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LSB Saints Peter & Paul Sermon – Matthew 16:13-19

June 30, 2014

June 29, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

Important figures in an institution’s history receive commemoration. Statues, portraits, plaques: these are the usual types of commemorations. Some get special days on a calendar. Our nation has those: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; Presidents’ Day; Columbus Day. Back in Chicagoland where I lived as a child, there was Lincoln’s Birthday and Casimir Pulaski Day. The commemorations are meant to recall the influence that these important figures had on the institution’s history.

June 29 in the Church’s calendar provides such a day for us. Walking in, you may have wondered why the red was up in the chancel. We’ve already had Pentecost. Reformation Day is months off. Today is the festival day of SS. Peter & Paul, the two pillars of the Church’s history. The influence of these two apostles on the Church is hard to measure. The Acts of the Apostles is dedicated to recording the work of these two figures. The New Testament canon is made up of multiple letters written by these men, as well as two gospel accounts connected with them. In the generations that followed, countless numbers of church buildings would be named in honor of these two figures.

The twin pillars of Peter and Paul shaped the Church’s existence in its earliest days. In the Epistle Reading for today, the spheres of influence that these apostles had was mentioned: “He who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles.” The Church was meant to have disciples of all nations. That was included in the instructions given to the apostles, the instructions that you heard two weeks ago on Holy Trinity Sunday: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” Beginning on Pentecost, Peter led the effort of disciple-making among the descendants of Jacob, beginning in Jerusalem. Not long after that, the selection of Paul as an apostle would lead to the rapid conversion of Gentiles to the faith.

Recognizing the influence of Peter and Paul is a proper thing to do. We can rightly call them the twin pillars of the Church. But all the pillars that adorn the majestic buildings must have a foundation. Without that foundation, the pillars cannot stand. And without a solid foundation, the pillars will wobble and fall. That is true for the Church and her twin pillars. The foundation of these two apostles is Jesus Christ. And even on the day that commemorates Peter and Paul, Jesus is actually at the center.

The central role of Jesus was clearly heard in the Gospel Reading. You heard the question that Jesus posed to His disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They reported accurately the thoughts of the people, including the popular belief that Jesus was a prophet. But Jesus asks a second question of them: “But who do you say that I am?” That question was answered by Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And that answer establishes the foundation for the Church’s existence. Jesus replies to Peter: “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.” Jesus states that His Church will be built. It will have a foundation. But the foundation will not be a man. The foundation will be what His Father in heaven had revealed to Peter about Him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” 

Peter’s confession of faith about Jesus’ identity was more than just a repetition of Jesus’ proper title. It was a testimony about who Jesus was and how that would determine what He was doing in the world. Peter’s statement connects Jesus with the God who bestows life. It notes that Jesus is the one whom God promised to send into the world to accomplish His will. The declaration identifies Jesus as the source of salvation and redemption. And the Church which Jesus establishes is built upon the reception of that testimony which the Father in heaven reveals.

This is seen in the other readings that are chosen for today. In the First Reading and the Epistle Reading, the preaching of Paul was described. The gospel that he proclaimed was rooted in the same testimony that Peter gave concerning Jesus. This was noted when Paul went down to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus. They came to where the apostles were located to receive affirmation of their message. And they were welcomed by the apostles: “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised….and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”

But why was this so? Because of what Peter said in that meeting in Jerusalem: “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 

That last sentence in Peter’s statement is so key: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Peter notes that salvation comes from Jesus Christ. He declares that both Jew and Gentile will be saved through what the Son of the Living God had brought from His Father. The Church which Jesus was building among the descendants of Jacob in Jerusalem and among the Gentiles in Antioch and points beyond had the same foundation. Both Peter and Paul were built as pillars on that foundation: the confession of who Jesus is and what He has done. And whether the new believers would become pillars or would remain as bricks in the wall, they also were established on that foundation of Jesus Christ.

Without that foundation, the Church will crumble. There can be attempts to build the Church on people or personalities. There can be different gospels put forward. But from the first days of the Church’s existence, that flaw has been exposed. The threat of another gospel was seen in the readings for today: “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” And even after the matter was settled, there would be challenges to revive that “other gospel” which tripped up Peter and Barnabas. Paul would write to the believers in Corinth who had heard his preaching that dividing into camps based on personality is an attempt to divide Christ. Peter would exhort his hearers to stay established on Jesus as the Chief Cornerstone.

When the foundation of the true confession about Jesus and His work, the Church becomes just another human organization. It won’t withstand attempts to topple it. The Church becomes decrepit, like like the church building in Harrisburg that collapsed on itself. Or it will be built at an unmaintainable angle, with pillars unable to keep it upright. People might feel secure, but the gates of hell will crash down on it and cause all sorts of havoc. There will be no power to open and unlock heaven to anyone.

But none of that will plague the Church that is built on and remains established on the confession about Jesus and His work. You will make the statement that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Creed will put that in your mouths again. You have already declared it in the Gloria in Excelsis. And Jesus makes the promise to you: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That promise is made by the One who came down from heaven; who was crucified, died, and was buried; who descended into hell and rose again from the dead. The gates of hell could not prevail against Him. The gates of Paradise opened up for Him.

So you put your trust in Him and what He has done. You are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. Your sins are loosed on earth and salvation is opened in heaven for you. You are people whom the Lord has taken from all nations to be His own and called by His name. By His choice, you have had the truth about Jesus’ identity revealed to you. You have been gathered into the Church that has Peter and Paul as its pillars, but more importantly has Jesus as the foundation.

Left to your own ability or trusting a different gospel, you would not have these promises made or enacted. But you are incorporated into the divine institution that will prevail, even when the gates of hell attempt to overthrow it. And so you can make the statements that reveal your trust, just as Peter and Paul did: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” That describes you, for you have been given to know the truth about Jesus, so that you can say about Him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And through Your grace I have been saved. That is the foundation my faith is built on.”

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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