Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 for 14th Sunday after Pentecost. "The Rock of Confession"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 16:13-20, the Gospel reading. We’re going to look at Peter’s Great Confession of faith, the Rock of Confession on which the church is built. But first, I need to give a brief definition of what we mean by “confession” here. Just a few minutes ago you all made “confession” of your sins, at the beginning of the Divine Service. Obviously a confession of faith isn’t the same thing. In Christian use, “confession” means to speak back what is true in response to God’s revelation. In the confession of sins, we speak back what is true about ourselves—namely that we have been found sinful before God. In Peter’s confession of faith, he spoke back what is true about Jesus—that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. When we confess our faith in the words of the creed, we speak back to God what is most sure and true—that which He has taught us in His Word. With that clarification in mind, let’s look at the Gospel. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus puts a question to His disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” It was a question of identity. After He got their answers of what other people thought—He puts the question more forcefully to them. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” And this is the all-important question of faith—the all-important question for the disciples, as much as for us today. On this question hinges the difference between faith and unbelief. Whatever else people might focus on, this is the heart of the issue: “Who do you say Jesus is?”

The disciples’ initial response about what other people thought was that some said He was John the Baptist, others said Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. So in this “public opinion poll,” the consensus seemed to be that Jesus was a prophet. All of the men named were prophets, and all had already gone on to heaven. What did this show about public opinion of Jesus? That most of them had a high regard for Jesus. Perhaps the focus on Him being a prophet came from their expectation of Moses’ promise. That prophecy is recorded in Deuteronomy 18:18, where Moses said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”[1] These and other Old Testament passages, combined with the fact that a prophet of the Lord had not appeared in Israel for about 400 years until John the Baptist came—left their anticipation of a prophet pretty high.

But Jesus wasn’t interested in pursuing these ideas of public opinion. These all fell short of the mark. We could ask the same question today: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and get a far more diverse range of answers. Oprah and her new favorite author Eckhart Tolle have been promoting Jesus as merely an enlightened man, who came to awaken the “Christ consciousness” within us. In popular music both old and new we hear all kinds of references to Jesus. “Jesus is just alright with me” sang the Doobie brothers. Another 70’s song that still gets airplay sings: “Never been a sinner, I never sinned; I got a friend in Jesus, So you know that when I die He's gonna set me up with The spirit in the sky.” A more recent band sings about the “Jesus of Suburbia” and Christian hypocrites. Actress Kathy Griffin received her Emmy award with the statement: “A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus…I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus...” I won’t finish her quote. Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman mocked: “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…” and I won’t finish her quote due to profanities. In the best-selling Da Vinci Code book and movie, Jesus is a mere human who teaches secret wisdom and promotes feminist goddess worship with His supposed wife Mary Magdalene.

Others have a more neutral assessment of Jesus, or just use Him to accomplish their agendas. Jesus is regularly called on by both parties to aid a candidate in seeking political office. Jesus is huge for marketing—helping to sell all kinds of books, music, toys (yes, there is such a thing as a Jesus action figure!). Jesus is borrowed to promote vegetarianism by the activist group PETA. An auto-company selling hybrid vehicles carried the slogan, “What would Jesus drive?” Opinions of who Jesus is, and examples of how He is used or rather misused by culture, academia, politics, and even the church(!), abound. In the church Jesus is often misrepresented as our therapist, life-coach, or lover.[2] But Jesus is after one answer—one bulls-eye statement about His identity. And it’s not an idea that originates from men, from “flesh and blood;” but rather this truth was directly revealed by God the Father to Peter. We must reject all the worldly claims and identifications of Jesus as false, and acknowledge the one true revelation of who He is, that is not given by man, but by God the Father. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Any other answer falls short; misses the mark. Even the high claim of Jesus as prophet in His own day, was inadequate.

In contrast, the faith that the Father reveals to Peter is the rock of confession on which the church stands immovable. Remember back to our talk about “confession” at the beginning? That it means to speak back the truth? The faith that God the Father revealed to Peter, namely that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is the One True confession about who Jesus really is. Not on any of the multitudes of false confessions about Jesus, but on this truth alone, could the church be established. Jesus commended Peter for his confession, though He gave the Father the credit for revealing it. He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This is what I meant when I said that the church stands immovable on this rock of confession. Death and hell cannot prevail against the church, because it’s founded on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Christ. Because in Christ and His cross, our sins are forgiven, death’s grip on us is broken, and the serpent’s head is crushed beneath Christ’s heel. And only the true Jesus, confessed by Peter, can accomplish this. The false “christs” all be gone, they cannot save. The Son of the Living God stands alone, above and beyond any human categories—the only one to accomplish so great a salvation.

This is why what we say about Jesus—what we confess about Him is so all-important. This is why Jesus wasn’t interested in pursuing all the popular opinions that had been spun about Him, but demanded to know, “Who do you say that I am?” For none of those “false Jesus’s” of the world can save. To be sure, they’re much easier to market, but they’re also much easier to ignore. And perhaps that is why so many people form their own ideas about who Jesus is, rather than taking it from the Bible. A Jesus who is just an enlightened philosopher, promoting the Christ-consciousness, is convenient enough, because He makes no demands on my life. The Jesus who is a life-coach can give me pep-speeches whenever I’m feeling low, but He’ll never point out my sin and call me to repentance. The Jesus who is just a rebel might help me accomplish my cause, but He won’t identify my hypocrisy.

Imagine what it would be like to really face Jesus with all these false notions about His identity. Could we stand before Jesus hanging there on the cross, dying for the world’s sins, and honestly say these things? Say things like, “Thanks for being a vegetarian for my cause;” or “Even though I’m not a sinner, I’m glad you’re my friend and are going to ‘set me up with the Spirit in the sky’”; or “Thanks for awakening the ‘Christ-consciousness’ within me.” Of course no one could say these things before Jesus’ cross. It’s appalling even to think of it. Because with Jesus on the cross, these false ideas and imaginations about His identity vanish. Even the unbelieving Roman centurion, who witnessed Jesus’ death and the earthquake that followed, was forced to confess, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). His words echoed Peter’s confession. There at the cross, all false notions about Jesus crumble away like an empty fa├žade, and the true Christ, our Savior, is revealed. This was His crowning work as the Christ, and apart from His cross, all other supposed-identities are false.

So on this “rock of confession” that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God, is built the Christian church. And Jesus declares to Peter, that death and hell will not prevail against it. Furthermore, Jesus gives Peter this commission: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Roman Catholics have made much of this passage, to say that here Jesus is confirming Peter as the first pope, and giving him all authority over the church. But when Jesus here gives the keys to Peter in the singular, in Matthew chapter 18 and John 20 He gives them to all of the apostles. The keys of the kingdom of heaven aren’t given to one individual, but to the Christian church. So what are these keys? The answer is in what Jesus means by “binding and loosing.” From those other two passages in Matthew and John, it becomes clear that binding and loosing refers to withholding forgiveness of sins, and giving forgiveness of sin. This is why I as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, can pronounce to you absolution or the forgiveness of sins, upon your confession at the start of service. You have confessed or spoken what is true about your sinfulness, and I speak to you the absolving, forgiving word of Christ—that He has borne your sins away on His cross. These are the “keys of heaven.”

This is the chief weapon and stronghold against the devil and hell, that rage against the church. When Christ said that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against His church, it’s because the church has the forgiveness of sins, earned by Christ, the Son of the Living God. Our faith rests on no less a certain truth than this—that our sins cannot accuse us, and death can have no power over us, when we repent and are forgiven by Christ. Sins that aren’t confessed and repented of, are just as surely bound to us. For we know that no sin is hidden from Him. But when we grasp the revelation of the Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God—and when we repent of our sins and confess Him as our Savior—then the door to heaven stands open to us. Christ gives His keys to the “confessing church”—the church that confesses its sins in humility and repentance. And He gives His keys to the “confessing church” that speaks back the true confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For on this rock of confession, the church stands immovable. Stand firm then on this rock, knowing that founded on Christ, your entrance into heaven is sure, and hell has no claim on you. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 18:18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] Everybody Loves Jesus: The Culture Cherishes a Counterfeit Christ, Life of the World. Rev. Todd Wilkin http://www.lifeoftheworld.com/lotw/article.php?m_vol=8&m_num=4&a_num=3

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