Who is Jesus – Sermon for January 18/19

Who is Jesus?

Mark 8:27-9:1

Confession of St. Peter

January 18th/19th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Who is Jesus?  According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, Jesus is “the who_is_jesusfounder of the Christian religion.”  That’s it.  That’s all you get.  To me, that’s like saying Michael Jordan was a minor league baseball player or Bill Clinton was a famous saxophone player.  The statement may be factual, but it misses the point.  There is so much more to be said.  Almost anyone, Christian or not, has heard of Jesus.  Ask almost anyone in America today if they believe in Jesus and they know exactly who you mean.  People certainly know of Jesus, but do they know who he is?

The identity of Jesus is the topic of conversation recorded for us in the Gospel reading today.  While travelling with his disciples, Jesus poses the question: “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples, probably recognizing that this is a rhetorical question designed to teach them something, answer with what appear to be the popular theories of the day. Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah.  But when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is the right one.  The simple truth is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Word become flesh, the one who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  But this simple truth isn’t really so simple to see.  Sin has blinded the world to the truth.  Many have missed the point of who Jesus really is.

So, who is Jesus?  The answers vary among those outside the Church.  Some will tell you that Jesus was a prophet of God, a remarkable teacher who demonstrated how to live a moral life.  They are willing to give some respect to the teachings of Jesus, or at least those teachings that they are comfortable with, but they don’t believe any of that nonsense about those so-called miracles, and definitely nothing about resurrection.  They’re willing to admit that some of the things Jesus taught are ok; they tend to take those and newsweek-457x620leave the rest of the Scriptures behind. Others will tell you that Jesus was a man whose name was abused by his followers, that his memory was manipulated by a corrupt organization known as the church to force millions of people into submissive obedience.  There are some who claim that Jesus was a man whose legacy has been perverted by those who are supposed to be his followers.

These sad statements are unfortunately common coming from the voices outside the Church.  But we Christians know better, right?  We Christians know better because we know what is in the Bible.  We Christians know better because we know the story, right?  But then again, look at the disciples.  Not only did they know the story, they lived the story.  Yet somehow even they got Jesus wrong.  When Jesus began to teach them plainly that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again, Peter’s response was to rebuke him!  Peter actually rebuked Jesus and told him that he was wrong!  Can you imagine the nerve?  The arrogance?  Who would actually think so much of themselves and their own understanding that they would take Jesus aside and rebuke him?  Certainly we would never be guilty of such pride!  Certainly we know that Jesus came into this world to suffer and die.  Certainly we understand who Jesus is!

And if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you.  The truth is, even with all the facts, we still miss the point of Jesus even today.  Who do Christians say that Jesus is?  In some cases, our answers don’t really sound all that different from non-Christians’.  How often do we hear that Jesus is the ultimate example, clinging so ardently to the teachings of Jesus that we miss what he actually accomplished as a person?  It seems to be everywhere you look in the Christian book store.  Jesus has been turned into a moral magic eight-ball, just shake him up and ask yourself: What Would Jesus Do?  Jesus has been perverted into a mere template, a how-to manual, by those closest to him, those who know the facts, by those who should know better.  It seems that no one knows who Jesus is anymore.

The sad truth is, if we were one of the disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi that day, we wouldn’t have understood Jesus any better than Peter.  Even in our own lives today, left to ourselves, we can’t know for ourselves who Jesus is.  Our sinfulness blinds us, and we don’t recognize Jesus even when he is standing right next to us.  Just like Peter, we look at him and proceed tell him how he should act, how he should not go to the cross.  Jesus says that any who would follow him must pick up their cross to do so.  We brazenly reply “Come down off that cross, Jesus, and show me how to live.  Show me how to save myself.”  We scold him for not knowing how a Savior should act, and then we proceed to tell Jesus that the way to our salvation is through decisions we make, lifestyle choices we adopt, or other holy works of some sort.

But thanks be to God that Jesus is not swayed by our misunderstandings any crossmore than he was by Peter.  He continued on to the cross, completing the purpose for which he came.    He offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to cover the sin of the world, and because he has completed that sacrifice, there is no other name under heaven given to humanity by which we can be saved.  Today is the day in the Church calendar that we remember the Confession of Peter.  It is a day we set aside to remember Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Christ.  But it is also a day we remember exactly what it means to be the Christ of God, to remember what he came to do: to free us from the power of the devil.

He has freed us from the power of the devil by freeing us from bondage to sin.  The power of the devil is first found in fear and despair.  The devil is a master deceiver.  He whispers temptations into our ears, planting the seeds of lust and greed and pride that lead to actions of the same.  He tempts us to take those hateful thoughts in our hearts and turn them into hateful words.  He tempts us to take the pride in our soul and turn it into contempt for the people around us.  He tempts us to view the tasks of each day as burden, an unreasonable demand on our precious time and attention rather than seeing the relationships we have with our spouse, children, and family, and friends as gifts from God.  He tempts us to act out in sin, and then when we do, he holds that sin before our eyes.  He accuses us with it. “You call yourself a Christian?” he asks.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and then do terrible things like that?”

But Jesus is the Christ.  He has destroyed the power of the devil.  Where the devil would hold our sins before our eyes in an effort to drive us to despair, Jesus holds the nail marks in his hands and the spear hole in his side.  Where the devil would drown us in despair Jesus reminds us that we have already been drowned in the water of baptism.  1325915347196Where the devil would have us taste the bitterness of our failure to live as God demands, Jesus gives us the taste of our forgiveness in the bread and wine of his altar.  In these things we have confidence, for in these things we are given the righteousness of Jesus himself.  Jesus has undone the power of the devil because he has taken away the devil’s ability to accuse us in our sin.

But the devil doesn’t just work through fear and despair, he also works through pride.  Once he sees that we will not fall victim to his frontal assault against our conscience, he attacks from the rear.  He fosters smugness in our hearts as we begin to believe that maybe we have done enough to keep our Heavenly Father happy.  He tells us that the most important question we can ask of Jesus is simply, “What would he do if he were in my shoes?”  And then he convinces us that whatever answer we arrive at is the one Jesus would have chosen too.

But his goal remains to take our eyes off the cross.  Jesus came to destroy the power of the devil, so the question we should be asking is not, “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What has Jesus done for me?” The answer is the cross, an answer that destroys pride and despair alike.  It destroys pride because it holds the reality of my sin before my eyes.  My sin is real enough and serious enough that God himself had to die to fix what I have broken.  But despair is overwhelmed too, for in the death and resurrection of Jesus we have hope – hope for deliverance, hope for resurrection, hope for restoration.  That hope is in what Jesus alone has done, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved.

That is why we take time to remember the Confession of Peter.  That is why we pray that the Lord would give us the gift of faith to make it our confession too.  For the simple question remains: Who is Jesus?  But as the simple question remains, so does the simple answer: He is the Christ.  He is the one who came to this earth to suffer on the cross in our place, to be our substitute under the weight of God’s judgment and to pay the debt we ourselves owed.

He is the one who continues to come to us today not merely to give us an example for jesus-died-for-you2godly living, but to give us the gift of purity and cleansing through his death.  He gives it to us through the proclamation of his Word of forgiveness, when the pastors of his church stand before you and announce unto you that Jesus is the Christ, and that by his command your sin is forgiven.  He comes to you in the very body and blood that was given and shed for you all those years ago.  He comes to you to strengthen you in the gift of faith unto life everlasting.

That is what the unbelieving world just doesn’t understand.  We are not here simply to talk about morality.  We are not here simply to pat each other on the back for being good people.  We are not here to commiserate about the decline of society or the sinfulness of our culture.  We are not here simply to help people realize their full potential by unlocking their hidden power.  We are here because Jesus is the Christ, the one who God our Father sent into the world to undo the works of the devil.  We are here because this is where the Christ continues to come to us for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  We are here because the gifts given in this place, God’s Word proclaimed in this pulpit, God’s Word joined to bread and win at this altar, can’t be found anywhere else.

That is why we will never give up gathering together around God’s Word, for here is our life and hope.  Peter’s Confession is certainly worth remembering, for it is our confession too.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and there is no other name, under heaven, given to men by which we can be saved.  May our Lord keep us faithful to this confession unto life everlasting.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen!

 

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Peter and Paul, Apostles

Peter and Paul

Matthew 16

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles

June 29th/30th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 As many of you already know, my wife and I spent this past week in New York City to celebrate our 10th anniversary.  We saw three Broadway plays, took the subway to Battery Park to look out across the Hudson River at the 2014-06-24 19.19.08Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial, and even wandered the woods in Central Park.  It was a trip a few years in the making, so it was nice that it lived up to the expectation in my mind.  The weather cooperated, the shows were everything one hopes Broadway would produce, and the memories made will not soon be forgotten.

Of course, in order for us to stay where we did in midtown we had to set aside 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon to sit down with a representative of a worldwide corporation specializing in vacation solutions.  Translation: we had to sit through a sales pitch for a time share.  What sticks with me most from the sales pitch is something small.  The salesman was asking his introductory questions, “Where are you from?”, “What brings you to New York?”, “How has your stay been so far?”  What struck me was that when he asked, “What do you do?” and I told him I was a Lutheran pastor, he had no idea what a Lutheran is.  He spelled it Litheran, with an “lith” instead of a “luth.”  Later in the conversation, he even asked me point blank.  “What is a Lutheran compared to all the other churches I see when I walk around the city with my wife?”  He wanted to know if we were more like the Catholic churches or more like the Baptist churches.

My answer probably sounded to him like I was dodging the question, but it was the best I could do.  What I told him is: “It depends on who you ask.  If you asked the majority of American Protestants, they think Lutherans are basically Catholic (because we believe that the sacraments aren’t simply symbolic but actually do something, we tend to have artwork and stained glass that many Baptist churches consider idolatry, and we tend to use a liturgy of some sort), but if you ask the Catholics, they probably think we’re more like the rest of American Protestants (because we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope and we have broken off from what is in their view the one true church).  Reality is somewhere in the middle.”  The salesman seemed satisfied with my answer and moved on to prepping us for how much his great offer would cost and how much he could save us if we acted right then, right there.peter paul

I was reminded of this conversation as I sat down to gather my thoughts for this morning.  After all, today we at St. John Lutheran Church are observing the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  That’s why the altar is decorated in red instead of the customary green.  We have set aside the regular readings for the second Sunday of the Trinity season to instead have special readings in commemorating two Saints.  But we’re not Roman Catholic, so why are we observing saints’ days?  The Augsburg Confession says this:

“Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we should thank God for showing examples of his mercy, revealing his will to save men, and giving teachers and other gifts to the church. . . . The second honor is the strengthening of our faith: when we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we are encouraged to believe that grace does indeed abound more than sin (Rom. 5:20). 6 The third honor is the imitation, first of their faith and then of their other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his calling.” [1]

First, we ought to give thanks to God for the lives and work of these two men.  These two men demonstrate different paths to the same destination as God’s children.  Peter spent many years with Jesus as his disciple, following him from the beginning of his earthly ministry.  Peter witnessed all the major events of the Gospel first hand.  He saw the transfiguration.  He saw Jesus raise the dead heal the sick.  He saw the crucifixion.  He saw the resurrected Lord.  But he also denied Jesus before others when the time got tough.  There in the courtyard of the High Priest Peter adamantly insisted that he did not know the man Jesus, only to be reminded of his betrayal as the voice of the rooster announced the arrival of the dawn, which brought with it the guilt and shame of betrayal.  And yet but a few days later Jesus sat with Peter on the shores of the Sea and told him: “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus forgave Peter’s denial, and Peter finally understood what forgiveness really is.  He understood who Jesus truly is.  He had known Jesus for years and was quite familiar with the Gospel stories, but the message took root in a different way when Peter experienced it on a personal level.

So also for many Christians today.  Many of us in this room today, myself included, have spent our entire life in the church.  I was baptized as a baby in a Lutheran Church, went to Lutheran preschool and grade school, Lutheran high school, Lutheran college, and finally Lutheran seminary.  I have never had what many would call a come to Jesus moment.  I have not prayed the sinners prayer or asked Jesus into my heart.  Rather than the flood Dripping-Faucet
gates of forgiveness overwhelming me, my experience, like Peter’s, might be more appropriately considered a persistent trickle or a slow drip.  I, as many others here today, have heard the Gospel of forgiveness proclaimed to me for my entire life.  Like Peter, who experienced Jesus first hand and was familiar with the story of salvation because he had lived it as a supporting character, many of us have been acquainted with the story of salvation since we were old enough to participate in our church’s Sunday School program since we were kids.  And like Peter, who even though he knew the story yet found himself in need of our Lord’s forgiveness, those of us who have known the story of salvation since childhood still find ourselves in need of our Lord’s mercy – mercy which he gives to us with the same care and loving kindness that Peter was shown all those years ago.  Yes, some of us are Christians in the line of Peter.

But others here are more like Paul.  Paul was an enemy of the Gospel for much of his life.  Not only did Paul personally reject Jesus as Messiah, he actively hunted and persecuted Christians as if his life depended on it.  Until, that is, he was met by Jesus on the road.  He experienced a conversion unlike any other – a true come to Jesus moment.  He saw the error of his ways and became one of the greatest advocates for the Gospel that the world as ever known.

tidal-waveThrough him the Gospel came to many nations beyond Israel, ultimately to the ends of the earth.  He was not a disciple from the beginning.  In fact, there were things he had done in his life that he was probably not proud of, things that probably haunted his dreams and drenched him in shame as they flashed before his mind’s eye.  But Jesus found Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus forgave him and used him to spread the Gospel, and the world was never the same.

So also for many Christians today.  Many people even in this room did not grow up in a Christian home.  Many were not familiar with the story of Jesus and lived their life in ignorance of the Gospel.  But something happened, something burst forth in blinding light and shattered the walls.  While some people may speak of these conversion experiences as if they are a necessary ingredient to true Christianity, as if those who have been raised in the knowledge of the Scriptures are somehow less Christian that those who have come out of a life of sin and unbelief, the reality is that in both Peter’s experience as well as in Paul’s, Jesus was the key player.  Jesus was the one who brought forgiveness to both of these men, and who brings forgiveness to each one of us here today.  They are, as our confessions state, examples of God’s mercy, examples that show us how all God’s children are washed in his mercy, whether in a flood of a conversion experience like Paul, or in the slow persistent trickle of extended time with Jesus like Peter.  In either case, our Lord is responsible.  The stories of Peter’s extended time with Jesus are not stories about Peter – they are the history of our Lord’s persistent patience and mercy with a man not so different form us.  The history of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is not merely Paul’s history – it is the history of our Lord breaking through the shackles of sin and giving a man hope where there had been none, the same hope that he offers to us today.

Left to himself, Peter comes across as not much more than an impulsive man who gets himself into and out of scrapes.  That may make a good sitcom, but it’s not the Christian life.  Left to himself, Paul comes across as a man who experienced a tremendous change of heart and set about trying to make amends to appease a guilty conscience.  Again, a decent premise for a movie, but far from reality.  For the reality is that in either case, these stories are about Jesus, about being consistently forgiven by Jesus like Peter so that even if you can’t look back to that one moment where everything changed, you can cling to the gift of forgiveness received time and time again.  They are about being made new by Jesus, so that like Paul we too can put aside the foolishness of our former lives and ambitions, be made new by the work of Christ in us, and set about living the life he has created for us.  The example of these men strengthens our faith as we experience the mercy of our Lord active in our lives and as we attempt to imitate the way that each of them relied on Jesus for their forgiveness, and as each one lived a life of service as God’s new creation.

But our confessions also encourage us to praise God for the way these men used their gifts.  That is truly appropriate, for we have all benefited from what these men did.  In today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that the gates of hell shall never overcome the church.  Considering the church is found wherever the Gospel is preached and believed, keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18and the Gospel went forth into the world through the efforts of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, it is safe to say that without their efforts, without their faithfulness to the point of death, without their insistence that the Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, you and I would not know of our sin or our Savior.  We would not know of all that Jesus had done for us.  We would not know that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.  And so it is good to thank God for all that these men and all the Apostles did in their calling as Apostles, and it is good use that as inspiration to live faithfully in our own vocations.

For while we may not be Apostles, we are given our own vocations to fulfill.  If you are a parent, do so faithfully, recognizing that training up children in the fear of the Lord is just as important as getting them to the doctor when they’re sick or getting them to school so they can support themselves someday.  If you are a child, live faithfully recognizing that while you did not choose your own parents, God did choose them for you, so you ought to respect them and obey then as if you were obeying God himself.  We are all of us Christians, and are called to live lives of forgiveness and service – bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another just as in Christ, God forgave us.  We may not be Apostles, but because of the work of the Apostles who wrote down and first proclaimed the message of our salvation, we can live in the confidence that the gates of hell will not overcome our Lord’s church, a confidence which frees us to be faithful in our vocations as they were faithful in theirs.  Because of the work of the first Apostles, we can rest in the assurance that even when we fail in our  vocations, we know we remain covered by the blood of Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit alive in us, inspiring us to try again.

And that is why we take time out to commemorate Peter and Paul today.  It is not to worship them, for they are not God, but neither is their humanity a reason to ignore them.  We remember them not only because of their faithful service to our Lord, but because they are shining examples of our Lord’s service to those he loves.  We remember them to thank God for all that he accomplished through them, to praise God for all the souls who have been saved through their work, including our own, and to pray that the same God would make us faithful in our callings as he made them in theirs.  Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles.  May the Lord of the Church continue to prepare us for our lives of service as he prepared them for theirs.

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[1]Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: 1, IX, 4-6). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.