A rector was leaving a congregation on his last Sunday. At the end of the service, he stood at the door while the people filed out and said their last goodbyes.
One woman came to the priest weeping, full of emotion. The rector attempted to comfort her. “There, there, Hilda. Even though I’m leaving, I’m sure the bishop will send you a wonderful preacher.”
Through her tears she replied, “That’s what they’ve been telling us for 20 years and it hasn’t happened yet!”
A first sermon is a lot like a first date – you want to do well, be impressive, put your best foot forward and not say anything dumb that might endanger the future relationship.
I remember my first sermon. I was a seminarian and back visiting my home parish in Colorado Springs during spring break. The rector told me to preach at all three services that morning. So I got up in the pulpit at the 8AM service (which was 1928 Prayer Book) and looked out at the sea of faces. I didn’t know a single one of them, since I never went to the 8AM service while a member of the parish. Although they did not open their mouths, the looks on their faces said, “Who is this guy? Where did they get him from?”
When I finished the sermon, I went to sit back down in the preacher’s chair. I didn’t think I made any connection with the people, so I looked down toward the rector sitting in the sanctuary. He shot back a smile and a thumbs up. So I guess I reached at least one person with my message that morning. Either that, or the rector just felt sorry for me.
Every preacher has gone through the experience of preaching that first sermon. So did the apostle Peter. And it’s recorded in today’s reading from Acts of the Apostles.
At first glance, Peter seems totally unqualified to preach. He hadn’t spent his last three years in seminary, but in the school of apostolic embarrassment. He wasn’t known for careful study before speaking, but rather had a “ready, fire, aim” approach to shooting his mouth off. He fell asleep in the garden when he was supposed to be praying. He had an anger management problem – he cut off some guy’s ear when Jesus was being arrested. He denied even knowing Jesus – three times, no less. And when he first heard about the resurrection, he simply went back to his old job: fishing
If you were looking for a qualified preacher to deliver the first Christian sermon ever, you’d probably look over Peter’s track record and ask the divine Bishop to send you someone else.
Then again, the Scriptures reveal time and again that God usually doesn’t call the most qualified to speak for him, but qualifies the called instead. Although Peter was largely a bumbling, impetuous disciple before his first sermon, he had learned the truth about Jesus the hard way. No one knew better than he that Jesus could forgive and restore those who had betrayed him out of sin and fear. He had experienced it all, and now he had a story to tell that no theological degree could match.
Jesus told Peter in Galilee to feed the flock, and that’s exactly what Peter intended to do.
With some preparation, of course – the preparing and equipping power of the Holy Spirit.
So, there he stood in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, raising his voice and launching into a sermon.
The introduction wasn’t great. When you have to preface a sermon by telling the congregation you’re not drunk, there’s a pretty good chance it could all go downhill from there (v. 15). (Now folks, just so you know, I’m sober, I swear. I haven’t had a drop this morning.)
Peter then launches into the body of the sermon, the heart of which is about Jesus (who is the heart of every great sermon). He recounts the recent events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection from the dead – events that many in the crowd had witnessed and in which some had actively participated by encouraging authorities to put Jesus to death on a cross (vv. 22-23).
But what they had meant as a means of getting rid of Jesus, God had meant as the means of fulfilling his promise of salvation for his creation and for all who believe.
Then he used supporting Scriptural evidence. The resurrection of Jesus was God’s plan revealed to the patriarchs and to David, Israel’s glorious king, who had prophesied about the resurrection in Psalm 16, which Peter quotes to support his sermon (vv. 25-28). David wasn’t writing about himself, Peter says, doing the exegetical work of a good preacher. After all, people could go and visit David’s tomb with his body still in it (v. 29). Jesus’ tomb, on the other hand, was empty – a fulfillment of David’s prophecy that one of his descendants would sit on David’s own royal throne.
Peter’s conclusion is a “drop the mic” moment. “This Jesus God raised up,” he thunders, “and of that all of us are witnesses” (v. 32). The one who was crucified is now exalted at the right hand of God and initiated the pouring out of the Holy Spirit they’d just witnessed in fire, wind, and language (v. 33).
They looked for a Messiah in the line and mold of David, but they had received much more. They’d received the very one whom David himself had called “Lord” (vv. 34-35). The Jesus they crucified is Lord and Messiah (v. 36).
If you read Peter’s sermon through, it takes less than five minutes. Chances are if a rector went that short on a Sunday morning, the vestry would either want to cut the rector’s salary in half, or, perhaps, double it.
One Sunday, a fellow named Ron came out of church before the preacher had finished his sermon. He walked over into the nursery, where the attendant asked, “Has the rector finished the sermon, then?”
He replied, “Oh yes, he’s finished, but he won’t stop!”
Peter needed less than five minutes to boil down the essential content of the gospel into a message that would be repeated over and over again by people who have never needed seminary degrees in order to preach. It’s the simple affirmation that the Jesus who was crucified is the Jesus who has been raised from the dead, and all of us are witnesses to that fact through the eyes of faith, the witness of Scripture, and in the ways we live our lives.
It doesn’t matter how long a preacher’s been preaching or if one is ever a “professional” preacher at all. Peter’s sermon is the first and last message that followers of Jesus should be preaching. In fact, every Christian sermon in history proceeds from this message! There are, of course, many other things for the church to consider and the book of Acts lays them out for us – but all of that is contingent on Jesus Christ being raised from the dead.
New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright tells the story of getting into a cab in London one day whereupon the driver, seeing Wright’s clergy collar, asked what he did for a living. Wright responded that he was, in fact, a bishop.
“Ah,” the driver said, “you Church of England people. You’re still having all that trouble about women bishops, aren’t you?”
Wright admitted that that was indeed the case.
“The way I look at it is this,” replied the cabbie. “If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, all the rest is basically rock ‘n roll.” Whether you are behind the wheel of a cab or standing in a pulpit, that’s a sermon that will always preach.