(A sermon based on John 21:24-25 for Sunday, February 9, 2014)
There is a thing in this world known as collaborative storytelling. Here’s how it works: one person starts a story and sends it to someone else then that person writes a section and sends the story on to someone else who adds the next part and so on and so on and so on. And so the writing of the story involves the contributions of many people. I’m told the final result can be a bit of a mess but that’s ok since art is supposed to imitate life and life sure can be messy, especially when you get lots of people—or just a few people—or just one person—involved.
There is a sense in which we are all involved in collaborative storytelling. God started a story—a story in the plot of which God is still heavily involved—and all of us are involved in the writing, telling, and living of that story. We are all contributing to it whether we realize it or not and whether we want to or not; our contributions might be unthinking and haphazard or they might be thoughtful and purposeful. We don’t have a choice as to whether to participate; we do have some choices about how we are going to participate.
Life teaches us the truth that I am sharing with you but so does the Bible. The last two verses of John might feel open-ended to you and that is probably purposeful. Many scholars believe that John’s Gospel originally ended at John 20:30-31, which also has an open-ended feeling to it. (In fact, the way the last two chapters of John work helps to make my point; it’s as if at the end of chapter 20 we have “The End” and then with chapter 21 we have “But wait, there’s more” and then at the end of chapter 21 we have “But wait, there’s always more…”). Moreover, it is very likely that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel is at Mark 16:8, which leaves the women who discovered the empty tomb frightened and silent. The book of Acts, one purpose of which is clearly to get Paul to Rome, finally gets him to the center of the Empire and then just leaves him there, both under house arrest and preaching the Good News “unhindered.” We know from tradition that eventually Paul was martyred in Rome, but Acts leaves us with an unfinished story.
The Bible presents us with an unfinished story. Life presents us with an unfinished story. The glory of it is that God calls us to participate and to contribute—to see the living of our lives as a part of what God is doing in history.
I was sitting in a class one morning at Mercer University when Dr. Giddens read John 21:25: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Dr. Giddens asked, “What do you suppose that means?” A classmate answered, “I think it means that the story is still being written.” Dr. Giddens liked that answer and I wished I had thought of it. Think of it this way: every time that Jesus touched a life—every time he healed a sick person, forgave a sin-sick person, embraced an outcast person, taught a seeking person—that life then went out and touched a life which touched a life which touched a life which touched a life---and so on and so on. And we are here because that long line of lives touching lives has extended all the way to us and now extends on through us and beyond us.
Will there ever be an end? No. There will be a fulfillment, a summing up, a completion, and a maturing—but the story will never end because eternity is by its very nature—as God is by God’s very nature—outside of and beyond space and time. And so will we be.
Again, though—we do our part. And we can embrace doing our part with great faith and with much enthusiasm. After all, the unfinished story as presented in John, in Mark, and in Acts happens in the context of the resurrection of Jesus; those who came after that resurrection lived in the power and promise of it and so do we.
What do you do if I knock on wood in the following pattern: knock, knock, knock knock knock? You respond with “knock knock.” But do you know what the knocks stand for? If I say “Shave and a haircut” with that same rhythm, what do you say? “Two bits.” The ditty goes back to when you could get a shave and a haircut for two bits (twenty-five cents) but we know even now how the unfinished phrase is supposed to be ended.
There is a very real sense in which we need to believe and say and do the same thing all together for the Lord and for his Church. There are the basics, after all, such as those that we repeated in our Affirmation of Faith today: “Christ the Lord was crucified! Christ the Lord is risen! Christ the Lord will come again!” Given those basics, though, sometimes we need to think and say and do different things all together for the Lord and for his Church. I’d like everyone to think of a two syllable word or phrase—it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s not “two bits.” Now, when I say “Shave and a haircut,” say that. What a beautiful mess! It sounds almost—Pentecostal!
It is the differences that keep things interesting. The differences are also the ways that God made us each unique and through which God wants to lead us into a most interesting story. Given the facts of the resurrection, the never-ending nature of the story, and the wonderful collection of different people in the world and in the Church, it should be—it is—a fascinating journey, especially if we’re all putting in our two bits’ worth.
Sing along with me (if you dare): “This is the song that doesn’t end; yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn’t end …” Ms. Shari Lewis would get so sick of hearing the song that she would drive off (gently and sweetly, of course) all of the puppets and children who were singing it. But that’s not the way we look at life. It’s not a grind; it’s not a trap; it’s not a trick. It’s a journey; it’s a gift; it’s a wonder; it’s an adventure.
In the children’s book The Never-Ending Story, Michael Ende writes of a boy who gets drawn into the story in a book of that same title. At times throughout the story, plot lines are started but not completed. At those points the book says, “This is another story and shall be told another time.”
It’s God’s story but your story is part of it. God has put God’s self all into the story but your two bits’ worth matter, too. God has invested God’s great life in this world, but you have your life to live, too.
I’ve been trying to tell you about God’s story. I can’t wait to hear you tell your story. But that’s another story and shall be told another time …