“The ‘I’ of the Sermon”

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Corinthians 4: 5)

The ‘I’ of the Sermon” is the title of a book that I purchased years ago.  The author is Rev. Richard L. Thulin, who was Professor of Preaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, PA.  I was buying into yet another churchly fad, this time under the general rubric of “narrative preaching”. I am no expert on this 20th century phenomena and thankfully, I do not think I ever read the book in question, but the “I” of the sermon affects us all: preachers and the people of God.  The “I” tends to replace the Christ of the sermon.  Churchly fads are the most dangerous because then we are playing around with God’s Word, Christ’s Church, and the faith and falsely thinking this new technique will augment the Word, where it might be replacing it and can we actually augment the Word? 

This “I” of the sermon is emblematic of our age. On a PC is the listing of “my pictures”, “my music”, “my computer” etc. and it is the recurrence of the possessive singular pronoun that is key. The “selfie” is the key image of the zeitgeist. In fact, “image is everything”. There is history B.C., before Christ, but when it comes to the individual, more and more, there is no history “B. M.”, Before Me.  In politics, pundits and people consider a candidate for an office a better prospect when she has a “compelling personal narrative”. This is also the attraction of pastors and layman who likewise have a “compelling personal narrative”.  The zeitgeist in the age of information is the self.

On blogs and Facebook entries, the pastor eclipses at times the message he proclaims which means the Lord.  The Church is in a televangelist and mega-church superstar world with their “ministries”.  These ministries have as the only modifier to ministries the televangelist’s name.  This is terribly ecumenical as evidenced the fascination the Pope holds over millions. After what might be characterized as the third “Great Awakening”, beginning with the Jesus people of the ‘60s morphing into the Born Again movement and the charismatics, every conversion narrative was compelling if the person’s bona fides of being no damn good contrasted with the person’s decision to ‘accept Jesus into his/her heart’.

Lutheran pastors and laymen regularly blog their personal narratives many times over.  Some of the more popular ones are by pastors coming out of a life of active sin.  We read their personal narrative and the way the Gospel brought them again out of darkness into His own most marvelous light (1 Peter 2: 9).  

In the retelling of their personal stories of repentance, the drama tends increases rhetorically in the retelling. One layman blogged that certain novels helped him come back to Christ and then went on to write that these novels’ words were a baptism to him and these novelists were as a pastor to him.  I do not think the author was literal but flights of rhetorical and metaphorical writing can begin to lead us down a wrong path by, in this case, confusing the actual means of grace and the actual vocation of a pastor. 

A pastor wrote that after coming out of his wickedness, he eventually learned doctrine to the point he was using it as a club on others.  Doctrine became for him, as he wrote, an ‘idol’ replacing his actual false god. “Doctrine is an idol”. Probably so.  The problem is many a liberal/progressivist pastor loves to read that kind of thing. As a woman ELCA pastor miffed to me in a pastors’ Bible study for Holy Trinity Sunday:  “The only time we celebrate a doctrine”.  The slide is into saying and believing that it is not about doctrine but Jesus, or “deeds not creeds”. I do not think the pastor was saying that doctrine, which became an idol became an idol,  is to be rejected,  but in the focus on the self, it can happen. It has in the past. 

We learn a lot about their lives.  We rejoice that Christ Jesus rescued them, as us.  They do not like what they did and came to the Law’s dead end of spiritual death; but their aversion to their sinful selves as the center of their wrong tends to become the occasion of yet another tale of the self as the center thus taking away from their correct conclusion that Jesus is at the center.  We tend to learn more about the person of the writer than the person of Jesus.

The noted philosopher of the media age, Marshal McCluhan wrote about TV:  “The medium is the massage”.  Listening and watching it begins to affect our thinking, massaging it, and remember the analogy of “boiling a frog”.  For instance, TV commercials do massage us to covet when the old Adam is passively watching. Similarly, uncritically reading these at times powerful Lutheran testimonials, I can let things slide and when nodding affirmatively, yes, doctrine is an idol, and when I read about the centrality of “sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1: 10;  Titus 1: 9;  Titus 2: 1), I might think, yeah, not so much.   I ‘found’ Christ in reading this novel, and when the novelty wears out, I can be adrift, wanting the same buzz.  When and where the Lord has promised to be is in His Word and Sacrament. This may seem to be less than exciting.  It is less than exciting and maybe that’s the point.   

Years ago, there was a editorial cartoon in an ELCA publication showing a pastor talking with a mom and her son. The little son is carrying a huge tome, entitled “My Early Years”.  The caption was the Mom talking, “Pastor, we put this book together from your sermon illustrations.” The Lord calls pastors to preach Christ, not the pastor.

Did not the Apostle Paul himself “tell his story”?   In fact, scholars have pointed out that the genre of literature, the autobiography, is of Christian origin and I think this might be true:  From the Apostle Paul to The Confessions of St. Augustine, to Martin Luther, to John Newton, to Chuck Colson.   

In The Acts of the Apostles, Luke narrates three times the Apostle Paul’s ‘conversion’[1]:   Acts 9:1-9;  22:  6-11 and 26:  12-18.   But in his epistles, the Apostle only briefly references his ‘conversion’, e.g. Galatians 1:15-16; 1 Corinthians 15:8-9; Galatians 1:11-12; I Corinthians 9:1; 1 Timothy 1: 15-17.  He wrote more about, in one letter, his impeccable Jewish and rabbinic credentials than he did about the Lord’s revelation to him on the Damascene road! (Philippians 3: 4-6). He tells more about his suffering for the Gospel, (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11: 20-29), as Jesus promised him (Acts 9: 16), than he did about his “personal compelling narrative” of ‘spirituality’. If anyone could have extensively written about his personal spiritual experiences, besides the Damascene road revelation,  it would have been the Apostle Paul:  See 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10!   In this chapter, Paul wanted to “boast” of his “visions and revelations of the Lord” (note the use of the plural!).    He wanted to but he knew this would puff him up, because as he tells us,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

It was not about Paul’s spiritual experiences, it was always about Christ Jesus and the Word of God.  Pastors at times need a thorn or two in this regard as did the Apostle!

The zeitgeist of the self is one we all swim in and in these times the old Adam sinks as mightily as did Jonah into the deep. After the great fish vomits Jonah on to the land, the Lord reissues His call to Jonah, the same as chapter 1, to preach to that great city of Ninevah.  Jacques Ellul, in his idiosyncratic yet penetrating reading of The Book of Jonah, wrote this about the preachers’ call to preach and teach the Word of God:

(Jonah) did not go to them to tell them about his experiences or the revelations he might have had. He did not decide on the content of his preaching. God did not tell him to go to Nineveh to say what he thought was good.  God commanded the same preaching.  Thus, no matter what our spiritual development may be, our witness is fast bound to the word of God. The greatest saint or mystic can say nothing of value unless it is based solely on God’s word. “Even if … an angel from heaven should preach to you another gospel,” you are not to believe him, and what is true in relation to the individual is also true in relation to the Church. The Church is not to choose its preaching. It must simply follow as faithfully as possible the eternal order and the hic et nunc (here and now) order of its Lord.

Martin Luther has this stern warning in The Large Catechism, to pastors, in his teaching of the 2nd Commandment about the abuses of God’s Name:

“The greatest abuse, however, occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers arise and peddle their lying nonsense as the Word of God.  See, all this is an attempt to embellish yourself with God’s name, or to put up a good front and justify yourself, whether in ordinary worldly affairs or in the sublime and difficult matters of faith and doctrine” (The Book of Concord:  The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Tappert edition, page 372, para. 45-55).

Church is in the world.  She cannot escape the zeitgeist, but neither can we but we are to be conformed to it (Romans 12: 2).    This recurring meme is spot on in reading personal narratives of conversion and repentance:

The Apostle Paul was razor sharp in preaching God’s Word:  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2: 2).  He cut out everything else.  The pastor’s personal narrative icon should be more the little scissors in Microsoft Word for the Word to be front, central and as the Word is, crucial. The equation in preaching and teaching is: Christ > me, not Me>Christ, even when I think the latter is a ‘good thing’.  Remember Paul regarded his bio and “all things” as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8, ESV).  The word politely translated as “rubbish” in Greek is skubala, rubbish, or “dung”.  To put it indelicately, pastors have to cut a lot of crap out and so do we all in our theological reading.

The Lord commits to His pastors an office, the office of the Holy Ministry to preach and teach Christ.  I conclude with Luther, from his sermon on Acts 9: 

Our Lord God does not purpose some special thing for each individual person, but gives to the whole world—one person like the next—his baptism and gospel. Through these means we are to learn how to be saved, and have no need to wait for God to reveal some new thing from heaven, or send angel.  For it is his will that we go to hear the Gospel preached by the pastor; there we will find him, and in no other way. 

Almighty and gracious God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, You have commanded us to pray that You would send forth laborers into Your harvest. Of Your infinite mercy give us true teachers and ministers of Your Word who truly fulfill Your command and preach nothing contrary to Your holy Word. Grant that we, being warned, instructed, nurtured, comforted, and strengthened by Your holy Word, may do those things which are well pleasing to You and profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. [1] I have put conversion in single quotation marks because I think it is more faithful to the Scriptures to call the road to Damascus narrative, The Revelation to Paul, rather than the Conversion of St. Paul.  1st, Paul in the Galatians states the Lord revealed His Son to him.  The Greek for “reveal” is apocalypse. 2nd, the place and time of conversion is Holy Baptism.  Paul is not converted unto he receives Holy Baptism administered by Ananiaa.  From Luther’s sermon on the Conversion of St. Paul:  “Although he speaks with Paul directly from heaven above, God does not intend to put away the pastoral office or establish something extraordinary for him. Indeed, he might have spoken to him directly and revealed what he wanted him to do, but instead he directs him to go to the parish pastor in the city where he would hear and learn what he was supposed to do. Our Lord God does not purpose some special thing for each individual person, but gives to the whole world—one person like the next—his baptism and gospel. Through these means we are to learn how to be saved, and have no need to wait for God to reveal some new thing from heaven, or send angel.  For it is his will that we go to hear the Gospel preached by the pastor;  there we will find him, and in no other way.”(Sermons of Martin: The House Postils, volume 3, pages 271-272)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.