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The Confession of St. Peter, January 18, 2004
A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 16:13-19 (RCL Series C)
by Samuel D. Zumwalt

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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

When I was growing up in a small East Texas town, I often heard different versions of a joke about this guy that dies and goes to heaven. As St. Peter shows the newly departed around the heavenly city, the man hears singing coming from a building set off by itself. When he asks Peter what's going on, Peter says, “Ssshh! That's the [name your least favorite Christian group]. They don't know the rest of us are here.”

It's a tired old joke, but it says a lot about Christian disunity. Maybe “we” accept “you,” but “you” don't accept “us.” Therefore “we” must be much better Christians than “you.” After all “we” can poke fun at “your” need to exclude others. Therefore “we” are the dearly beloved of God while “you” are like the crazy relatives of the Christian family.

Meanwhile those outside the Christian faith and those that have recently left the faith overhear this kind of family squabbling and say, “Now that's another reason I don't call myself a Christian!” Like Gandhi, they're still waiting to see the Christians actually attempting to follow the Lord Jesus.

So…perhaps we don't just need one week of prayer for Christian unity. Maybe we could use a century of prayer for Christian unity!

Peter's Confession

The week of prayer for Christian unity always begins with the Confession of St. Peter and concludes with the Conversion of St. Paul. It's good to begin with Peter's confession, because he reminds us that all Christians share his confession that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is what binds us together. Jesus is the Lord of the Church. Jesus is the loving face of God to a Church and a world battered and torn apart by disunity.

Now I must say that I'm amused by the verses chosen for today's Gospel lesson. If you know the rest of Matthew 16, you know that our reading only shows Peter as Jesus' star pupil. Our lesson stops just before Peter goes from whiz kid to class dunce in a heartbeat. Wouldn't it be great if we could all edit our lives like that? Wouldn't it be great if others only saw the highlights of our best moments and never those times we looked really stupid? I'm still convinced that right after showing us a digital replay of our stupidest moments God is going to ask us preachers is, “What did you say that for? What were you thinking?”

But today is Peter's day. Like a classic competitor, Peter waits for the other disciples to give all the wrong answers. Then he nails it on the first take. Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds immediately, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

He Probably Should Have Stopped Right There!

Like any professor delighted by a bright pupil, Jesus responds with glowing praise, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Of course our Lord probably should have stopped there, but he didn't. I find Jesus' excitement very understandable. After all this is chapter 16 of Matthew's Gospel. It's about time that one of the disciples got something right! Matthew has recorded a lot of Jesus' teaching by now.

So…Jesus is so pumped that Peter got it right that he begins to gush, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

You can almost see Peter visibly begin to swell up with all this high praise. After all, Peter's name means “rock.” He must be the rock upon which the Church will be built. And that conviction has certainly been cause for a great deal of disunity in the Church of Jesus Christ! One of the key stumbling blocks between major branches of Christianity is the notion that valid sacraments flow from ministries that are in union with Peter's successor – the Bishop of Rome.

Jesus Is The Rock That Peter Confesses

But Peter doesn't quite get it as will become painfully clear in verse 23. Peter is not the rock. Jesus is the rock, the cornerstone which the builders rejected. Peter's confession, that got Jesus so excited in the first place, is that Jesus is God's Chosen One, the only begotten Son of God. The Church will be built not upon Peter but upon Jesus, the One whom Peter confessed.

By himself, Peter will not be worthy to hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Peter will certainly not be wise enough or holy enough to forgive and withhold forgiveness on the basis of his own goodness. In short, Peter still doesn't get it, and he won't get it until sometime on Easter Sunday!

In just a few more verses, Peter the dunce will say, “You must not die, Jesus.” And Jesus says in return, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now that's enough to puncture Peter's newly inflated ego.

There can only be forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name if God's only Son, the Messiah, is crucified for the sins of the world. Jesus has to die in order to make the keys to the kingdom of heaven fit the lock. Jesus has to die for Peter's sins and for your sins and for my sins in order to take away our sins and give us his own righteousness as a free gift. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world and opens the door to Paradise!

When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he says more than he knows. But his confession does not yet have the full force of Good Friday and Easter behind it. The Church can't yet be built, because the forgiveness of sins hasn't yet been accomplished on Calvary's cross.

Confessing Christ

Despite Peter's well-meaning protests, the Lord Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world and then raised from the dead on Easter morning. Now the keys to the kingdom work – there is forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. His Church continues to be built upon that bedrock conviction – Jesus Christ is the world's Savior!

At the very end of Matthew's Gospel, the Risen Jesus has assembled his disciples on a mountain. There he says to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me, therefore go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And I will always be with you to the end of time” (28:16-20).

Baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection gives the assurance that Christ has died for this one. Baptism means the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and salvation from sin, death, and evil. But that's not the end of things.

In this Christian Church, day after day, we renew our Baptisms. We confess our sins and are enveloped in God's mercy. We learn to confess boldly with Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. We learn to confess boldly not merely with our lips but with lives that convincingly declare that Jesus is truly present as Lord and Savior.

We Christians will probably disagree until Jesus comes on how and when to baptize, on how and when to distribute the Lord's Supper, and on who does which ministries in Jesus' name. To the extent that we accent our disagreements, the world will continue to have good reasons not to join in our confession of Jesus as Lord.

May our prayer this week be a plea for forgiveness for making a lukewarm confession that Jesus Christ is Lord! May our prayer be that we may see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly – day by day [from the Book of Common Prayer ]!

The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Martin's Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas USA