(This is the opening section from a sermon I preached on Sept. 10, 2013 in Talbot chapel. Full video here.)
In the first five verses of his first epistle, John seeks to sum up everything he ever heard, everything he ever saw, everything he came into contact with, about the person he wrote a whole gospel about: Jesus Christ. It’s a remarkable feat, because that gospel of John, that twenty-one chapter gospel, ended with a confession that there’s too much content in the reality of Jesus to ever capture in print: “Now there are many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) Think about that: there’s way too much to say, but here it is in 21 chapters.
And now it’s as if somebody has pressed him and said, thanks for boiling that all down to 21 chapters, John, much more portable than a world full of books; but it’s still a pretty long book. Could we get an executive summary of that? Could you say it even more concisely? Could you leave out the fluff and just state the big, main point? Could you maybe get that down to about, I don’t know, three words?
John would be perfectly justified in responding to this (imaginary) request with a NO. After all, some things just can’t be stated briefly. Some subjects require you to go along for the journey, to start at point A and walk patiently through a series of stations (B,C,D,E…) until arriving at the destination. To summarize it would be to leave out the whole purpose of it. Imagine asking a language tutor to tell you how to speak Spanish, but to leave out the details. “How do I speak Spanish?” “Well, it’s a skill and a process. You’ll need a lot of vocabulary, and some usage and grammar and habits of thought…” “Yeah yeah yeah, but I’m in a hurry, leave out the details and just tell me the basic idea of how to speak Spanish.” That doesn’t even make sense. “You know not what you ask.” No entiende… however that goes.
Some things, some of the most important things, resist being condensed and summarized. I think of the old one-liner from Woody Allen, who said “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” At that rate, Woody Allen could complete the reading list for the Torrey Honors Institute not in four years but in a few days, with similar results for all the classics of western literature: