Matthew 16:13-20 (Pentecost 13A)
St. Johns, Galveston 8/27/2023
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel reading before us this morning is rich in Christian teaching. In fact, some have suggested that you could teach an entire confirmation course from these eight verses alone. First, Jesus poses the question that is crucial for every man, woman and child to consider and answer in life. “Who do you say Jesus is?” From the reading, it’s evident that there were many opinions in Jesus’ day regarding that question. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets returned from the dead.

Things haven’t really changed much today, in that people still hold many different opinions about Jesus. A Barna research poll from 2015 identified four views held by many Americans regarding Jesus. The first one is quite encouraging in that most Americans believe that Jesus was, in fact, a real person. While that finding is good, the poll also determined that younger generations are less likely to believe that Jesus was and is God. Most Americans are divided over whether or not they believe Jesus was sinless. And finally, Americans are conflicted between “Jesus” and “good deeds” as the way to heaven.

While there are many opinions about Jesus, He posed this most crucial of all questions to His disciples. In the way He formed the question, that is, “who do you say I am,” He wasn’t asking for opinions. He was asking for a confession of faith, which is quite different from an opinion. A confession of faith is a resolute and convicted statement of who you believe Jesus is based on the Word of God itself. Peter answered the question on behalf of himself, as well as the other disciples. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the  living God.” And, lest we view Peter’s answer too as mere speculation, opinion, if you will, “Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”

Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is the foundation on which the Church is built. That being the case, I’d like to consider this morning why Peter’s answer is such a firm foundation and also what sort of comfort we derive from the Church being built on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.

First, why is the confession of “Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” such a firm foundation for God to build His Church? Well, first of all, it’s a firm foundation because it encompasses all of the Scriptures. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation is about Jesus, or perhaps I should say, it’s about the Messiah, the Christ of God. Israel’s entire history was one of anticipation and waiting. God had promised that He would send the seed of the woman (His Messiah) to crush the head of the serpent. The people of Israel believed that promise and they waited.

So, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ encompasses all of the Scirptures. Secondly, it orients us to where we should always be as the people of God, namely to an acknowledgement of sin and grace, and the role they both play in our lives. The Church isn’t a social club, nor does it deal with trivial matters. Rather, it deals with matters of life and death, of light and darkness, of faith and unbelief. Essential to those categories are the realities of sin and grace, or sin and God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus. No matter how stellar we live our lives as God’s people, we are always compelled to confess our sin, that we might live in the Christ and mercy of God in Christ. Luther understand that well. At his death, there was found in his coat pocket a little crumpled up note that said, “We are all beggars, this is true.”

At the same time, Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, one of the principle Confessions of our Lutheran faith, speaks boldly of Justification by grace through faith in Christ, the antidote, if you will, to sin. It says, “human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in His sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3 & 4.” From our Lutheran forefathers to today, we have acknowledged that this article of Justification by grace through faith in Christ is the article on which the Church stands or falls.

Jesus Himself affirms the article of Justification through faith in Him as foundational to the life of the Church. Even more, He said, built on that foundation, nothing, not even the gates of hell, will ever be able to prevail against His Church. Herein, we find comfort and peace for our often troubled hearts and fearful minds, particularly in a world beset with all manner of turmoil and crisis.

I read an article the other day about the rise of anxiety in American culture. Studies have estimated increases in anxiety as high as 20% over previous years. Much of it, experts say, is attributable to the Covid Pandemic and everything that occurred during those years. At the same time, I’ve noticed a fair amount of anxiety among Christians, regarding the pressures, even the persecution that may be coming to the Church in the not too distant future. Certainly those pressures can be dealt with by maintaining a certain degree of silence on issues in which the Church should let it’s voice be heard. But silence, by my estimation, is akin to being neither hot nor cold. And the angel of God said to the Church at Laodicea, “the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.“ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were either cold or hot!’”

And so, speak we must, knowing full well that persecution and suffering will be our lot. And yet, with Jesus as the foundation of our faith, the victory has already been won. The cross, you see, represents many things. It is the place of atonement, the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God giving Himself there for the sins of the world. But from the cross Jesus emerges as the Christus Victor, for it’s there that He wins the victory over sin, death and the devil himself. He crushes the head of the serpent as God had promised long ago. And being that He is God in human flesh is always the Christ the Pantacrator, the Almighty. And although in His might He rules over the Church in grace and mercy, He rules with immense power over the forces of evil.

Built on it’s confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” nothing, not even the gates of hell, will be able to prevail against the Church. This isn’t wishful thinking. Rather, it is the solemn promise of our Lord. And so, we live our lives boldly in the comfort and peace of God’s holy word. As Luther wrote in his great hymn of the Reformation,

“The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Though these all be gone,
Our victory has been won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +