Peter the preacher

If Peter were to reflect on the road that led to his first sermon, what would he say?

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

Anyone who knew me as a boy could never have predicted that I would turn out to be a preacher. I had neither the manners nor the motivation for that kind of job. I grew up in the tough neighbor hood of a fishing village. My life was as rough as the waves of Galilee. I caught fish. I smelt fish. I was uncouth, untidy. I often spoke first and thought later. I was given to protecting my turf. No one would ever have thought I would become a preacher. Least of all me.

Then one day Jesus of Nazareth met me. There was something about Him, something strange about His eyes. When He looked, it wasn't an ordinary look; it was so penetrating, almost surgical, cutting right through one's heart. That must have happened to me. When He said, "Simon, follow Me," I left my net and followed Him. Later I told my wife that I was going to be a fisher of men. She gave me a stern look as if to say that she and the kids ate fish and not people.

Even after I became His follower, I was not sure how my life would turn out. I did feel a particular closeness to Jesus. I listened to His teachings, grasped every word He uttered, watched with wonder His compassion for the poor, care for the suffering, tenderness toward the scattered debris of humanity, anger at hypocrisy, and an unrelenting pursuit after sinners. His miracles, His parables, His life, His love, impressed me beyond measure. But what was it that made my friends and me follow Him? Was it a selfless search for the kingdom that He had in mind? Or was it a selfish pursuit of glory in the kingdom that we had in mind?

I wasn't quite sure. Life often plays a dangerous, twisted game. And I was no stranger to that game. Between self-supremacy and surrender, be tween center stage and servanthood, I wobbled every now and then. At one moment I confessed that Jesus is the Christ of God; at another when He needed me the most I denied ever knowing Him. I walked on water, but faith gave way to doubt, and the miracle was about to become a disaster, but for His saving grace. He shared with me Gethsemane that moment when the fate of the universe hung in the balance, but I chose sleep. I did cut off an ear, but could not compose myself to face a maid's query regarding Jesus. I saw the cross. I rushed into the empty tomb. I was part of Him.

And yet, could I ever be a preacher of the kingdom? For days after He rose from death, He met with me and my friends and talked with us. Just before He ascended to His Father, He told us to wait wait until we were ready to go and "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19, 20).*

And we waited. And suddenly on the day of Pentecost, when we were all together in one place (Acts 2:1), it happened. God's Spirit, "like the rush of a mighty wind" (verse 2), filled the house, and filled us all. With the coming of the Spirit, everything seemed to come together. All the years we had spent with Jesus, all our questionings, the cross, the open tomb, took meaning. I remember Jesus once saying that "when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13).

That's the first lesson I had to learn before becoming a preacher. Without the empowering of the Holy Spirit, no real preaching can take place. It is the Spirit's power that pushed me to the pulpit that day and helped me preach my first sermon. A preacher is born, not out of scholar ship or eloquence or skill or wealth, but of the Spirit. A sermon is a miracle wrought by the Spirit through lips of clay.

Dr. Luke has left a careful record of my first sermon. He says that I was "standing with the eleven" (Acts 2:14) when I began the sermon. That's true. Gospel preaching is not a one-person show. It is not entertainment. It is not self-glorification. Preaching is an occasion when a representative of the body of Christ shares the good news of the kingdom. The sharing is done on behalf of that kingdom, by staying together with the people of the kingdom. Preaching fails when the body of Jesus is split. A preacher and the believer share the common platform of God's grace and His commission.

My sermon that day was not an ordinary incident. No sermon is. All my life seemed to have been a preparation for it, even though I may not have been consciously aware of it. The Holy Spirit enabled me to place my message in proper perspective and context. First, the perspective of God's Word. Nearly 50 percent of my sermon as it's recorded is quotations from the Bible. A sermon that does not spring from the Word of God cannot make the living Word come alive before the congregation. With out the inspired Word, how could we speak about the Incarnate Word? A sermon must begin with that under standing and be rooted firmly in God's revelation. It is that biblical perspective, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that led us to connect what was happening on that day to Joel's prophecy. "This is that," I thundered (verse 16, KJV). Preaching must be able to connect the present with the past and then point to the future. The life of people today must be lived in the light of God's mighty workings of the past and His promises for the future. Once that connection is established, minis try takes on a new dimension: we become simple tools to be used by the Holy Spirit to change lives.

Second, the Spirit enabled us to preach within the context of an eschatological urgency. I was deter mined to point out that we were living in the last days, and it was no time to fool around. Preaching should always carry such an end-time urgency. Not that we should project an utopic vision or a frightening fiery scenario, but we need to present with prophetic anticipation that our hope in the kingdom is real, and that our Lord shall return soon to take us home. Authentic preaching is prophetic preaching not so much fore-telling as forth-telling, fearless and bold, uplifting Christ, leading to a confession of sins and transformation of lives. Joel (2:28- 32) came to my help, and I translated his emphasis on the end-time to urge "that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (see Acts 2:17- 21).

Did you catch another important homiletic point here? Even as a sermon affirms the eschatological dimension of Christian living, it should not evade the compulsions of living in the present. It should speak of redemptive living now and here: for we must "call on the name of the Lord" and be saved.

What was my sermon that day? In one word, Jesus.

The human Jesus

Jesus must be the decisive focus of every sermon. You may speak about doctrine or lifestyle or ethic or a par able or a miracle or a particular biblical passage. For sermon style you may choose narration, exposition, exegesis, or story. You may reflect on the personal expressions of the psalmist or the prophetic insight of Jeremiah or the apocalyptic thunder of John, but the decisive focus must always be Jesus uplifting Him, praising Him, drawing your listeners to Him. Other wise what you say cannot really be a sermon.

On the day of Pentecost, I wanted my hearers to have no misunderstanding about my theme. I did not want them to think we were drunken babblers. I drew their attention to "this Jesus" (verses 23,32,36). Three times I used that phrase, to let them know that they are not through with Jesus yet. They may think they've gotten rid of Jesus on Calvary, but they're mistaken. Jesus is the eternal pursuer. He lives. He encounters individuals every day. He wants them to make a decision.

To make the meaning even more clear, I identified Him as Jesus of Nazareth. Christian preaching must let the historical Jesus confront the congregation as a real human person. This Jesus we worship and preach is not a mythological figure. He is not a fictional hero, created by a literary giant or a religious fanatic. He is a real historical person. He lived in Nazareth, taught in Galilee, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified in Jerusalem. He walked with us, talked with us, ate with us, suffered with us, and was tempted like we are. Jesus is real. His divinity is real. His humanity is real. Without that reality to speak about, there is no Christianity, there is no Christian preaching. Jesus is the one through whom God invaded our human sphere in order that He may once for all deal with the problem of sin. "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

When we speak of this Jesus, His humanity, His divinity, we speak of a great mystery; we stand on holy ground. Even we who saw Him in flesh and blood and were eyewitnesses to all that He was and all that He did could not quite understand everything about Him. He remains the eternal mystery. He is God.

The divine Jesus

That's the second point I wanted my hearers to understand. Jesus was a man from Nazareth. We knew that. They knew that. But He was no ordinary man. What He was and what He did were in "the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). The mission of Jesus was not a result of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Great religious leaders have come upon history, self-discovered their role, and tried to lead their followers to some great social or moral Everest. Jesus is not one such great leader. He is not one such great teacher. Jesus is God, invading history in space and time, to execute the plan laid "from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8, KJV). You see, the people of Jerusalem, including the priests and the rabbis, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, thought they were dealing with a man an inconvenient teacher, a miracle performer, an up right person, or a judgmental prophet whose life was a moral indictment on theirs. So they chose the cross and went home glad that the problem of Jesus was over. They could have been right, except Jesus was no ordinary man. He was God. "This Jesus you crucified, this Jesus God raised up," I cried over the airwaves of Jerusalem. The grave could not hold Him. He rose a mighty conqueror over sin, death, and Satan.

A sermon must have sound proof, and what proof did my assertion have? I had two proofs to offer. First, I went back to the Bible. There's no solid ground for any preaching unless it springs from, and keeps going back to, the Word. To Jews the cross was a symbol of shame. They argued that "a hanged man is ac cursed by God" (Deut. 21:23), and therefore the crucified Jesus could not be the Messiah. But I wanted my hearers to know that they had let their misconceptions shape and limit their God. Their self-conceit had blinded them from the purposes of God. If they had only put prejudice aside and let the Bible be the sole source of truth, they would have known that the cross was no accident; it was in "the definite plan [boule]" of God (Acts 2:23). The cross of Jesus is God's boule, the irrevocable, the unalterable answer to the problem of sin. The prophetic word predicted not only the cross but also the resurrection. I drew their attention to prophets who foresaw a Messiah who not only would die, but also whose body would not see corruption. I referred them to David, who prophesied "the resurrection of the Christ" (verses 25-31; see Ps. 16:8-11).

Just as the people were drinking in this interpretation of the psalmist, I gave them my second proof that Jesus is of God: I was an eyewitness. Wherever I preached, I had that advantage of knowing Jesus personally. I could speak about my mother-in-law, the feeding of the 5,000, the man at the pool, the 10 lepers, Lazarus, my own betrayal, the kiss of Judas, and above all the cross. I could also speak about the Resurrection. I was the first disciple to witness it, even though the faith of Mary Magdalene beat me to it. But that's the beauty of seeing Jesus: the fact, not the order, is important. When you are an eyewitness, you can speak with authority, and the Holy Spirit can convict your hearers. If you have not seen Jesus, if you have not touched Him, if you have not spoken to Him today, don't ever try to preach a sermon! During my preaching, not once did I say "It's possible ...," "It's reasonable to suppose or "I have a hunch ..." Proclamation is not a theory of probability; it is the sharing of a certainty; it is an eyewitness account of what the Lord did and can do!

The living Jesus

I had another important burden to convey in my sermon. The risen Jesus ascended into the heavens from whence He came. Once again I turned to the Bible and said this is what David foretold: "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet" (Acts 2:34,35; see Ps. 110:1). I showed from the Scripture how this prophecy applied to Jesus.

People of Jerusalem thought they were doing away with Jesus, burying His person, His name, and His teachings forever in a sealed tomb. Pilate washed his hands off. The priests returned home, with the satisfaction of doing away with the One who troubled them the most. Judas the betrayer did not even wait to see what was going to happen. But this Jesus is no ordinary man. No grave could silence Him. No political power could do away with Him. No religious hierarchy can shut down the power of His presence. And so what happened to Jesus?

He rose to His Father's throne and sat on His right hand, with His enemies as footstools. Prophecy is full of symbolic pictures, and preachers ought to be cautious how they interpret these symbols.

But I had no difficulty with these symbols. Neither should you. The enemy of Jesus is Satan. At the cross he was ^^^ crushed, defeated, doomed. In the great cosmic conflict be tween good and evil, Jesus has be come the ultimate victor, and He has rightfully occupied the position of power and authority at the right hand of the Father.

So what?

That, I suspected, would be the thought crossing the minds of my Jerusalem audience. So it was time to tell them what Jesus means: "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36).

This was a critical point in my sermon. The thousands of people hearing me that morning had come from distant parts of the Roman Empire. They were preoccupied with two factors all their lives: a present reality and a future hope. The present reality was that they lived under the lordship of Caesar. Caesar was their lord of daily living: a vengeful, oppressive lord. The future hope was the coming Messiah, the Christ. I knew this, and I wanted to touch their inmost emotions and fears. I told them that "this Jesus whom you crucified, God has made Him both Lord and the Christ. He is your Lord: loving, caring, gracious Lord. He is your Messiah. He is your present reality. He is your future hope. This Jesus."

When you present Jesus in such penetrating terms, response is inevitable. People are "cut to the heart" (verse 37). A sermon, grounded in the inspired word, testifying to the cross and the Resurrection, and empowered by the Spirit, cannot but lead the hearers to ask, "What shall we do?" No sermon should end without some one asking that question. Preaching is not entertainment. It is not information doled out. It is not emceeing a service. It is talking about "this Jesus," leading the people to His cross, showing them His wounds, describing His triumph, offering them His hope, and inviting them to accept Him as their Lord and Saviour. A sermon that does not give its listeners an opportunity to respond to Jesus reflects either the preacher's timidity or his/her lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit's control of lives and events.

The issue of response is not one of legalistic compliance to this routine or that doctrine, to this institution or to that lifestyle. These may be important, but I wanted my congregation to understand clearly the one central issue on which their eternal destiny depends: "What shall we do with this Man Jesus?"

The eternal Jesus

I remember clearly the eagerness with which my hearers asked that question. Only a few days earlier some of the same people shouted for His blood. They had cried, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." Now they want to know what to do with this risen Jesus. A preacher must never give up hope in the people. Today someone in your congregation may reject your word; but tomorrow hope may let the Lord in. There is power in the blood of Jesus to convict, to convince, to trans form. All we have to do is follow the words of Jesus: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).

That's all. We lift up Jesus, and He does the rest. On that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave me the right words to make my final appeal: "Re pent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (Acts 2:38, 39).

An effective sermon must lead to repentance, to a change of life. It should bring the sinner to baptism in the name of Jesus. It should affirm the saint in the reception of the Holy Spirit. It should proclaim the universality of the gospel, to both Jew and Gentile, to those who are here and to those who are "far off," to all who call upon the Lord.

Are you surprised at the result we had? A baptism of 3,000 on the first day of our evangelistic campaign in Jerusalem! Where there is the Word, where there is the preaching of the cross and the Resurrection, and where there is the Spirit, church growth takes care of itself. Maranatha.

* Except as stated, all Scripture passages are from the Revised Standard Version.

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

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