Monday, August 22, 2011

Proper 16 of Series A (Matthew 16:13-20)

“Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, even though November of 2012 is still more than a year away, we are in election season. As you know, I grew up in Nebraska, and the thing about living in Nebraska is that the presidential elections often seem like a far off phenomenon. For a variety of reasons- small population, electoral votes that haven’t changed hands in decades- no one campaigns in Nebraska, it really seems like no one cares whether we vote for them or not. But in Iowa, they do care. And they show that they care by calling your house at least seven times a night. If you accidently answer the phone one evening, you may hear a campaign advertisement, but it is just as likely that you will have the opportunity to participate in a survey. This survey will ask you about yourself, about what you want in a candidate, and most importantly, who you would vote for. After asking hundreds or thousands of people the same questions, the campaign organization or news outlet can analyze the numbers, statistics that can make or break a campaign. Surveys are vitally important, because they tell the candidate and the world what people are thinking.

In our text for today, Jesus gives His disciples a survey: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In a sense, Jesus wants the same thing that a presidential candidate calling your house wants; He wants to know what the general idea about Him is, what kinds of opinions are floating around. What are the people thinking? “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Everyone seems in agreement that this Jesus guy is special, a prophet of some sort, but they can’t quite put their finger on exactly who He is. The results of this survey aren’t encouraging, but it’s much better than what we would encounter today. Who do people in Deloit and Kiron say that the Son of Man is? Some would say a good teacher, some would say a fraud, some would say a basically nice guy, and others would say that we can’t really know. This is tragic, because this survey question is the most important question that a person will ever answer in their life, and it is a question we cannot escape.

“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” Jesus turns the tables; the disciples are not just commenting on what everyone else thinks, they are now to answer the question for themselves. They are now part of the survey, a survey much more vital than any campaign phone call. The answer to this question determines eternal one’s eternal destiny: answer correctly, and you have salvation; answer incorrectly, and you have eternal condemnation. This question is about heaven or hell. It is posed to all people- no one can escape it. We all have to take a stand one way or another. Jesus demands confession, He demands that we tell Him who we think He is. This seems strange to our world, and indeed it seems strange to many in the Church. Creeds and confessions are not much in favor these days. People find them divisive and strict, not allowing any wiggle room. And that’s the point; Jesus wants us to clearly declare before and against the world what we believe about Him. The answer to this question will be divisive, because it divides those who answer correctly from those who answer incorrectly. A good confession divides truth from error, and that is what Jesus calls us to do: confess the truth about His person and work.

This question comes to us each and every day, in every situation we find ourselves in. Who do you say that Jesus is when you are here at worship? Is it the same answer as the rest of the week? Who do you say that Jesus is when you are at work? Who do you say that Jesus is when you are at school? Who do you say that Jesus is when you speak with your friends, your families, your neighbors? Most of the time, our problem is that we don’t say anything at all; we too often fail to confess Jesus before the world, we fail to boldly declare before others the person and work of Christ. Our words and actions instead give the answer that Jesus is someone who doesn’t matter that much to my life, that He’s a guy who doesn’t care what I do the other six days of the week. It’s easy to boldly confess within the walls of this Church; where we fall short is in bringing that confession out into the world. This survey question comes up much more often than we realize; each and every day we have opportunities to confess Jesus before others, and even if we do not give a wrong answer, it’s often only because we have failed to give an answer at all. But Jesus won’t let us get away with that: He demands confession, He demands an answer.

“Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In contrast to all of the other false opinions of Jesus floating around, the wrong answers people were giving to the survey; in contrast to the silence of the other eleven disciples, silence that we too often share, Peter confesses. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter heard the question that Jesus poses to each and every person on this planet, and he answers, he confesses with power, he confesses with boldness. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah promised from of old. He is the Savior, the One sent by God to deliver us from sin, death and hell. He is the Son of the living God; the One who created all things has sent His Son to redeem all things. Peter doesn’t quite yet understand the consequences of His confession; in next Sunday’s Gospel lesson we will learn how Jesus will do this, what He has been anointed to do. Jesus is anointed to suffer and die, to rise again in victory over the grave. He is the sin-bearer, He is the Christ because He has been anointed to take our sin to the cross and pay the price for it there. Even though Peter may not fully understand it yet, Christ’s person and work is contained in just ten words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

Peter has stepped forward, boldly answering the most important question ever posed, and he doesn’t have to wait long to see whether he has answered correctly. “Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, yes, Peter, you’re right, but don’t stick out your chest; you didn’t come up with this confession on your own, instead it came straight from God. The Greek word for confession means ‘to say the same thing.’ That is what confession is: God reveals Jesus to us and we speak back to Him and to the world the same thing He has told us. Confession has its source in God Himself and what He has said to us. We cannot confess on our own power, but only through the very power of God Himself; as Saint Paul declares, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus demands confession, and it is a demand that we cannot fulfill on our own. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit, working faith within us, can we confess who Jesus is and what He came to do.

It is precisely the divine origin of our confession that gives it great power. Jesus declares, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Peter and the other disciples will take this bold confession out into the world, and Christ will establish His Church upon that foundation. Saint Paul tells us, “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” The confession of the apostles is our solid foundation because it is the confession of Jesus Christ; it declares who He is and what He has come to do. The Son of the living God has taken on human flesh and is anointed to die for our sins and to rise again to conquer death. Jesus died for you, bearing your sin, winning forgiveness for every time that you fail to make the bold confession, and indeed for every one of your sins. This confession stands firm against the very gates of Hell because it is declares victory over Hell’s power. The Church is built on that foundation, the confession that will never fall. What an amazing promise! Congregations will close, denominations will decline, steeples will fall, but the holy Christian Church will endure, for it has an eternal confession to proclaim. The Church will never die, for it confesses the One who has defeated sin, death, and Satan for us.

Because of that victory, this confession has the power to unlock heaven. “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.” Peter and the apostles, along with all who have followed them in the Office of the Holy Ministry, exercise the keys, binding and loosing by means of the confession of Jesus Christ, declaring the verdict that has already been made in heaven. To those who reject this confession, they declare the verdict that heaven is closed to them, they are still bound to their sins. But to those who make the bold confession through the power of the Holy Spirit, they declare the verdict that heaven is open to them, their sins have been loosed. As Saint Paul declares, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Thanks be to God that He has opened heaven to you by working faith within you that boldly confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” In the Name of Jesus, whose bold confession is the foundation of the Church, who alone protects that Church from the very gates of hell, the One who unlocks heaven for you through His death and resurrection, the Christ, the Son of the living God, Amen.

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