Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 24, 2008
Text: Matt. 16:13-20

What precisely is it that Jesus calls the rock upon which He will build His Church in our text? This question has been the source of much debate and even division in the Christian Church for centuries. What, or who, is the rock? The Church of Rome, of course, maintains that the rock is Peter, that the Church is built upon St. Peter, the first pope, and his successors in the papacy. Lutherans and other Christians respond that the rock is not, in fact, Peter, but rather Peter’s confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This confession is the sum and substance of Peter’s apostolic ministry, and that of the other apostles, and every Christian pastor since. It is the sum and substance of the apostolic Scriptures. And it is the sum and substance of the confession of the holy Christian Church. It is, in fact, the very foundation of the Church, as St. Paul says, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20).

So is the rock Peter, or is it his confession? Who is right, and why does it matter? Well first, it matters because Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18; ESV [emphasis added]). It matters what the rock is, what serves as the foundation, so that we know the Church is protected against the very gates of hell. Do we put our faith in Peter, or do we put our faith in the Word revealed to Peter by the Father? So again, the question is, what is the rock? Is it Peter, or his confession? This is how the Lutheran Confessions answer this question:

"As to this statement, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), it is
certain that the church is not built on the authority of a man but on the ministry
of the confession which Peter made when he declared Jesus to be the Christ, the
Son of God. Therefore Christ addresses Peter as a minister and says, “On this
rock,” that is, on this ministry… Nor is this ministry valid because of any
individual’s authority but because of the Word given by Christ."[1]

In other words, even a person of such biblical significance and stature as St. Peter, without argument the foremost apostle, is too small a rock in which to base our confidence. Rather, the Church’s confidence that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her is made certain by the same Word of God revealed to Peter by the Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, come to save His people.

It is true that the name Peter, petros in Greek, means rock, and here Jesus gives Simon, the son of Jonah, the name “Peter.” Jesus makes a stunning play on words here, “I tell you, you are Peter, the rock-man, and on this rock I will build my Church.” But Jesus uses two related, yet different words for rock. He calls Peter “petros,” which means a detached rock, or a boulder. Then he calls the rock upon which the church is built “petra,” something more like a rock-cliff.[2] Beloved members of the holy Christian Church, you aren’t built on a boulder. Boulders don’t make good foundations. You are built on a solid slab of stone. Peter, the rock-man, is named after the rock of his confession, the Word revealed to him by the Father. Peter himself is built on that rock. And in this sense, you are all Peters as well. For you, also, are built upon the confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And this is why Peter’s confession is so important: On the basis of this confession, Jesus promises His apostles and His Church, “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” (v. 19). That is to say, since it is true that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then it is also true that He has authority on earth to forgive sins. In fact, that’s why the Son of God took on our human flesh, to fulfill God’s Law for us, to die for our sins, to rise again for our justification and the promise of our own resurrection from the dead, to absolve the world of sin. And since Jesus, as Son of the living God, has this authority to forgive sins, He can also exercise this authority through His Church, particularly through the called ministers of His Church, so that when I say to you in private absolution, or as I did this morning at the beginning of the service, “I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit” (LSB, p. 185), you can know with absolute certainty that these words have all the authority and weight of the eternal Son of God behind them. That is what we confess in the Catechism: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”[3] In fact, when a pastor pronounces absolution, the eternal Son of God is really the one forgiving you. I’m just His mouthpiece. I’m just another Peter, one who has been given words to say by the Father. By God’s grace I am given the same confession as that of Simon Peter, and so are you. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Flesh and blood has not revealed this to us. We didn’t come up with this confession by our own human reason, anymore than Peter did. Our fallen human nature would never come up with the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, by itself. The Father has revealed this to us, through His Son, His eternal Word, by the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul reminds us that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The Holy Spirit gives faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, the Christ come to save us, and the Holy Spirit leads us to confess this.

This is really quite miraculous, though, considering that the world of which we were once a part and in which we still live utterly rejects this confession of Christ. Jesus asks two questions in our Gospel lesson. First, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13), and second, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15). And here Jesus is making a distinction between a true confession of faith and the false confessions of the world. Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What does the world think of Jesus? They say all sorts of nice things about Him. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14). Some say Jesus is a good teacher, an example, a role model, a revolutionary, a teacher of good morals. And in some sense, all of this is true. But it is not the Christian confession of faith. The Christian confession of faith is that revelation given by the Father to Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And as we saw, that confession makes all the difference when it comes to our salvation. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and He is, then your sins are forgiven. You are saved. The Father loves you. He gave His Son to die for you. He will give you eternal life. He will raise you from the dead.

After Peter made his spectacular confession of Christ, the sum and substance of apostolic preaching, the foundation upon which Jesus builds His Church, Jesus “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (v. 20). Note well that this command is NOT given to you. The disciples were to keep their confession hush-hush until after the resurrection. But now that Christ is risen, you are called to tell everyone you know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. You are called upon to confess Christ to your friends and family and neighbors and the world. You are called upon to confess Christ, even if it brings persecution and death. Because Jesus is the Son of the living God, and He will not leave you in death. He will raise your mortal body immortal in the resurrection of the dead. Confess Christ in your words and in your lives. As Paul writes in our Epistle, “by the mercies of God… present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). You can do so because you are no longer conformed to this world, but God has transformed you by the renewing of your mind so that you now can discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (v. 2). You are blessed, for the Father has revealed the Son to you by the working of His Spirit. He has called you into His Church, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone. In this Christian Church God is daily and richly forgiving you all your sins. And you have the certain promise of Christ regarding the Church, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. All praise and thanks be to God. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Tr. 25-26. Tappert, p. 324.

[2] For the difference between petros and petra, see R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1932) p. 605.

[3] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).


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