The Gospel in Three Phrases

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A rabbi friend of mine and I were once doing a joint study Lenten/Passover with our congregations as a way of comparing and contrasting our two synoptic faith traditions. During one of the Q&A sessions, one of the folks in my congregation asked Rabbi Josh, “How would you sum up the message of Judaism?” Josh didn’t hesitate with his answer. “That’s simple,” he said. “Jews always remember three things: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

That description has stuck with me — so simple, so direct, and so easy to celebrate. As I listened to Josh breaking down Judaism into a three-fold pattern, I began to wonder if we preachers could articulate the foundational message of Christianity so succinctly. We should be good at threes because, after all, we have that whole Trinity thing going for us; but explaining the Trinity is, for some, like trying to explain how Jello can be a solid and a liquid at the same time. You don’t ask, you just enjoy it.

And, yes, there’s that ubiquitous four-fold formula used in many corners of the church — the Four Spiritual Laws — but Calvinists and Wesleyan-Arminians would spend all their time arguing about the first law and whether God does actually have a wonderful plan for your life and, if so, whether or not you’re merely acting out a pre-ordained plan or using your free will to follow it. Then there’s the whole law versus grace language and, well, you get the picture.

Luther had 95 theses, the Westminster Confession has 107 questions, and the Anglicans have 39 Articles of Religion, which the Methodists edited down to 25. Wesley also added three General Rules — rules being kind of his thing. While all of these doctrinal statements are important in the history and theology of the Church universal, they’re not really concise enough to fit on a t-shirt, which is really the gold standard of whether people will pay attention to what you have to say these days.

So, if you were going to boil down the gospel into three easily reproducible statements that require very little explanation, how would you put it? What would go on the t-shirt? I’m pretty sure that we’d get as many answers as we have readers, but let me offer a modest draft of my own.

I heard a description once of a survey that asked a sample of people, “What three words do you most want to hear?” The top three answers were very telling:

  1. I love you.
  2. I forgive you.
  3. Dinner is ready.

Seems to me that the words that people most want to hear correspond to the words that Jesus used most often. The Gospels certainly say more than this, but everything else is a variation on the theme:

  1. God loves you. In Christ, God expresses God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for us.
  2. God forgives you. In Christ, God forgives sinners of every kind.
  3. Dinner is ready. In Christ, God welcomes us all to a feast where everyone who wants to come has a place at the table. It’s Christ’s table and he sets the guest list!

I love you. I forgive you. Dinner is ready. Jesus lived these out as evidence of the Good News. Imagine if his followers took these simple phrases and used them as the guidelines for how we engage the world with the message of the gospel.

It’s hard to imagine a simpler sermon. In fact, it’s really an outline for worship–Word, Confession, Table.

These are the words people most want to hear. How are you communicating them to your congregation each week?

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