Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon: Sts. Peter & Paul – 2014

29 June 2014

Text: Matt 16:13-19 (Acts 15:1-21, Gal 2:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

One of the beautiful things about the greatest of saints is how unlikely they are.  While the world admires the strongest, fastest, best, and greatest – in God’s kingdom, the first are last and the last first.  Two of the greatest heroes of Christendom – sometimes described as the two apostolic pillars of the Church – so often portrayed heroically in marble, are two such examples.

St. Peter was among the Lord’s first disciples.  And he was the leader of the apostolic band.  Peter was a big talker, but often he wrote checks with his mouth that the rest of him was unable to cash.  Jesus scolded St. Peter for being “Satan” on one occasion.  He also fell into the water while taking a turn at walking on the sea, claimed he would never deny the Lord just before denying the Lord, and painfully had to be reconverted and restored to the faith when the risen Lord Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him (calling to mind the three betrayals before the prophesied rooster crowed). 

And yet in spite of these foibles, St. Peter was also the first to be given the keys of the kingdom, was at the Transfiguration, was one of the first at the empty tomb, heroically proclaimed the faith in the midst of trials and persecutions, performed signs and wonders, left us two books of the New Testament, and went to his own death as a crucified martyr.

The greatest of the blessed apostle’s works, however, was not all of these deeds, but rather his mighty and yet humble confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  For flesh and blood did not reveal this to Peter, and upon the rock of St. Peter’s confession, the Lord built His church.  The name “Peter” itself is a nickname given to Simon by the Lord Jesus Himself.  It is a name that means “Rock” or “Rocky.”  For in the world’s eyes, Peter was flighty and unreliable.  But in the service of the Lord and His kingdom, the church, St. Peter was a steadfast rock, confessing Christ as the Son of God, trusting in Him and Him alone for salvation, and receiving the Lord’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Not bad for a man the world mocked as an uneducated fisherman. 

Our second hero of the faith we commemorate today, St. Paul, began his religious life not just as a non-Christian, but as an antichristian.  Under his old name Saul, he was a learned rabbi, a Pharisee, a devotee of the law who denied Jesus and eagerly persecuted the church.  He was feared by men, women, and children as a kind of one-man secret police, dragging Christians to the synagogue in chains.  And as the very first Christian blood was spilled as St. Stephen’s eyes closed one final time, preaching Christ in between the blows of rocks hurled by the lynch mob, it was Saul who was approving of it all, watching the cloaks of the murderers.

But once again, the Lord in His kingdom does what the world and the devil least expect.  He miraculously appeared to St. Paul, forgave him, called him, baptized him, and ordained him into service as an extraordinary apostle.  And preaching to Jews and gentiles alike, the blessed apostle spoke forcefully with not only the power of the mind, but more importantly, with the power of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul made three missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, ordaining pastors, baptizing Christians, planting churches, and writing letters that became books of our New Testament. 

St. Paul suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually as a result of his proclamation of Jesus Christ.  His entire life was marked by suffering.  In the eyes of the world, Paul’s life must have been seen as a waste, a colossal failure, and yet the churches he founded would eventually outgrow the mighty empire itself, and conquer it without firing a single arrow.

Church tradition and early historical accounts teach us that these two pillars, these two unlikely saints Peter and Paul would find their way to the great city of Rome, and would be sent back to their Lord on the same day.  St. Peter was crucified like his Lord, only asking to be turned upside-down upon the cross, suffering the painful death of a slave – a slave of Jesus Christ.  St. Paul was beheaded, like the forerunner of our Lord Jesus, St. John the Baptist.  St. Paul died the death of a citizen of Rome for the offense that he was truly a citizen of heaven.

Both of these sinner-saints shed their blood as a thank offering unto Him who shed His blood as a sin offering unto them and for the whole world.  In both cases, these men showed courage, wisdom, obedience, pastoral insights, theological brilliance, but most of all – and really the only thing that truly counts in the final analysis– they confessed the Lord Jesus Christ and Him crucified, to the very end. 

The red we see all around us reminds us of the blood shed on account of this confession, which points us to the blood shed by our Lord for us – blood that saves us, blood that we drink in the Holy Sacrament, blood that becomes part of us in our very bodies, blood that nourishes us in body and soul to life everlasting.

One day, dear friends, we may be called upon to shed our blood.  It may not be heroic.  It may not be the stuff of the great saints.  And it may not even be real blood shed for the faith – as we may suffer far less than death.  But just as these men gave their lives making the good confession, so too do we, dear friends, as we confess Jesus Christ as our very life and salvation. 

We confess the same confession as St. Peter, and we worship the same Lord as St. Paul.  The Lord has built upon the rock of this apostolic foundation His church.  And, dear friends, the keys continue to be wielded by pastors, forgiving sins and unlocking heaven’s gates to those who also make the good confession.

And so, with Sts. Peter and Paul, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud, magnify, and confess the Lord of the Church, and we receive this truly glorious promise of the Lord concerning His church, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Amen.


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