Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pentecost 11 (Proper 17), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 28, 2011 (Proper 17, Series A)

The Gospel Lesson for today gives us a picture of St. Peter both at his best and at his worst, one right after the other. Isn’t that often how it is with you and me? Sometimes our worst failures, our greatest humiliations, and yes, our worst sins, come right after some of our best successes, our greatest good works. Why is that? The answer is pride. We forget that it is God who works through us when we do good works, not ourselves. We want to take the credit for what we have done well, and that pride and that self-centeredness becomes the first sin that leads to all the others. Peter had just, on the spur of the moment, spoken one of the greatest and clearest confessions of the central truth of Christianity found in all of Holy Scripture. “You are the Christ.” Now, of course, today’s Gospel Lesson is from St. Mark. But when St. Matthew tells this story, he also tells us what our Lord told Peter after he had said this. He told him that these things had not been revealed to him by men but by the Father in heaven. Evidently Peter didn’t listen, because he became overconfident of his own theological abilities and tried to rebuke our Lord when He went on to talk about His death. In Peter’s mind, what Jesus was saying that didn’t fit with Peter’s own picture of how God’s salvation was supposed to work. Peter thought he was doing the right thing in telling our Lord that He shouldn’t go and die. But what Peter said was very, very wrong. What he said would have resulted in there being no such thing as Christianity, because without Jesus dying on the cross we would not have had a sacrifice for our sins. There would be no way for us sinners to be saved. Peter’s objections to what our Lord said came straight from Satan himself. And yet despite this, Christ forgives Peter. We know this because He later becomes the leader among the Apostles and eventually gives up his life as a witness (martyr) to the Christ whose death saved him.

What is going on here? We see a young disciple whose pride has led him to say something Satanic. And this is hardly the only time Peter manages to get his foot into his mouth, either. He denied our Lord mere hours after saying that he would never do so. But this man became one of the most significant apostles of the earliest church. St. Paul, another unlikely candidate for greatness in the kingdom of God due to his persecution of the church, explains it this way in 1 Corinthians 3: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.’” In other words, God doesn’t do things the way we expect Him to. After all, the redemption that is ours through Christ was hardly done in the way men expected either. A poor man from the back country of Galilee became an itinerant preacher who was eventually put to death because his message was too controversial. But it was by that death that the world’s salvation was won. And the angels proclaimed the resurrection on that first Easter morning not to the kings and princes by the angels, but to the frightened and miserable disciples and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, just as at His birth they proclaimed the message to shepherds rather than to Herod or the Emperor Augustus. If that is the way God works through His own Son, is it any surprise that he works in this “foolish” way through Christ’s followers? The one who was referred to as Satan for trying to stop Jesus from going to the cross, and who denied Him three times during His trial, becomes the leader of the Twelve Apostles. The one who persecuted and killed the Christians becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

God still works that way today. How does he make us Christians and keep us in the faith? Not through great and powerful signs and wonders but through water, through the words of a man who is a sinner just like yourself, and through bread and wine. Who are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven today? Not the television preachers, not the highest officials in the various churches, not the laymen and clergy who are always active in church politics. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those Christians, both the pastors and the members of the Church, who simply and humbly do what God has given them to do in their day to day jobs and callings, and who through words and through good works serve as living invitations for those who are as yet outside the Church to come to the waters of Holy Baptism and receive Christ and His salvation. These humble Christian people, just like you and me, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is not that their own works are so great; they are sinners like everyone else. But Christ works in and through them to do great things, just as he worked in and through the most unlikely candidates, including Peter. When I as pastor and you as Christian people do our daily tasks out of faith that God will bless our work, and when we by word and example confess to the world that it is Christ who is the center of our lives, we who are the saints of God in this place today are following in the example of these saints who have gone before us.

One final comment about Peter: not only does he serve as examples of Christ’s work in and through every Christian, including those who have a tendency to plant their feet in their own mouths, they also serve as examples to pastors such as myself. They did not preach themselves, they preached Christ crucified. As our Old Testament lesson says, they preached the Law to those who were secure in themselves, and to the poor and miserable they gave the comfort of the Gospel. I have been called to be your pastor here at Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Through the coming years, I expect you to watch me as I proclaim God’s Word to you. I am a sinner just like Peter, and just like you. I will at times mess up the job God has given me to do in this place. If and when I begin to talk as if what happens here is a result of my abilities or of my work, I expect you to tell me I’m wrong in no uncertain terms. Also, if something I say doesn’t match up with God’s Word, you may need to say “get behind me, Satan” to me. I am here to speak God’s Word to you, and when I do it is not my authority but God’s that is at work. But when I contradict God’s Word or even go beyond it, it is the devil’s work. My prayer as we move forward as pastor and congregation is that we hold each other to God’s Word and to the confidence we have that through Christ our sins are forgiven and eternity is ours, and that we are unafraid to correct one another if we begin to drift away from that central message. That’s what we’re here for, and that is enough, and more than enough. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

No comments:

Post a Comment