Growing in the Confessions
Our text is called the Confession of St. Peter, but I don't seek to grow you in his confession today. Nope, in this time for growth called Pentecost, I seek to grow your understanding of the Lutheran Confessions. When you installed me as pastor, you made me promise before God Almighty that I would preach and teach not just according to the Bible but according to the Bible as expounded by the Lutheran Confessions. You did this because your constitution, like all Missouri Synod ones says, "This congregation accepts...the Book of Concord of the year 1580, as the correct presentation and true exposition of Christian Doctrine drawn from the Holy Scriptures..." You know what that means in plain English? We agree that when the Confessions speak to a question, that settles it.
For example, say you start reading Catholic doctrine. You read that our text means Jesus gave the keys to Peter here and made him the first pope. Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build His Church. You come to me saying, "I think the Catholics are right. Peter was the first pope because Jesus plainly says, "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church..I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." Rather than get into a long debate where you quote to me what the Catholics say about this passage and expect me to refute whatever they say, our prior pledge that the Lutheran Confessions correctly expound the Bible is suppose to enable me to show you what our Confessions say about this and you agree.
So what do our Confessions say about this text? They say Peter is neither the pope nor the rock on which Christ promises to build His Church. They say the text itself proves this. First, the text makes Peter a representative of all the apostles. Jesus didn't question just Peter but them all. He said, "Who do you (plural) say I am?" Secondly, what is said in the singular here, "I will give you (singular) the keys of the kingdom" is said in the plural in Matthew 18 and John 20. Our Confessions conclude: "These words show that the keys were entrusted equally to all the apostles and that all the apostles were commissioned in a like manner."
What about Jesus saying, "On this rock, I will build My Church?" Our Confessions answer this in part by appealing to the church fathers that the Catholics themselves recognized. They cite Origen, Ambrose, Cyprian, Hillary, Bede, and Chrysostom as teaching that Peter was not the rock but the faith that confesses Jesus as Christ and God is. Finally, our Confessions say a pope can't be an office from God since the Church was without one for its first 500 years.
One more thing, although our Confessions don't note this, the rules of grammar argue against "rock" referring to Peter personally. It's true that Peter means rock, but for Jesus to have said the rock was Peter, He would have had to say, "You are Petros and upon this petro (masculine)." But Jesus said, "You are Petros and upon this petra (feminine)." The feminine form of rock can't refer to the masculine Peter.
I can see I've put some of you to sleep; this ought to wake you up. While our Confessions state clearly that Peter is not the pope and the office of pope is from men not God, whether or not the Church has a pope is not their chief concern. Philip Melancthon, a leader of the Reformation alongside Luther, signed one of our Confessions with this note: "Concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we too, may...grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has by 'human right.'" Although not in our Confessions, Luther said the same thing. If the Roman Catholics would "set free the pure Gospel," he would not lift a finger against the pope.
The gospel, the gospel, the gospel is the chief concern of our Lutheran Confessions. The gospel, the Good News that God the Son became Man to live a perfect life under the Law of God we could never keep and to suffer and die, drinking dry the cup of God's eternal wrath, this Gospel is our Confessions chief concern. Here we stand with the earliest of Churches. From earliest times, the Church held the four Gospels to be the chief concern of the Church. When they had a Gospel procession in which the pastor reads the Gospel lesson from the center of the congregation, like I do on Christmas Day, he didn't bring a whole Bible but just the 4 Gospels. When pastors were ordained in the early Church the 4 Gospels were given them. Today we give them the entire Bible.
What am I saying? That the rest of the Bible is not important or can be disregarded? Of course not. However, if you teach the whole Bible correctly but not the Gospel or don't allow the Gospel to predominate, you have missed the whole point of the Scriptures. Our Confessions bring every point of doctrine, every truth of Scripture back to the Gospel. For example, they cite the text before us 7 times. Only 1 of those times do they use it to teach against the pope. 6 of the 7 times it's cited it's used to teach against despair. Am I saying our Confessions don't care about the pope? Of course not, they continually point out how wrong the papacy is, but they're even more concerned with the soul-relieving, life-freeing Gospel. 6 of the 7 times this passage is cited in the Confessions it's used to show that Christ wants us to have certain and firm consolation against the gates of hell.
This is important because the Book of Revelation shows us that in these latter days the gates of hell will open and spew forth false teachers, false teachings, and persecutions against the Church. In the end of the latter days, Satan himself will be released from the prison where Christ's death had chained him. For a "little season" Satan will be released to deceive the nations, says Revelation. Who knows when Satan's little season began? A 1991 study published by our Synod said it was hard to believe that it wasn't right now. But we don't want to forget our measure of time is not God's. A little season for God could be hundreds of years. Satan's little season could be hundreds of years old.
Hell is an active force against the Church and against Christ's people. This idea is found in our text. The gates of hell are pictured as actively trying to overcome the Church. Flesh and blood are no match for this. We are helpless to withstand it. As we sing in "A Mighty Fortress," "With might of ours can nought be done, soon were our loss effected." But the hymn goes on, doesn't it? "But for us fights the valiant One whom God Himself elected."
Picture the Church as harassed, chased by the devil. He wields God's holy Law against us. We don't do this; we don't do that; we do this wrong, that wrong, and this too according to the Law. He fires the flaming arrows of despair straight at our souls. But God has mercy upon us. He sends forth His only begotten Son to rescue us. The movie "What Dreams May Come" provides good pictures. It shows a husband willingly descending into the horrible depths of hell to rescue his beloved wife. Would that we could do something like that, but we can't. Jesus, however, can and did.
Jesus came shouldering the perfect Law of God never failing even once to keep it in thought, in word, in deed. But He suffered, O how He suffered in our place. He suffered the shame you feel for your sins. He suffered the pointed guilt you know from some dark misdeed or thought. He suffered under the punishment, temporal and eternal, that sinners such as we deserve. He faced down all that death, all that Satan, all that hell held had to offer. Though death, though Satan, though hell itself tried to hold our Savior, they couldn't. What Law could they claim He hadn't kept? What punishment that the Law pronounces against sinners could they claim Jesus had failed to endure? Jesus successfully descended into the very depths of hell and came back out with us as our sermon hymn depicted.
But don't misunderstand. The gates of hell still fight against us, and that's why Christ Jesus put the keys to the gates of hell, and heaven too, here on earth. These keys are what stop hell from overcoming us. They do this by opening heaven to sinners and locking hell to them. If hell is locked, you can't fall into it. If hell is locked, you need not fear what might come out of it. If heaven is already opened to you for the sake of Christ, then you need not fear that St. Peter or someone else will meet you at the pearly gates with some sort of admissions test that you must pass.
The opening and locking is done through the so called power of the keys. These keys the Lord Jesus has placed on earth in the most ordinary things imaginable. In the Waters of Baptism, sinners are washed of their sins and reborn in the kingdom of heaven. In those Baptismal Waters, heaven's gates are thrown open wide and hells gates are padlocked shut. In the ordinary Words of Absolution, "I forgive you for the sake of Christ" which you hear every Sunday and can hear whenever you need to from each other or from your pastor, heaven's gates are opened to you and hell's gates are welded shut. In Holy Communion which looks to be nothing more than plain bread and ordinary wine, Jesus Himself comes to dine with you. Heaven must be open to the person who dines on earth with Jesus and on Jesus' Body and Blood. Hell's gates must be locked to one at Jesus' earthly table who dines on forgiveness, life, and salvation.
One thing remains to be seen, one thing remains to be told so that hell's gates might not overcome us with their threats, despair, or false teachings. Wafting out between the bars of hell's locked gates come the stench of doubt and guilt. Hell says, "Sure what that pastor says sounds good. Would that it were true, but do you really think water, words, bread and wine can make you acceptable to God? Do you think water can wash away that filthy sin which still bothers you? Do you think the words he speaks can undo the horrible things you have said? Do you think bread and wine in your mouth are any match for the lust, pride, and greed that pollute your soul?"
Jesus addresses these doubts, these questions; Jesus puts steel doors across the locked gates of hell by telling us that what is bound and loosed on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. These keys used on earth fit heavenly doors. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are not merely earthly things but heavenly, holy, divine things.
Again an illustration from the movie "What Dreams May Come" is helpful. In one scene, a woman paints a beautiful, vivid purple tree on earth; suddenly, a beautiful, vivid purple tree explodes into existence in heaven. What we say and do here on earth in Jesus' name, at His command, with His promise, explodes into reality in heaven. Baptism on earth causes a rebirth in heaven too. Absolution on earth is echoed in heaven by Christ, "Yes, he/she is forgiven here too. Communion on earth is with the angels and archangels of heaven as they gather here with us around Jesus.
Grow in our Confessions. Learn to emphasize that Jesus wants the Gospel to give you a sure and certain victory even against the gates of hell. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XIV (8-25-02); Matthew 16:13-20