I have just finished reading Augustine’s 124 homilies on John’s gospel. This is the something of a milestone in my personal project of reading through all of Augustine’s sermons.
Augustine ends his last homily with a reflection on the end of John’s gospel. If you are familiar with John’s gospel, you will know that the gospel seems to conclude with the well-known purpose statement in Chapter 20:30–31.
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
That seems like a fitting conclusion to the gospel, but like many preachers, John concludes but then carries on. John has some loose ends to tie up concerning the mission of the disciples, especially the role of Peter, who is given a brisk but gracious reprogramming by Jesus.
John 21 ends with another conclusion from John:
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
This captures well one of the central themes of John’s gospel, that of the abundance Jesus brings to us. Jesus comes from the Father full of grace and truth (1:14), he comes to bring life and life in abundance (10:10). Jesus astonishes with a huge quantity of wine at a wedding, he offers living water that will make us never thirst again he multiplies bread and fish to feed the 5,000, is light sufficient for the illumination of the world, and life that can reverse the impact of death itself.
Augustine concludes his sermon on John 21 with something of a twinkle in his eye and a useful lesson for the preacher:
“I would discuss these matters more painstakingly if the evangelist, by concluding his Gospel, weren’t also obliging me to conclude my sermon.” (Augustine homily 124)
Augustine knows when to stop.
Good preachers need to know when to take the hint given by a Bible passage or the limited capacity of a congregation. If a passage of Scripture pauses or stops, perhaps it is time for the preacher to pause or stop too.
Good preachers know that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
It is possible to be so caught up in the moment of preaching that we go on for a bit longer than we should.
Sometimes it is by putting into the conclusion what could easily be left out, without in any way diminishing the effect of the sermon.
Sometimes it is by repeating what has been already said.
Sometimes it is because the preacher has not decided beforehand how to end. Like a pilot circling the airfield waiting for an opening to land, the sermon can go around in circles, without getting any closer to the destination.
To show that I am trying to put this blog into practice, I am going to stop now!