Confession of St. Peter
Awhile back I shared that one of my least favorite expressions that a congregation member can say to me is, “Pastor, I was watching the History Channel….” Now as I indicated at that time, I really like the History Channel. However whenever it deals with anything related to the Bible, it’s terrible. They usually find the most radical scholar they can find who makes outlandish claims and presents it as fact. Knowing the data and the arguments, when I see one of these presentations on the History Channel I just want to roll my eyes and say, “Whatever.”
There is, however, another expression that I encounter all the time that grates on me far more than the one about the History Channel. For me, hearing it is like hearing finger nails scratching down a chalkboard. It is one that you also know well. You encounter it when someone says, “I am a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” In fact, this is so common that it is studied by sociology as a religious category.
People say this expression like it is some kind of insightful and enlightened position. On the one hand they are saying that they are deep and in tune with the possibility that there is some reality greater than just this world that we experience. On the other hand they showing their independence and free thought – that they are not confined by any one belief system or tradition. They are figuring out what is true for them.
There are few things that are more typical of the American religious environment. It reflects the so-called postmodern outlook in which there is no such thing as truth – just perspectives of what is true for you and true for me. And it is incredibly focused on the individual who alone determines what is true – what works for him or her.
Our text today is the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter. There are few texts that are a better antidote to this way of thinking; few texts that reveal how much it contradicts the Gospel. And at the same time, this text challenges us to examine the ways that we fail to confess Jesus as the Christ.
In our Gospel lesson we find Jesus and his disciples in northern Israel – at Caesarea Philippi. In the first chapter we learn, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” The Gospel of Mark has of course up to this point narrated Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the Gospel and bringing the kingdom of God – the reign of God – through his miracles. In the very first miracle reported, Jesus encounters a person with an unclean spirit. The spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the spirit to be silent and then casts it out of the man.
Jesus was powerful in word and deed as he brought the reign of God – the kingdom of God – into this world. And he captured the attention of people – how could he not? Immediately after Jesus casts out the unclean spirit Mark tells us, “And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.”
Jesus captured attention and interest. But, who did people think that he was? That was the really important question. And it is the question that Jesus asks of his disciples in our text today as he says, “Who do people say that I am?” In reply they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
It was impossible to miss that Jesus was preaching about God’s reign arriving and doing the kinds of things that God’s prophets had done in the Old Testament – especially Elijah and Elisha. Many first century Jews believed that Elijah, or an Elijah-like prophet would come in order to bring the arrival of God’s end-time rule and they believed Jesus was this kind of prophetic figure. John the Baptist had been Elijah-like and had proclaimed repentance in preparation for God’s imminent judgment, and so apparently some people thought that Jesus was John returned to life after his execution by Herod Antipas.
In our text Jesus then addresses the disciples very directly with a question, and the Greek text makes clear that it is an emphatic one: “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus confronts them and calls them to confess as he asks who they think Jesus is. And in response Peter confesses, “You are the Christ.” Then Jesus strictly charged them to tell no one about him which indicated that Peter was exactly right.
This text teaches us two important things. First it says that the whole idea of there being what is “true for you” and “true for me”; the whole idea of “spiritual but not religious” – is just bogus. There were wrong answers about Jesus and there was only one correct answer. And second, it teaches us that Jesus demands an answer to the question. The very fact of his existence – his words and deeds demand a response. He can’t be ignored.
The nature of Jesus and his message does not allow for “that’s true for you but this is true for me” response. The Christian writer C.S. Lewis identified this fact long ago when he wrote in his classic little book Mere Christianity: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ. He confessed that Jesus was the One in whom God’s saving promises of the Old Testament found fulfillment. He was the One who fulfilled God’s promise to King David – the One who fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah about the Messiah who would bring God’s salvation and peace.
On all of this Peter was exactly right. In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that such an understanding, faith and confession could only be provided by God. And yet then, we hear in our text that Jesus, “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” Peter makes this awesome confession about Jesus, and immediately the Christ begins to talk about his suffering, death and resurrection.
Peter didn’t want to hear such talk. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But the Lord set him straight. He rebuked Peter as he said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And then Jesus called the crowd to him with his disciple and said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”
In the confession of St. Peter we see that Jesus is the Christ who brings God’s salvation. But he does this by dying on a cross … and then rising from the dead. This is not what the world expects – it’s not even what Peter expected! And Jesus tells us that those who wish to confess him as Christ will need to deny themselves and take up the cross. Make no mistake, there will be a cost to confessing Jesus as the Christ.
That cost can take different forms. It can be the fact that our culture says that polite people don’t talk about religion in public and instead keep it private. It can be the fact that Sunday morning is now considered just regular weekend time for events, and confessing Christ means telling a coach or teacher that we can’t be there on Sunday morning because that is when we attend the Divine Service. It can be the disdain that our culture heaps upon anyone who would dare to say that Jesus alone is the way, the truth and the life.
You know how you experience these challenges. You also know times and settings when you have caved; when you have remained silent; when you have gone along in order to get along.
The Confession of St. Peter challenges us to recognize the ways that we are called to confess Christ in our daily life. There are times we do fail. But we are reminded of how Jesus begins his ministry in Mark’s Gospel as he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Have you failed? Then repent … and believe in the Gospel. Believe that Jesus is the Christ who has brought God’s salvation by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. He has won it for you. He has called you to be his own through the water of Holy Baptism and washed away your sins. He just spoke his word of forgiveness to you in Holy Absolution. He is declaring that forgiveness to you right now. And in a few moments he will give you that forgiveness through his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
In repentance and faith you are forgiven. And through these same means the Holy Spirit grants you strength to face the challenge of confessing Christ. The Spirit has given you life in Jesus. It is a life that nothing can take away from you, not even death. For as Jesus says in our text, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”