As Few Words As Possible

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This past Tuesday I asked the Session to consider whether or not we wanted to have communion this Sunday, as is our tradition, given that this is the Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, ordain and install officers, and have our second Sunday Luncheon honoring new members. It is a busy day, and I didn’t want us to feel rushed in our experience of God’s active presence. 

The result of that discussion was that the Session believes that we value the experience of communion deeply, and we believe it to be especially meaningful as a corporate response to the ordination vows we make as individuals and as a congregation.

So, the suggestion they offered was for me to preach a shorter sermon. In fact, one person even suggested that I preach a one sentence sermon. Feeling the need to justify my role in worship, I protested a bit. Besides, it is actually much harder to preach a shorter sermon and feel like you have effectively communicated some Biblical truth. No sooner had that statement left my mouth than the thought occurred to me that I was backing down from the challenge of the Gospel. That is not to say that I expect to win such a challenge by thinking up clever words to proclaim some greater truth. It is to say that the constant challenge of the Gospel is a challenge to accept a new and deeper form of love.

In thinking about this challenge I was reminded of the Dr. Who Christmas Special – you too, right? Well, if it is still on your DVR I won’t give away any spoilers. Anyway, there is a scene in which one character is making an argument to encourage the action of the other. In this moment of conflict, the hero is only allowed to make her case with one word. She has to compile an argument that will save all of humanity in one word. The reason for this test is that the more words we say the more opportunities there are to confuse and manipulate. And so the difficulty in using fewer words is that we must only speak of essential truths.

This – of course – brought me to thinking about the third question in the ordination vows all officers make, which is, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

Ask a room full of Presbyterians what the “essential tenets” are, and you are likely to come away thinking that arguing is an essential tenet. In some way you are right, as we uphold the belief that “God alone is Lord of the conscience. As a Session, we concurred that these tenets included the supremacy of God, the belief in Jesus as Savior, the belief in the scriptures as God’s word, and a calling to work for justice and equity in the world.  

As we boiled that down, I began to wonder if we could find something even more basic and pure, and I was reminded of an article in The Christian Century Magazine. The article challenged its readers to submit on line their version of the Gospel in seven words. Here are some of their responses:

God loves the whole world...  No exceptions!
Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.
God loves you, so get over yourself.
God's impossible foolishness makes us whole.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
You are Love. Act like it.
You are worth dying for!
Repent! The kingdom of God is near. 
The Body of Christ, broken for you.

Today we have heard from the Prophet Isaiah, the book of Acts, and the Gospel of Luke, and though there are volumes of sermons that have been and will be preached about these texts, I want to submit the following seven words.

Fearlessly repent, Beloved! Receive the Holy Spirit.

That is it. Own up to who you are, without fear of consequence, no matter what you have done or what has been done to you.

Turn from selfishness toward selflessness.

Understand that you are loved beyond measure by the one who created you, redeems you, and sustains you.

Receive what is already yours – the very presence of God.

Now, as comforting as all of that is, it should leave you with a question. Once I receive the Holy Spirit, then what? The Holy Spirit is unpredictable and dangerous. It moves us from self protection and into vulnerability. It removes the idea that we are in charge. It’s like letting go of the reins on a horse we both love and fear. It takes away your breath, looks you in the eye, and says, “Words, words, words...tell me the essential truth.

My advice to you? Well, for one I would say that God was never under our control to begin with. For another, I would say to speak the Gospel in as few words as possible, and to remember that your actions may even speak it louder.

Fearlessly repent, Beloved! Receive the Holy Spirit!

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