unthinkable life of slavery under Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron convey the wishes of the Lord, God Almighty in Exodus 5:1 – “Let my people go.” Across time and geography, men and women have held firm to this four-worded promise from God – that we belong to the Creator, the God who is I am, and that our freedom from slavery, persecution, and suffering matters. That we might all be God’s people, and we might all be set free at God’s command, tells the story of our faith.
But for others, Scripture is about upholding promises. In Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, we receive the fulfillment of the prophecies of ancient days. John 19:30 sees the completion of Christ’s journey unto death in three simple and unimaginable words , breathed by a savior on a cross – “It is finished”.
Others still will see the promise of Christ’s incarnation in his shared experiences of humanity. John 11:35 gives us Christ’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus knows Lazarus will rise again – and he’ll be the one to do it. He’s there ready and willing to reassure the grieving sisters – Mary and Martha – “your brother will rise again”. Yet as he approaches the tomb where Lazarus has been laid to rest, Christ expresses a deeply human emotion – grief. Verse thirty five simply reads “Jesus wept.” Two words that summarize an entirely human experience.
So the entire story of the Christian faith wrapped up in two words – not bad at all. But I think maybe the whole of this magnificent faith can be summed up in just one word – a word which appears throughout the gospel, more than 600 times. Maybe it is The Word.
Love. Love your enemies. Love your mother and father. Love strangers. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. You are my Son, whom I love, and with You, I am well-pleased. For God so Loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
So maybe that is our answer – the Gospel in a single word, a single promise and a single command – just this: Love.