Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 16)

August 24, 2014
Text: Matt. 16:13-20

            The holy Christian Church is an article of faith.  We confess in the Creed that we believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.  The articles of the Creed are all a confession of what we cannot see, but only know by faith, because our Lord says so by His Word.  And so the Church.  Sure, we can see the building and the people gathered together.  We see the appropriate furnishings with which we are surrounded, hear the organ and the distinctly “Church” music appropriate to this place.  It looks like the Church.  It feels like the Church.  It smells like the Church.  The Word is proclaimed and we sing it and speak it together in liturgy and hymn.  The Sacrament is on the altar.  We gather around the font.  But how do we know the Church is here?  We only know it because Jesus says so.  He says that wherever two or three are gathered together in His Name, there is He among them (Matt. 18:20), and so there is the Church.  He says that upon the rock of Peter’s confession, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, He will build His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:16-18).  He says that where His Church is, the binding and loosing of sin will be going on; the binding of the sins of the unrepentant as long as they do not repent; the loosing, the forgiving, of the sins of those who repent of their sins and want to do better, who look to Christ alone for forgiveness of sins and strength for their Christian life.  Where that is going on, there is the Church, for the Lord has given the Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven (v. 19), the Office of the Keys as we call it in the Catechism.  And that is the whole purpose of the Church, the only reason we exist, that here, in the Church, Christ may gather us and open heaven to us by the distribution of His saving gifts. 
            So we know where the Church is by the visible marks: The Word, the Sacraments, Confession and Absolution, prayer, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, suffering and the cross.  These marks are clear evidence that the Church is here.  But the Church itself we cannot see.  It is an article of faith.  It is invisible, because the Church is simply this: holy believers in Christ, sheep who hear the voice of their Good Shepherd, Jesus, and who know Him and follow Him (Cf. SA XII:2).  But you can’t see faith.  You can’t say for certain who believes and who doesn’t.  You can only go by what a person says, what a person confesses.  We know the Church is here because of the marks.  We know the Church is here because the people here confess the faith.  We confess the Creed.  We confess with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus says that on this rock, this confession, He will build His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 
            But it sure looks like the gates of hell are prevailing against it.  We fight among ourselves over the silliest things, like who is responsible for what, how this or that should be done, and how to pay for it all… And we fight over thing that are not at all silly, like, for example, the authority of the Bible, creation and evolution, the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament… you name it, we can fight over it.  The Church appears to be shrinking.  We live in a culture that has come to mock Christ and His Church, that rejects what the Bible has to say about the social issues of the day, that denies that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that He is the only way to heaven.  So less people come to Church.  And by the way, Christians aren’t having as many babies as they used to, so I suppose we shouldn’t be all that surprised when older people outnumber younger people in the Church.  We suffer mockery and pressure to conform to the culture here at home.  And then we look at the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in other places in the world, and we cringe to realize that what is happening to them there could just as easily happen to us here: kidnappings and imprisonment, beatings and torture, crucifixions and beheadings and every other cruelty imaginable, all because of the Christian’s confession: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
            So are You sure the gates of hell are not prevailing, Jesus?  The holy Christian Church is an article of faith, not sight.  That is to say, things are not as they appear.  We do fight amongst ourselves, much like the disciples fought over who was the greatest.  It shows our sin and unbelief.  Yet God graciously forgives our pettiness and lack of faith, and calls us nonetheless to be His own in Christ and to make our good confession with St. Peter.  Sure, the Church appears to be shrinking.  There are less people in the pews today than there were in the 1950s.  But you have to take the long view of history.  Of course we always want more to come hear about Jesus, but we don’t count the population of the Church by the number here on Sunday morning.  The Church grows with every Baptism, and the Church doesn’t shrink when one of us dies.  The dead in Christ live!  They’re still members of the Church.  Now they can never leave.  They’re in heaven, members of the Church triumphant.  And as for the suffering and persecution… that is actually a mark of the Church.  That is one of the ways that we know the Church exists, that Christ is present with His people and the Church is persevering.  For what did Jesus promise? “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:9-14; ESV).  And so Jesus says to His disciples, to you, beloved: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).  Where persecution is going on, there you know Jesus is, strengthening and keeping His saints by His Spirit.  And so there you know is the Church, because the people there confess Christ even to their death.  They endure to the end.  And Jesus saves them.  The gates of hell throw their worst at the Church.  But hell never prevails.  Because Jesus has defeated hell.  He has done so in His death and resurrection.
            And so you confess that this crucified and risen Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, is the Christ, Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God, the Savior.  And as with Peter, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.  No, all flesh and blood can reveal is what the naked eye can see, and that doesn’t look good.  But our Father in heaven reveals to you that things are not as they appear.  He reveals that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, our Lord Jesus has won the battle, snatched you out of hell, purchased you to be His own by His precious blood, defeated your death in His death, given you eternal life by the life-giving power of His resurrection.  And He has gathered you together here, as His Church, to loose you from your sin, to forgive you, to cover you with His blood, to teach you, to feed you, to make you His own, to strengthen you for perseverance.  Here the Father reveals Jesus to you as the Christ, His beloved Son, your Savior.  And He does this by His Spirit, working in the holy Word of God and the Sacraments, your Baptism into Christ, and the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Supper.  And you are blessed.  You are blessed to confess the holy faith of Christ.  You are blessed to persevere therein, come what may.  You are blessed to live as God’s own child.

            Now, someday you may be called upon, as St. Peter was, as St. Bartholomew was, whom we commemorate today, and as our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are now, to confess Jesus unto your death.  Peter was crucified upside down in Rome.  Bartholomew was skinned alive in Armenia.  Our brothers and sisters are shot and buried in the desert sand, crucified in the public square, or suffer the public display of their severed heads.  That they confess Christ anyway, in the face of such atrocities, is a miracle, a God-given gift.  Beloved, the same Lord Jesus Christ who feeds you here at this Altar, the same God and Father who declared you His own child in your Baptism, the same Holy Spirit who dwells in you by His life-giving Word, will give you the same gift of perseverance should that day come.  He will keep you in your confession, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He will keep you in your Baptism.  And your persecutors will think they win as they snuff out your earthly life, for that is what flesh and blood has revealed to them.  But in that same moment, you will see for yourself what your Father has revealed to you, that the gates of hell can never prevail.  For you will see Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.  You will see the holy Church gathered around Him.  You will see that yours is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

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