Less Is More:
The Joy of Preaching about Almost Nothing
Westmont Homecoming Worship Service
September 24, 2004
Telford Work, Westmont College
The text I chose to preach tonight is 2 John. Bible trivia fans will know that it's the shortest letter in the New Testament. (You're welcome, by the way.) But tonight, this fact isn't Bible trivia. It's the reason for my choice. I want to preach on the biblical text that comes the closest to being no text at all.
Why such a short little note? And how did something so ridiculously brief end up in the Bible? Is it filler? Was there just blank space at the bottom of the scroll?
First things first. Why is 2 John so brief?
One reason for this brevity may be that it is a cover letter for 1 John. But scholars aren't sure about that, and never will be. Besides, that argument doesn't support my topic. So let's move on!
Another reason is that the writer of this little note is "the elder" – an authority figure in this community. This person needs no introduction. That's a space-saver. It also disqualifies me from playing the role. I may be a teacher here, and I may be older than some of you, but I needed Joel's introduction. I'm not "the elder."
You all are the elder. You guys need no introduction. The year after your name is enough: Barbara Johnston Biehl '68, Linda Branch '04, Shelley Johnson Fogg '94, Judy Brinkman Gaede '70, Chris Hartman '84, Wendy Barnett LaBrie '93, Dalina Lowdermilk '99, David MacCulloch '84, Jamie Platt '84, and Kristen Schultz '98. Those numbers are titles that prove you are custodians of the legacy and memories of this place and its people.
That makes Westmont not my home which you occasionally visit, but your home which we all share. "Homecoming" is a kind of surprising term for a weekend like this – didn't you leave home to come here? Yet when you think about it, homecoming is exactly what this is. When you first came here as students, Westmont started being a kind of home-away-from-home. Yet when you became alumni and left, Westmont didn't stop being your home. Instead, it became a kind of childhood home along with your other childhood homes. You have moved out, but this is still your place.
I really mean that. Home is a place, but in a more fundamental sense home is people. Like relatives arriving for a family reunion, you are bringing a lot of what makes Westmont "home" with you just by coming. Your presence will be refreshing not only for you travelers, but for us too – especially people like us (junior faculty, the musicians, and current students) who are after all the newcomers in this room. You are like the owners of a vacation house who are coming over to unlock the door, let us into your place, show us around, and invite us to be your guests.
I'm sure you have been welcomed back many times already this weekend. You can add my welcome to the list. At the same time, I am thankful that you are here to welcome us back to your home.
It's certainly not the first time you have let us in! You see, a third reason this letter is short is that we need no introduction either. Listen to the letter's opening:
The elder, to the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth ... (2 John 1).
We are familiar to you, whether or not we have met you, because you were here first. We're the ones camped out in your dorms, office spaces, gym, dining commons, and library. You know us because you can see yourselves in us.
Now of course "the lady chosen by God" is actually the church, the kyria to Christ's kurios. It's not just some Christian college. We work hard to help our students make that distinction, and I am not about to undo that work now! Westmont isn't a church. Yet there are resemblances. Westmont is a kind of matriarch, an alma mater, a nurturing mother, and we are her children. A church and a college are both families. That is what makes each a permanent home rather than just a flophouse.
As you know, families can get a little tense. Families can get a little dysfunctional. As we read 2 John, we discover that the elder is not talking to the Cleaver family.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love (2 John 4-6).
There is a lot of love here, but it's the kind you feel when a parent comes into your room and gently, quietly, calmly grounds you for ten years.
Things have been awfully good at Westmont since I arrived in 1999. In fact, they have been so good that I sometimes catch myself waiting for everything to fall apart. However, you know that even in times of serenity Westmont and her children are always facing challenges – profound challenges – and we know the same is true of you. Every year my first-year students are shocked with the full force of college education that has finally hit them now that orientation and the first adrenaline-filled weeks have worn off. Every year my upper-division students are weary and a bit jaded. All of us are battling for faith in a culture that discourages it. Their parents and they are struggling to afford the expense. The school faces opposition to its master plan update.
We also know of the hardships all of you are facing in your families, your careers, and your churches. You hear from us more than we hear from you, but we hear enough to know that it has sometimes been very, very hard.
Catching up is bittersweet, isn't it? There is a lot to cover, and it's not all pleasant. But even when it's hard, it's good. That, by the way, is how my students describe something that has nearly knocked them over. "How was your summer?" I might ask. If they answer by pitching the word higher than the rest of the sentence – "it was good!" – then it means they spent their summer in Paradise. But if it is said gravely – "it was good" – then they spent their summer in Purgatory.
They're right. It is good, either way. By the grace of God, we can say "it's all good" even when it's rotten, when it's absolute torment, and not be lying. When my students say "it's all good," what they mean is "we have hope." They are saying what our letter insists: that "grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, will be with us in truth and love" (2 John 3).
Lean on the strength of that future tense, my friends. You and we need it, whether or not we realize it right now. The power of all three letters of John is their profound hope even as they describe things that make your hair stand on end. The middle of the letter just hints at them:
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work (2 John 7-11).
That, my big brothers and sisters, is hardcore. And remember, this message coming from you to us, not the other way around. The letter is maddeningly vague about the specifics of what has gone wrong at home, but clearly the situation is critical. By contrast, things are more good than good at Westmont right now. Yet I want to assure you that we know the only thing keeping us from disaster is sheer faithfulness to God's sheer grace.
The letter can remain vague about both the promises and the problems because the elder and the children enough about each other not to have to spell everything out. They understand. They have kept in touch. Even when the family seems like it's breaking apart, it still hasn't drifted apart. So reminders are all they need for now. They can get by with some brief encouragements and warnings to keep the faith and hold onto the mission that they all share together.
I want to thank you for keeping in touch. Thank you for praying for us over the years as new students and faculty turn over. Please don't stop! We need your steadfastness and memory to keep Westmont from drifting, as all institutions can when their people turn over. We need you to keep this noblewoman's legacy alive – alive, as 2 John puts it, "for the sake of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever" (2 John 2). I didn't go to college here. I didn't even go to a Christian college! I came late to evangelical Christian faith. I need your example and your training. I need to know how Westmont prepared you for the future and how she didn't. I need to hear your stories and your advice so that Westmont doesn't deviate from the mission that drove her from the beginning. I would love to know how I am succeeding, but I need to know how I am not.
That makes it sound as if our letter might need to be longer than just thirteen verses after all. Nope! For at the end of the letter we learn a final reason for its brevity:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).
My favorite part of the letter is what is missing: most of it. This line pulls me into wondering at the laughter, hugs, tears, and fright of the reunion I imagine they had.
But a full imagination isn't enough. This verse also makes me hungry for our joy to be complete as theirs was. Thank you for coming face to face with each other and with us. Thanks for taking the time and bearing the cost to come home and give us what paper and ink can never give us.
What use is this tiny little letter? Is it in the New Testament by accident? Not at all. Rather, it's a sign – a sign pointing to the kind of community that could have authored it. It greets us as beloved cousins in an extended family: "The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings" (2 John 13, cf. 2 John 1b). It is a call for us to be the kind of community that can say, and not say, the same things, share the same joy, and know the same truth. It calls us not only to make our churches that kind of church, but also to make our college that kind of college.