Post Author: Courtney R. Young and Alison VanBuskirk Philip


I’ve had many opportunities to give sermons on the openings of the books of the Bibles. They are fun sermons to write because you get to dig into the particularities of genre or historical context or even artistic perspective. I realized that I had not had as many opportunities to preach on the texts that bring scripture to a close. I wondered about the ways that books are ended and what that might have to teach us about discipleship. This preaching series dives into the endings of four books: John, 2 Corinthians, Hosea, and Revelation. What better time to explore endings, completions, and closures in scripture and faith than the end of the liturgical year, the month spanning Reformation Sunday to Christ the King Sunday? From the creators of this preaching series, we pray that it would be a breath of fresh air for you and your worshiping community.

– Courtney Young

A bible is open to the last chapter of the Gospel of John, against a blue background

October 30, 2022 – Reformation Sunday – John 21:20-25 

RCL texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Isaiah 1:10-18; 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10) 

Opening Prayer (Call to Worship)
Prayer composed by Alison VanBuskirk Philip  

God who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,
We turn to you in the middle of our stories today
seeking your Word, your wisdom, and your wonders.
Open us to see your presence in our world and in our stories,
you, who are the Word made flesh,
you, who are the light of the world,
you, who are the great I Am.
Help us touch what is both real and mysterious, the Divine among us.
Guide us to follow you through every beginning and ending.

Amen.


Hymn Suggestion
God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage (Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig, Ole G. .Belsheim, & Martin Luther) 


Light text commentary with preaching suggestions
written by Courtney Young

It has always struck me as a humorously subversive move to end a gospel, a faithful and inspired account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, by saying that these are just some of the things that Jesus did. To let the work be diminished by the breezy acknowledgement that “the world itself could not contain the books that could be written.” To allow the hearer, the reader to arrive at the silent and still space, which resides at the completion of any story, only to have the audience turn away to measure the few measly pages that had reached their end against the vastness of oceans and forests and night skies all filled with books. How wonderfully subversive to end a book that intends to introduce Jesus to the world, the Word who dwelt among us, by saying that this is a tiny fraction of what could be said.

Throughout the course of the Gospel of John, Jesus and the writer(s) are on parallel trajectories. Both begin their passages by emerging out of the expanse of creation to put flesh to Word and word to papyrus. Bounded by body and page, Jesus and the writer seek to be present for and known by all those who have ears and eyes to receive the I Am as disciples. At the end of the gospel, both Jesus and the book depart from the lives of their disciples. Jesus ascends to the Father with the promise to return. The Gospel of John recedes from view with the assertion that what has been committed to word is not everything. There, at the end, the disciple is left to imagine the paradox that the world had, somehow, contained God’s Word, but could not contain the books that might be written about that Word.

This all may be very interesting for a preacher to read while (re)introducing themselves to this little bit of scripture that smirks at its readers, but does it actually make for resonant preaching? Why should the ending of John matter to the people sitting in your congregation, hungry for a good word?

A sermon rooted in the final words of John could be a very good place for how a faithful follower of Jesus orients themself to both scripture and God. It could explore the tension that a gospel is meant to simultaneously make known and to confound. It strives to promote mystery as much as it does intimacy and knowledge. A preacher could explore how the writer of John set out to commit a witness to words, but the writer themselves never mistook those words as the entirety of the Word. In fact, the Gospel doesn’t even contain all that the writer witnessed personally. For a book that puts so much emphasis on knowing Jesus, knowing does not mean comprehending or possessing. Faith is not having all the answers or complete understanding. If that is what we think faith is, then we are really striving to control Jesus’ story and resisting transformation instead of letting Jesus’ story change us. It is a gift that God and God’s creation are bigger than our understanding.

Another direction that a preacher could explore is that by ending the book in this stunning way, the audience is left with a sense of open-ended wonder instead of completion.  The writer is positioning their audience into an open, contemplative mindset that is necessary to receive our God who is near. We do not get to so casually close the cover on this Gospel, thinking to ourselves, “What a story that was!” and then move on. Instead, it invites us to lift our face up to the world, to (re)connect with what is around us, and imagine the stories we’ve never heard and the stories that have yet to be lived. It invites us to wonder how Jesus might show up in some other time or place. To consider how Jesus might be involved with the story of my life, right now.

Finally, for those who wish to remember Reformation Sunday, a preacher could highlight that John 21 is understood to be an epilogue, which was added to the gospel at a later time, potentially by a different author within the original author’s same worshiping community. The original ending was at 20:30-31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which were not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Both the original ending and the epilogue highlight that the witnesses they shared are incomplete but trustworthy and life-giving. Even with the acknowledgement that the Gospel of John was not everything and was not trying to be everything, some years later someone decided that it was necessary to let the witness expand, to change, in order to address a changing community. If the world itself cannot contain the books that could be written about Jesus, then the magnitude of the church’s witness is no small thing to contain either. May the church in each age share their words and hear the echo of earlier stories. 


Prayers of the People Petitions
Prayer composed by Alison VanBuskirk Philip   

God, you are the Alpha and Omega.

Thank you for being with us in our beginnings and endings and everything in between. 

Thank you for Jesus, who cannot be contained in any one book or story, but who shows us who you are and what you intend for us.

Thank you for the grace that sustains us and all of Creation, grace that shows us our source and destination.

Lord, we turn to you in expectation.

May your story shape our stories.

Faithful One, we can’t see where the plotlines of our world’s story are going. Sometimes we are stuck in mucky middles where the pain isn’t yet resolved, the justice isn’t yet realized, and the meaning isn’t yet glimpsed. Give us faith to hold us steady during the middle of things when we might want to despair or lose hope. We give you each plotline in our life that cries for resolution. Pause. We give you plotlines in our community’s and nation’s and world’s stories. Pause. Give us faith that you are present in all of it, inviting us to notice and believe.

Lord, we turn to you in expectation.

May your story shape our stories.

Loving One, you make us agents in the story. We get to write our way to the endings with you. So give us wisdom, courage, and resolve to speak the words and make the connections and take the steps that are part of a hopeful story emerging. Give us trust that you never leave our side. Give us confidence that wherever we are headed, you have already made a way. 

Lord, we turn to you in expectation.

May your story shape our stories.

Amen.  


Courtney Young is a bi-vocational Lutheran pastor/stay-at-home mom from Minnesota. She was honored to spend the first part of her career in campus ministry. Currently, she is serving as an interim pastor and writing a book. Connect with her at www.courtneyryoung.com.

Alison lives and pastors in Westfield, NJ. She is studying family systems theory with the intention of a future bi-vocation in ministry and marriage & family therapy. In her free time, she gardens, plays board games with her family, and studies the Enneagram.


Image by: Courtney Young
Used with permission