Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 28, 2008

Sermon for the Commemoration of Sts. Peter and Paul (2008)

I guess I’m being adventurous these smoky California summer days. This is the second Sunday in a row that I have not used the traditional theme-and-parts approach (commonly used among WELS pastors) for writing my sermon. The format I’ve used here is called “The Homiletical Plot,” based on the book by Eugene Lowry with the same title.

Basically, this sermon form follows a similar flow that a television show, movie, or book might have. Lowry’s book uses different terms than I will, but there are typically five parts or shifts that take place in this form:

  • State the problem or issue
  • Show further complication(s) with the problem
  • Propose solutions that don’t solve the problem, a sort of searching for an answer
  • Discover the correct solution
  • See the results that flow from the correct solution.

 

I’ve found that this form works well with Lutheran law-gospel preaching, and it also seems to be a bit easier for people to follow. Invariably I have received positive comments about the sermons I’ve preached that use this method. I don’t know if I’m 100% sold on how this one turned out, but that has more to do with my shortcomings than anything else. I guess we’ll see after tomorrow morning!

I don’t claim to be a homiletical expert, so I’d suggest reading the book rather than using my description above to figure out how this form can work. Here’s a link for it on Amazon. And, since my sermon refers to the Pew Forum’s recent study (mentioned in my last post), I’ll provide a link for that as well. And now the sermon for June 29, 2008, based on 1 Corinthians 3:18-23.

WHAT IS MY CONFESSION OF FAITH?

I.

While driving on the freeway Monday afternoon, I heard a news story and interview on the radio that so grabbed my attention, I pulled off the closest exit and wrote down what I heard before I could forget what I had heard. The Pew Forum, an institute that tracks religious trends in our culture, released a rather revealing study about the nature of religion and personal beliefs in America. As it turns out, all of this information is available on the internet; a simple web search for the Pew Forum will get you there. But here are some of the revealing statistics:

  • 92% of Americans believe in the existence of God or some universal spirit.
  • Even 21% of self-proclaimed atheists claim to believe in God.
  • 70% of religiously affiliated Americans believe that their religion is not the only path to eternal life.
  • 68% of religiously affiliated Americans believe that there is more than one proper interpretation of their religion’s scriptures.
  • Perhaps the most surprising statistic was that 57% of evangelical Christians believed that the Christian faith was not the only way to receive eternal life.

 

Do those statistics surprise you? Probably “yes” and “no.” It’s not a big surprise that Americans are more pluralistic when it comes to religious beliefs. That’s a trend we’ve seen for a long time. But when you learn that over half of evangelicals say that Jesus is not the only way to eternal life, does it make you wonder if evangelicals know what it means to be an evangelical? Evangelicals used to be defined as people who at very least confessed that faith in Jesus was essential for eternal life. Now evangelicals aren’t even sure what their confession of faith is.

II.

There are a number of things that trouble me about these statistics. For starters, doesn’t it seem strange that religious beliefs appear to be determined by opinion polls and majority votes? It probably doesn’t seem strange to most people, but shouldn’t it? Do we determine if something is true or false by a majority vote? And how often does the majority get it right? Look at the politicians we elect! That’s all the proof that you need to see that the majority isn’t always right!

Another concern I see here is the way the word “truth” is being redefined before our very eyes. (I’ve made this point in other sermons and classes, but it bears repeating). “Truth” used to mean a fact: Two plus two is four; Sacramento is the capital of the state of California. Those statements are facts; those statements are true. But now the word “truth” seems to mean a principle or philosophy to follow. Jesus called himself, “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), but now he seems to be the philosopher, the psychologist, and the advice columnist.

There is something this else this study reveals that should disturb us, and it’s an issue that the apostle Paul has something to say about in our Second Lesson. The fact that truth is redefined based on majority vote is only a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that sinful human beings have turned themselves into the ultimate source of knowledge about God. Human beings have looked inward to themselves rather than outside of themselves to God. And that’s very similar to an issue Paul dealt with in our reading. “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

There were plenty of people in ancient Corinth who thought that the message of a bleeding and dying Son of God redeeming the world from sin on a shameful cross was the height of foolishness. There are plenty of people in our modern world who think the same. But to ignore the wisdom of God’s Word for the so-called wisdom of the world is like burying your head in the sand. Ignoring reality doesn’t change reality. Putting your faith in an opinion poll doesn’t change the fact that your faith is in an opinion poll and not in a man who factually died for the sins of the world and objectively rose from the dead, proving he is the incarnate God and Savior of the world. Putting your faith in an opinion poll doesn’t deal with fundamental human problems like the guilt that nags our conscience, the death that looms because of our sin, and the hell that threatens because of our disobedience against God’s will.

III.

If my confession of faith shouldn’t be based on worldly wisdom like an opinion poll, then what should be my confession of faith? Where can I find a solid basis for what I believe? Some people have found the answer to that question in church tradition – in churchly customs and ecclesiastical decrees. I’m not one to suggest that there is no value in the church’s history. A church’s practices and traditions should result from what it teaches, and if it teaches Scripture faithfully, then ideally there should be some good practices there. But let’s not make tradition bigger than it is. If I were to build my faith on historic customs and church traditions, I’m still building it on people. People develop traditions and customs, and those things have their rightful place, but they cannot give my faith a concrete, factual foundation.

How about the decrees and proclamations that a church issues? When the President of the United States makes a declaration, it certainly holds a lot of weight. Shouldn’t we say the same about the declarations that come from the theologians who speak for the church? Wouldn’t that provide a stable foundation for our faith? Once again, it sounds good. But who makes ecclesiastical statements and church decrees? Mere men. Whether it’s the Pope in Rome, or the Living Prophet of the Latter-Day Saints, or the President of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the statements they write and issue are no replacement for a divine declaration from the throne room of God Almighty.

IV.

The apostle Paul did not want his Corinthian readers to fall into that trap. He didn’t want them basing their faith on the thoughts and sayings of mere men. The congregation was in danger of that. In the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians, you can read how factions were being created based on the members’ favorite pastors and missionaries. Now in chapter three, Paul repeats the point that mere men didn’t matter as far as faith was concerned. Listen to what he says in our reading. “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

The Corinthians had been talking about the pastor that they most identified with. Some said, “I follow Paul,” others, “I follow Apollos,” and so on. But Paul turns their misguided and sinful thinking on its head. Rather than focusing on the person they felt that they belonged to, they should look at the blessings that now belonged to them through faith in Jesus Christ. All the apostles were their servants – Paul, Apollos, Peter, and all the rest. The entire world was God’s blessing to them. In life and death, at that moment and each day to come, they were the recipients of God’s rich and abundant blessings. And if they were to focus on the person they belonged to, then their focus should be on the fact that they were “of Christ.” They belonged to the Son of God who bought their own souls with his holy, precious blood.

Everything was theirs through faith in Christ. Everything is yours through faith in Christ. Rather than building our faith on some person or some human decree, focus your faith on the gifts that God has given you in Christ. Just look at God’s rich and abundant blessings to you:

  • You have a solid and objective source of truth in the Scriptures. You have a sure foundation for your faith that comes from the Spirit of God himself and not the spirit of our fickle times.
  • In Christ you have the full and free forgiveness of your sins won for you at the cross. You have a message that quenches your soul’s thirst for union and communion with God himself.
  • You have a declaration of innocence in Jesus blood, a promise that every sin that nags you and every incident you regret has been removed from your record so that you stand innocent and holy in the sight of God.
  • By the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, you have a guarantee of eternal life that no opinion poll can give you. For this promise of eternal life is not based on popular sentiment, but on a miraculous and real event that occurred 2,000 years ago when Christ defeated the grave on your behalf.
  • You have the comfort and assurance that God has adopted you into his family through the miracle that took place at the baptismal font. Those baptismal waters were no mere ceremony; they were the promise of God’s commitment to you that you can carry with you each day of your life.
  • You have even more assurance of God’s love in the sacred Meal that is set before you on this altar. For here Jesus not only reminds you of your salvation, but he actually gives you the price of your salvation as food for your faith!

With blessings like these coming from the hand of God, why would we want to base our faith on people’s opinions? With blessings like these coming from the hand of God, what more reason do we need to base our confession of faith on God’s gifts to us in Christ?

V.

The insights that we’ve drawn from Paul’s words give us some perspective on the event we’re celebrating today. Since the third century, Christians have set aside June 29 as a day to remember two ancient apostles, Peter and Paul. In the ancient church, this occasion was almost as big of a holiday as Christmas. But if we were to make this day just a celebration of two important players in the early church, we’d be falling into the very same trap that Paul warns us about in this reading.

As we remember Saints Peter and Paul today, don’t remember them per se, but remember their confession of faith. After all, even Peter and Paul were sinful men. Remember Peter at the end of today’s Gospel, telling Jesus that he had no business going to the cross to serve as the world’s divinely sent Substitute? Remember Paul, who was formerly known as Saul, the great persecutor of Christians? These men would be the first to tell us not to base our confession of faith on them.

Don’t remember Peter and Paul, but do remember their confession. Their confession was spot on! Remember Peter’s words at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Remember Paul’s confession just one chapter before today’s reading: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Remember the confession of faith that your fellow Christian saints past and present have made for centuries: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord. … He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. … On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Let those statements be your confession of faith, a confession not built on human wisdom or popular opinion, but a confession built on the gracious facts of your salvation recorded in the gracious Word of God. Amen.

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Responses

  1. “Jesus called himself, “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), but now he seems to be the philosopher, the psychologist, and the advice columnist.”

    Preach on, Pastor Strey! 🙂


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