Saturday, June 28, 2014

God Works through Sinners

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 29, 2014 (St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles and Martyrs)

Why are the paraments red?  Isn’t today supposed to be the Third Sunday after Pentecost?  Well, yes and no.  There are certain days set aside on the church calendar to remember specific Christians whose lives and ministries were significant in one way or another to the Christian Church in Biblical times.  These holidays are seldom celebrated in the modern church, because they seldom fall on Sundays, and it’s virtually impossible to get Americans together for a non-Sunday Church festival for anything other than Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Even national holidays only get celebrated when they occur during that part of the year when they can be used as an excuse to grill out.  Besides, during the festival half of the Church Year, from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sundays are considered more important than these festivals, so that the only ones that are actually celebrated on a Sunday are the ones that happen to occur during the Summer and Fall, and sometimes the ones that follow immediately after Christmas and before Epiphany.  Reformation Day and All Saints day, of course, have taken on a life of their own, often being celebrated on the last Sunday in October and the first Sunday in November, respectively, but the rest of these festivals aren’t nearly that famous.  By the way, if you’re curious about these festivals, there is a list of them in the beginning of the hymnal, before the Psalms, on page x.

Now, we don’t worship the saints, nor do we pray to them, as the Roman church does.  To Lutherans, all Christians are saints, all are holy ones.  But at the same time, it is a good thing to remember especially those Christians who played some significant part in the history of the Church.  The Roman church has a much longer list of days set aside for specific saints, of course.  Luther advised that, just for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be a good idea to limit these festivals to those who lived during New Testament times.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with remembering other significant Christians during Church history; our current hymnal also includes a list of “commemorations” on page xii, including all sorts of people from the Old Testament, the Early Church, the Reformation, and even a few men from the Lutheran Church here in America, including the Missouri Synod’s own first President, CFW Walther (May 7).

But let me be clear: we are not worshiping Peter and Paul today.  We are worshiping the God whom they proclaimed.  Peter and Paul were exactly the same aw we are: forgiven sinners.  And today’s Gospel reminds us pretty clearly of that fact.  What we see here is a picture of St. Peter both at his best and at his worst, one right after the other.  Sound familiar?  Sometimes our worst failures, our greatest humiliations, and yes, our worst sins, come right after our greatest good works.  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, instead of giving the glory to God.  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.”  He told him that these things had not been revealed to him by men but by the Father in heaven.  If you read on only a few verses beyond this, though, you’ll see that Peter didn’t listen.  He tried to rebuke our Lord when He went on to talk about His death.  Thing is, what Peter 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.  Peter’s objections came straight from Satan himself.

St. Paul is another example of a saint who is shown very clearly in the Holy Scriptures as a sinner as well.  He also thought he was doing the right thing.  But where Peter simply said something stupid and evil, Paul actually acted on what Satan had him doing.  He persecuted the Christians and even had many of them executed for their faith.  But after his conversion this Pharisee became perhaps the greatest missionary to the unclean Gentiles the world has ever seen.  As far as I know, we’re all Gentiles here, not Jews.  It was Paul who pioneered the mission work among the Gentiles, and who stood by it when even Peter had given in to peer pressure from his fellow Jews not to associate with the Gentiles.  Ultimately Paul also gave up his life for the faith just as Peter did.  The one-time murderer of Christians was himself murdered for being a Christian.

What is going on here?  We see a young disciple whose pride has led him to say something Satanic and a Pharisee who murdered Christians.  Neither of them seems to us to be a good candidate for any great sainthood.  But these two became the most significant men in the history of Christianity aside from our Lord himself.  God doesn’t do things the way we expect Him to.  After all, Christianity itself is built on an even more improbable series of events.  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, because it is through us that heaven itself comes to fallen humanity, and that therefore those who believe are made heirs of heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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