Jason Micheli

There is No I in Sermon

by Jason Micheli

1 Peter 1.1-3  (click to see Scripture text)

April 26, 2020

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Cyrus Habib lost his sight as an eight-year-old boy in Seattle, Washington. A rare cancer afflicted his eyes and forced the removal of his retinas. Habib spent the ensuing decades working to prove to the world— and to himself— that he could accomplish anything he fixed his mind on. He matriculated at Columbia University where he subsequently won a Rhodes Scholarship. A J.D. from Yale Law School followed. “From Braille to Yale” was how Habib often described his inspiring journey. 

Today, Habib, who is still only thirty-five years old, serves as the Lieutenant Governor of Washington State. 

According to the NY Times, last month Cyrus Habib announced to voters that his name would not be on the ballot this November. Rather than seek a second term— an election he was projected to win comfortably— Habib announced that he had decided to become a priest. Or rather, as Habib clarified the matter, he had been called to become a priest.

Instead of climbing the ladder to ever greater political power and prestige, next Fall Habib will enter the novitiate in Los Angeles and begin an intensive ten year ordination process that will include vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. As Father James Martin told the NY Times, “He’ll have a dramatic change of life, from being Lieutenant Governor to being told he’s cleaning the bathroom the wrong way.” 

Habib told the NY Times he feared the very same “can-do” attitude that equipped him to overcome his blindness could also, now that he was ensconced in power, be his undoing. “If hardened into an ideology of its own,” he said, “it can crowd God out, because it makes you into a kind of god and says, ‘I’m not a contingent creature. I’m completely independent.’” Stepping down now, he told the Times, is like “giving your car keys to someone before you start drinking.”

Cyrus Habib says God called him to the priesthood while he was in negotiations over a book deal. “I was in talks with a top literary agent in New York,” he said, “and it was all predicated on my biography, my identity, my story, and it struck me if God is at work in the world, speaking and calling, then my story can’t really be said to be my story, can it?” 

Just like that, God made a blind man see.

About twenty years ago, I was part of a captive audience for a class on preaching at Princeton. I was captive in the worst kind of way, because this belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his “sample sermon” before the homiletics class. 

His sermon was frenetic. His delivery was demonstrative. His zeal for the Lord and his urgency for us to share that experience with him (in our hearts) was lined across his face. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his affect was effective. However, our homiletics professor, Dr. James Kay, looked restless and irritated throughout the entire twenty minute sermon, and once the sermon was finally over Dr. Kay looked exasperated. 

It was not the reaction the beaming student preacher had anticipated. 

“Do you realize,” Dr. Kay thundered with genuine offense, “not one of your sentences had God as their subject!” 

The point seemed lost on the preacher. 

“God was not the subject of any of the verbs in your sermon,” he explained. “If the Gospel is true, then you don’t need any “I’s” in your sermon. The Living Word is able to work what the Word says.”

It was a mic drop moment before mic drops were memes. 

Though seldom do I practice what Dr. Kay preached that afternoon, I’ve never forgotten the lesson. 

As a young preacher, I felt liberated to hear that there need not be any I’s in the sermon— my stories, my beliefs, my spiritual experiences, my religious insights— in the sermon. Not if the Living God is a God determined to reveal himself, at work through His Word to bring us to Himself.

———————-

Peter addresses his message to a suffering church. 

“You have been put to grief in manifold trials,” Peter acknowledges to his hearers in verse six. Decades after the crucifixion, the persecution of Christians had taken on a more insidious and thoroughgoing form. Persecution entailed not simply verbal scorn or physical punishment. Persecution meant ostracization, marginalization, and social isolation. Rather than make Christians bear crosses, Rome turned to boycotting them. 

Thus, the church addressed by Peter’s message is a church-suffering economic upheaval and financial uncertainty, which is why Peter takes pains to remind them in verse seven that the faith of Jesus Christ is a more precious currency even than gold. 

And the believers to whom Peter writes, they’re suffering separation, too. They’re scattered and unable to gather. They’re dispersed far and away across Pontus and Galatia, Cappodocia and Asia, and Bithynia, worshipping in homes and struggling to hold onto the faith in the face of present hardship. 

And for these woebegone believers, notice, Peter the Preacher has no “”I in his message. Peter the Preacher does not console the frightened and suffering church— as he most certainly could— with any part of his story. 

Peter doesn’t remind them. “Look, I was there. I am the one who tried to keep God from working through suffering and crucifixion. But Jesus said to me, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

No, Peter never mentions how he found the correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter doesn’t warn them away from worrying that their present suffering is a sign of God’s punishment. Peter doesn’t reassure them by preaching, “I didn’t just let Jesus down. I denied Christ— not once, thrice, not twice. Still, after God raised Him from the dead, I received the Lord’s forgiveness three times. Thrice I heard him tell me, ‘Peter, feed my sheep.’” 

No, Peter never mentions his Easter encounter.

Peter is a rare, unusually disciplined Preacher. 

For someone who experienced Jesus Christ in the flesh for three years, Peter the Preacher never preaches about his experience of Jesus Christ. 

The same is true of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, when the promised Holy Spirit arrives to baptize the body of believers, Peter experiences the tongues of fire and the mighty rushing wind and the undoing of Babel, yet Peter the Preacher never preaches about his experience of the Holy Spirit. 

After Pentecost, Peter’s sermons are all the same and there’s not an “I” in any of them. “This Jesus whom you crucified,” Peter preaches again and again, “God raised Him from the dead. Repent and believe.” 

Speaking of the resurrection— 

It’s odd that Peter the Preacher not only does not preach about any of his memories of, or experiences with, or stories about Jesus, neither does Peter attempt to comfort his discouraged and afflicted flock by proving the fact of the resurrection for them. 

For a scattered church suffering a world where the Powers of Sin and Death still appear to reign supreme, you would think that a Preacher like Peter would marshal every available argument to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt— prove to those starving for hope— that He is risen. 

Christ is risen indeed. 

But no, Peter the Preacher never mentions the empty tomb. Peter doesn’t point to the over five hundred to whom the Risen Christ appears. Peter doesn’t argue that only resurrection could explain how so many faithful Jews would instantly break the First and most important Commandment to worship a crucified carpenter as the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Peter doesn’t leverage any of his own first-person stories to persuade his listeners.

And Peter doesn’t mount any evidentiary arguments to convince his listeners.

All Peter does here at the top of his message— 

He calls himself an “apostle.” 

One who is called. 

Summoned and sent.

To proclaim. 

That is, Peter believes that the sheer miraculous gratuity of God’s call— the very fact that God calls people like him or…you— is the only corroboration we require that Jesus Chris is not dead. 

I mean— 

I know I should be a better preacher. I know I should refrain from speaking of myself, but I can tell you. I know Jesus Christ is not dead, because in 1995 I met Him. 

And shortly, thereafter, He called me. 

———————-

Weeks before Christians acclaimed their hosannas while hunkered down in their Zoom rooms, I paid a pastoral call to a ninety-seven-year old shut-in in our community. 

“I’d like to talk to a preacher,” he told me on the phone when he called. 

Fred was worried that “when the virus finally gets here, I’m exactly the kind of geezer who will have a bad go of it.” 

He asked me to come visit him and “do more than shoot the breeze.” 

I said sure, and before hanging up he warned me, “I’m not a church member.” 

“Not yet,” I replied.

Over instant coffee the next day, he told me, “I’m ninety-seven years old and damned if I’m not afraid to meet my Maker.” 

I started to answer, but he waved me off. He had something he wanted to get off his chest. 

“I try to have faith,” he said, sipping his Folgers, “sometimes it feels like it’s there and sometimes…” His voice trailed off and he nodded at the television. A story about the epidemic in Israel was playing on CNN. “Sometimes it feels like I have Him in my heart,” and he tapped his chest, “but other times I don’t know.” 

Likely it appeared that I was practicing active listening, but really I was struck by how little my seminary education prepared me for this encounter. 

“I’ve tried to be good, and I’ve always done for others, but I’ve not been perfect.” 

He went on in that vein for a few minutes more, somewhere in between anxious and genuinely terrified by the truth that none of us is getting out of here alive. 

Finally, I interrupted him, “Christianity isn’t about trusting what’s in your heart. That wouldn’t be good news. That would be terrible news. Christianity’s about trusting Christ who promises that you’re forgiven and loved. Hold fast to that promise; don’t look into your heart.” 

He looked skeptical. My lack of eschatological humility embarrassed him. So I gave him the goods. I stood up. I made the sign of the cross over him. And I said, “Fred, in the name of Jesus Christ and by His authority alone, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” 

“All of them?”

I nodded, “Every one of them.”

I sat back down. 

And he wept. 

“But what gives you the right…?”

And I thought about it for a moment, “Easter.”

“I don’t know. Who are we to speak for God?” 

“That’s actually my job, my vocation,” I replied. “God called me to speak for Him. And God is present to you in His promise, here and now in your living room, Fred, as sure and certain as though you were standing in the Garden on Easter morning.” 

“God called, you? Why not me? I’ve never heard God say a word to me.”

“Well, maybe God called me for no other purpose than call you to Himself.” 

———————-

“God gives life to the dead,” the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul puts it in a single sentence: God gives life to the dead and God calls witnesses. For Paul, they’re both God’s work of resurrection. Therefore, the Church— God’s called People (that’s what the word Church means in Greek)— is the visible, tangible proof of the resurrection.

We are what Doubting Thomas insists he demands of Jesus. As Karl Barth said, the Church is the crater left behind by the explosion of God raising Jesus Christ from the dead. The Church is not natural; it is the creation of the resurrection. 

This is what Paul means when he gripes to the Galatians that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new Creation is everything!” In other words, Paul’s saying that all the old categories of religion no longer matter. Resurrection renders them moot because you, Church, right this very moment, are a new Creation. You are among the first fruits of God raising Jesus Christ from the dead. 

Which means, despite what Jesus says on the Cross, it is NOT finished. Your sins are over and done with, for sure. All your sins— past, present, and future— have been swallowed up in the black hole of the Father’s gracious forgetting. And by his faithful life and perfect obedience Jesus Christ has forever silenced the accusing voice of the Law against you. When it comes to all the “oughts” and “should” of the Law, everything has already been done. 

For you. 

He’s taken your sins from you. 

He’s given His own permanent perfect record to you.

Once for everybody. 

It is finished.

But the work of Almighty God is not finished, because God the Father wants witnesses who will proclaim by the power of the Holy Spirit the Son’s work of reconciliation. Cracked vessels though we may be, we are the means by which Almighty God has chosen to draw all the world unto himself. 

This work is “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” Peter says. 

Foreknowledge. 

Think about that claim. 

That is, before God had ever created the world, God had determined to be God for us in Jesus Christ and before God ever called light and life into being, God had determined to call a People who would announce the grace of God in Jesus Christ. As Peter preaches at the top of his message today, “the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” not only blots out our sins, it makes us participants, “sojourners,” in God’s eternal plan. 

Which means, Easter is not a moment on the calendar two thousand or so years ago that we remember. Easter is a movement that enlists us. Easter summons those whom God calls to tell the whole world what is already, by grace, true about it. 

And thus we are sent not to speak about God so much as to speak for God. As Martin Luther said of our text today, when Peter preaches what God has done for us through cross and resurrection, it is no different than you hearing the promise from Jesus Christ, Himself.

————————

Cyrus Habib told the NY Times that he was not leaving politics for the priesthood because the pandemic had provoked him to do a moral inventory of his life. However, the COVID-19 contagion, he said, had led him to reflect on the nature of God’s call “We’re not completely in control of our lives,” he said, “Look at what we’re going through now. Something that you can’t even see with the naked eye is ravaging us. But we forget. Something else we often fail to perceive is at work in our lives, too. Someone else.”

Indeed, Christ is Risen. 

And the Living God just might call you to be a bearer of that news. 

No wonder on Easter morning they flee from the tomb, terrified. 

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been elected and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood:

May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

Jason Micheli

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