Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 30, 2014

Sermon for the Commemoration of Sts. Peter and Paul (2014)

LESSONS TO LEARN FROM THE SAINTS

  1. We share their same faithful confession
  2. We struggle with their same sinful condition

Text: Mark 8:27-35

Introduction

What is the oldest holiday or celebration in the Christian church? I suppose Easter wins that award, since the very first generation of Christians chose Sunday as their day of worship in light of Jesus’ Easter Sunday resurrection. The First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. set the practice we western Christians observe today, celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21. The fourth-century doctrinal controversies about Jesus that our Christian forefathers faced contributed toward setting a day to remember the birth of Jesus, and so December 25 became the day to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in 336 A.D. in Rome.

It doesn’t surprise us to hear that those key Christian holidays became holy days early in Christian history. What might surprise us as twenty-first century Christians is that the occasion we’re celebrating today has been a Christian holiday as long as Easter and Christmas have been holidays! According to Christian tradition, Paul and Peter were martyred on the same day of the year, and some believe it was also in the same year. On June 29, 258 A.D., their remains were moved to the catacombs in Rome during a time of persecution, and since the fourth century, June 29 was observed as a day to remember Peter and Paul.

Today we are not here to worship these key saints as secondary saviors. The spirit of today’s celebration is much like our celebration last Sunday when we honored a pastor who had served us for a quarter century and thanked God for his service among us. Today we remember two saints who served the church in its infant years and we thank God for their service and what he accomplished through these apostles. We won’t turn Peter and Paul into secondary saviors, but we do want to learn some lessons from their lives, and we’ll do that by focusing on the Gospel for today. That’s where we’ll see these two lessons we can learn from the saints. First, we share their same faithful confession. Second, we struggle with their same sinful condition. 

I.

Next Sunday we will start a series of services and sermons with Gospel readings coming from Mathew’s Gospel and starting earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Our selection for today comes from Mark’s Gospel and comes later in Jesus’ ministry. He is far north of Judea in Galilee, about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, well away from the opposition he was facing in and around Jerusalem.

In the course of this ministry journey, Jesus asked his disciples what others thought about him. Who did people think Jesus really was? And the disciples correctly noted that the crowds thought Jesus may have been a past prophet of God come back to life or a current prophet operating in the footsteps of those same great prophets of the past. And they were correct. So Jesus asks the same question once more, but this time he doesn’t ask for the crowd’s popular response, but their own answer. And once again, the disciples, via their regular spokesman, Peter, give the correct answer. “Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.’” There was a lot loaded in that word “Christ.” “You are the Messiah! You are the One God the Father had promised from eternity to send as the Savior of the world! You are the One whom the prophets of the past predicted!” A short, sweet, and simple confession, to be sure, but a correct confession. In fact, it was so correct that Jesus didn’t want them confessing their confession too publicly at this point. Too many were waiting for a Christ and a Messiah who would free the Jews from the Romans instead of freeing the world from its sin. And because of that confusion, Jesus strongly urges the disciples to hold back their confession at this particular time, lest the news about Jesus and popular misconceptions about him somehow derail the Father’s plans and timetable for his journey to the cross which was getting closer.

The confusion about Jesus then hasn’t changed much, has it? Our “coexist” religious culture sees Jesus as one of several noteworthy but equal spiritual gurus. Islam sees Jesus as a significant prophet but just a man. Mormons see Jesus as one who refinanced our debt. But Scripture reveals a Jesus who is the Christ—God from all eternity who didn’t refinance our debt but paid it in full! Jesus is the Christ, sent from the throne of God the Father to undo the eternal consequence of your sins and mine by his sin-paying death and his death-defeating resurrection.

What a blessing to know Jesus as the Christ! What a gift of the Holy Spirit to share in the same faithful confession of the saints of old! What a gift of the Spirit to know and believe in the One whom Saint Peter called “the Christ!” What a gift of the Spirit to know with Saint Paul that the wisdom of Christ is so much greater than the wisdom of this world that is foolishness to God (cf. Second Lesson, 1 Corinthians 3:16-23)! What a blessing you and I have—one that we ought never take for granted—that we can count ourselves as saints right alongside Peter and Paul and the rest of God’s believers of all times, all because we have been blessed to share in the same faithful confession that Peter voiced to Jesus: “You are the Christ.”

II.

The disciples got their confession right—so right, in fact, that Jesus told them to keep it under wraps for a while. But they didn’t get it perfect. As our reading goes on, Jesus explains just what it meant that he was the Christ. They may have understood that Jesus was the Christ predicted by the prophets and sent to save sinners, but they clearly hadn’t yet understood what that was going to look like. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

Now that Jesus spoke so matter-of-factly about what it meant to be the Christ, Peter and the others began to have some second thoughts. Does the Christ really have to suffer? Does the Christ really have to be rejected? Does the Christ really have to die? You can almost hear Peter rebuke Jesus: “Lord, we’re all in favor of you being the Christ, and we’re all in favor of you saving the world, and we’re all in favor of you fulfilling the Scriptures, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat, Jesus! Isn’t there some other way that you can be the Christ?”

Peter’s rebuke, even as well-intentioned as we may assume him to be, was wrong. He got his confession of Jesus as the Christ correct, but then he tried to massage the definition of what that really meant. And Peter probably wasn’t alone, either. Notice where Jesus looks as he rebukes Peter. “When Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” In case you weren’t sure, it is not a compliment to have Jesus, the Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, call you “Satan!” But all good intentions and honest misunderstandings in the world cannot change the fact that to take the cross and the crown of thorns and Calvary out of Jesus’ future would have been an act of Satan. Peter and the disciples were focused on what they wanted—and Jesus’ rejection and death were not a part of their plans. They were not focused on what God wanted, and from eternity God put the Christ on the path to the cross.

This was not just a lesson for that moment, nor was this a lesson that only applied to Jesus. Jesus turns Peter’s rebuke into a teachable moment for everyone who was following him. “He called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.’”

A crowd of people is following Jesus, but he speaks to them in a way that addresses each individual in the crowd personally. To the person in that crowd who wants to follow Jesus, Jesus says that your life will parallel his. To the person in that crowd who wants to follow Jesus, Jesus says: Let him deny his sinful nature with its wants and desires, let him take up his cross of the suffering and persecution and challenges that come when you follow me, and let then let him follow me carrying that cross day after day. Jesus calls for a clean and immediate “good-bye” to our sinful nature and a constant, daily walk in his footsteps.

And why is that? The person who wants to save his life from life’s troubles may want that but won’t actually get that. Avoiding the cross of the Christian’s daily life will lead one to lose his life and soul forever. But the one who follows Jesus, who acknowledges the trials he will face and who is led by the Holy Spirit to carry his cross and face those trials, to the one who puts the pleasures of life second not to be ascetic but to put Christ first, that one will find that in Christ his life has been saved. He will retain his soul for all eternity for he knows and trusts in the Christ who redeemed his soul for all eternity.

It may be uncomfortable to recognize ourselves falling into the same kind of thinking as the disciples, but it surely isn’t difficult for that to happen. In the First Lesson for today (Jeremiah 26:10-16), the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah plainly spoke God’s words of warning to the people of ancient Judah, knowing full well that they might persecute and even kill him for his unpopular law message. And as we hear accounts like that one, it is very easy to sit back in our padded pews and think, “That’s right! There are people who oppose the gospel in this world but we’ve got to speak to them and reach out to them and not back down! That’s one of the crosses we must carry!” And that’s true. It’s just that it’s not quite as easy to carry that cross and follow Jesus when we leave this sanctuary and have a perturbed neighbor ask us, “Do you really mean to tell me that if a decent person like me doesn’t believe in Jesus, I’m going to hell?” It’s not quite as easy to carry that cross and follow Jesus when a Christian friend admonishes us and tells us that we need to check our dirty mouths or our addictions or our self-righteous ego at the door. It’s not quite as easy to carry that cross and follow Jesus when my pet sin is knocking at my door and my sinful nature so easily convinces me that sin isn’t that deadly, the threat to my faith isn’t that big a deal, and that hell isn’t something that I need to fear.

We call Peter, “Saint Peter,” but his sinful nature surely got the best of him in our gospel. We call Paul, “Saint Paul,” but in what is arguable Paul’s most significant New Testament book, Romans (cf. 7:7-25), even he acknowledged the constant battle inside him between his sinful nature and his Christian nature. Even the greatest saints of old still struggled with a sinful nature, and the saints of St. Mark’s congregation are no different.

But the saints of St. Mark’s congregation have something else in common with Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It’s the title that rightly goes before your name. You are a saint—but not by virtue of anything you have done, for that would disqualify us all and even the two apostles we remember today. You are a saint by virtue of the One who did everything to make you a saint in his Father’s eyes. With Saint Paul, you confess, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). With Saint Peter, you confess, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). With the Church of the past and present, you confess, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father” (Nicene Creed). With Luther your fellow Lutherans from the Reformation era and today, you confess, “[Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” (Luther’s Small Catechism). And in all of those beautiful expressions of faith and many more, you and I see how we been made saints who have received everything Christ won for the world at the cross and who will enjoy everything Christ secured for his people when we are united with all the saints for eternity in heaven.

Conclusion

We know major holidays like Christmas and Easter are coming long before we get to them (like Christmas sales in October!). I doubt anyone came to church this morning thinking that we were going to celebrate the Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul (and I even more doubt there were any sales in the stores to get you ready for this occasion!). The fourth of July this week will gain far more attention than Peter and Paul’s date on the church calendar, but don’t let the lessons that we’ve learned from these great saints fade into the background or become secondary. Cherish your national liberties this week, but cherish your common confession with all the saints even more. Yes, we must also acknowledge the common struggle against our sinful nature that we share with all the saints who walked on this earth, but even then we can also rejoice that in Christ we commonly share in his forgiveness and look forward to a common eternal destination with all Christ’s saints and angels. Amen.

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Responses

  1. Thanks (again) for your faithful proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified, just like Peter and Paul before you!


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