A Spirit Filled Church
Spirit filled churches are in. Read the signs; check their sites. The Dove is prominent. So are phrases like "Spirit anointed," "Spirit inspired," and "Spirit empowered." If you are not any of these, you are considered to have less of the Spirit than you need. You are in fact a deficient church. And can you blame them for reaching this conclusion?
You see, flesh and blood won't get you that far. Look at our text. The very best that flesh and blood can conclude on its own is that Jesus is a miracle worker like Elijah, a great man like John the Baptist, or a great prophet like Jeremiah. That's what people in Jesus' day and in our own conclude about Him. He is something great, something special. The best teacher in the world, the kindest man in the world, the most powerful man in the world. But after all He's just a man.
People who say such things think they're saying good things. They're rather proud of their answers. They think they are giving Jesus His due. They think Jesus should be happy with their recognition of Him as "the greatest," "very powerful," "most loving." But He's not. Line up all the adjectives, all the superlatives, all the positive things you can say about Jesus, and it's not enough. What flesh and blood can reveal about Jesus is not enough. Our highest thoughts about Jesus aren't high enough. My grandest ideas about Jesus aren't grand enough. Your loftiest views of Jesus aren't lofty enough. Flesh and blood can't see the true Jesus.
Not only are flesh and blood blind to who Jesus really is, they are no match for life's real problems. O flesh and blood can make war on poverty, disease, homelessness and on a host of other worldly problems, but they are no match for demons, hell or sin.
What happens when 7 Jewish rabbis try to cast out a demon with nothing but flesh and blood? Acts tells you that 1 demon stomped all 7 of them and sent them running away naked. What happens when the rich man set the millions of dollars he had saved up to live on against death? He was a fool because his riches weren't enough to purchase his life from death. What happens when flesh and blood try to stop sin?
You can see what happens in a short story by William Somerset Maugham called "Rain." A missionary meets a prostitute. He is determined to "save" her with all the discipline, all the power, all the Laws that his flesh and blood can muster. And it works...for a while. She reforms her ways. But in the end, the missionary is the one who falls prey to her sin, and ends up killing himself in despair. Flesh and blood are no match for sin.
So, it's no wonder that churches exalt the Spirit. Flesh and blood can't grasp the truth of Christ and are pitifully weak over against spiritual enemies. You do need the Spirit. But the way churches today exalt the Spirit leads to despising flesh and blood in the way that Buddhism and Hinduism do. Flesh and blood are worth nothing to them. They don't look forward to the resurrection of the flesh, like we do. In fact, this flesh and blood are something to be escaped from.
Now that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Almost seems Christian. Yes, the Spirit is what counts. Who needs the Waters of Baptism on his flesh? I need the Baptism of the Spirit. Who needs the Bread and Wine of Communion? I need the Spirit to get me close to Jesus. Who needs the Words of a flesh and blood man to forgive sins? I need the Spirit to deal with my sins.
The Spirit is definitely what we need, but when we lose the link God has established between His Spirit and flesh and blood we are left with developing our own. We find the Spirit in our feelings be they good, happy, or positive. We find the Spirit in our thoughts, our dreams, our visions. This is not only un-Lutheran but dangerous. As we say in our confession or faith: "God will not deal with us except through His spoken Word and Sacraments. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such Word and Sacraments is of the devil" (SC, III, 8,10).
Pay attention to the 2 poles. On one hand, flesh and blood are weak and powerless to believe in Jesus, to overcome sin, or to defeat hell and demons. The Spirit is needed to do these things. On the other hand, if you find the Spirit apart from flesh and blood things, you've really found the devil. That's shocking, but that's what confessional Lutherans have confessed since 1537. Why?
Confessional Lutherans admit that flesh and blood won't get you far enough. But we also look at what Scripture says God does with flesh and blood. Consider the incarnation; Jesus takes on flesh and blood through the Virgin Mary. What an amazing thing God did with flesh and blood. God placed Himself into the womb of a sinful woman, took on flesh and blood there and came out sinless, but still a real human being.
God the Son took on flesh and blood through sinful flesh and blood and yet His flesh and blood had no sin. But that's not all God did with flesh and blood. He bore our sins, our guilts, our burdens in His flesh and blood. He paid for them in His own body by allowing it to be nailed to a cross. God didn't simply have a change of heart one day toward your sins. He wasn't moved by the Spirit to say, "O, I'm just going to forgive them their sins."
No, He took the sins of your flesh and blood and placed them on the flesh and blood of His Son. His Son felt your guilt in His body. He blushed over the sexual sins of your body as if His body had done them. He sweat blood from His brow because we've frowned on others. It was our flesh and blood that needed redeeming, but it was only by the flesh and blood of God that we could be redeemed.
That's not all. God has put the power to build the Church, lock the gates of hell and to unlock the gates of heaven in flesh and blood. Did you notice that in the text? Jesus goes over with the disciples all that flesh and blood are capable of concluding about Him. Then Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus goes on to say that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him but My Father in heaven.
Apparently, Jesus doesn't think much of flesh and blood either. But listen to the next words out of Jesus' mouth. He speaks of flesh and blood Peter being a "small rock," and then speaks of the "large rock, or bedrock" on which He will build His Church. This "bedrock" is the Keys that He hands to Peter to open and lock heaven and hell. Jesus says He is the One who builds His church, not flesh and blood men, but He says He does it through the Keys that He gives to flesh and blood men!
Jesus puts the power to break open the gates of hell, to unlock heaven, and to forgive sins in the hands of flesh and blood. This so-called Power of the Keys is exercised when babies are baptized. Right there a baby is delivered from the gates of hell. The Power of the Keys is exercised when Communion is celebrated. Right there the Body and Blood of Christ is given to sinners and along with them not only forgiveness, not only life, but salvation. The Power of the Keys is exercised when sinners are forgiven. Right there, sins are sent away and hell is locked and heaven opened.
All of these things, Baptism, Absolution, Communion happen from flesh and blood to flesh and blood. But the new life, forgiveness, and salvation they bring come by the power of the Spirit. Jesus attaches His Spirit, His power, His miracles, to things flesh and blood can lay hold of. When you touch the Waters of Baptism, you touch forgiveness of sins. When you hear the Absolution, you hear the Spirit's voice. When you eat the Holy Communion, you eat the flesh and blood of God. The ordinary things of Water, Words, Bread and Wine are how the extraordinary Spirit gets to you.
This is how it works in practice. We are faced daily with our sins, the gates of hell wishing to swallow us, and the problem of getting this flesh and blood into heaven. Now the Scriptures are filled with comforting passages. The Lord is described as a bird under whose wings sinners can hide until difficult times pass over. The Lord's Name is a strong tower which we can run into and be safe. They Lord says He is a Rock higher than the problems that threaten to overwhelm us. But where are those wings? Which direction should you run to find the tower? And who will lead us to this rock that is higher than us?
Where can those shouting, "Spirit anointed;" "Spirit inspired," or "Spirit empowered" direct you to? O they can urge you to take shelter under the wings of the Lord, to run into the strong tower, to get up on the rock. But in the end your flesh and blood has no place to go. It will only be able to turn inside to the positive thought that God's name is a tower. Inside, to the feeling that you're underneath God's wings. Inside, to the faith that you're upon the rock.
But I can point to the Waters of Baptism and say, "Even as your flesh and blood were placed under them, so are you now under the outstretched wings of your Lord." I can point to the Absolution ringing in your ears and say, "Those Words are God's strong tower for you. The forgiveness I just spoke to you is stronger than your sin or your guilt. You can run into the Words of Absolution and not even God can touch you much less Satan or sin." I can point to the Bread and Wine of Communion and say, "There is the rock that is higher than your problems. When you receive the Body and Blood of your Savior, you climb up on the rock. Your flesh and blood can be overwhelmed by your problems; but Christ's flesh and blood can't be."
"Spirit-filled" churches can't do much for sinful flesh and blood. Flesh and blood sinners need the Spirit delivered to them in ways their fallen flesh and blood can get their bodies, ears, and hands on. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20170910); Matthew 16: 13-20