The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in observance of the Confession of St Peter, 18 January 2018.
The Confessions of St. Peter (Mark 8)
There was no indulgence for Peter. Jesus simply exorcised him: “Get behind me Satan”. Our Lord does not beat around the bush. What had Peter done to get pushed away like that? It had to do with a true versus false confession of who Jesus was and is. A true confession has to do with the inseparable relationship of Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ mission. At the beginning Peter had it right, but after he strayed from that confession, by letting his own view on things (his flesh and blood; his mind-set) “possess” his faith, he needed to be rebuked by Christ (and not the other way around!). That false confession was truly Satan’s attempt to lead the disciples away from the truth, and another effort at keeping Christ from the cross from where He would atone for the sins of the world. False confessions always lead us away from the truth, from the cross.
Now St. Peter’s first confession can hardly be improved. “You are the Christ”. It is a simple confession, but takes a life-time to unpack. Even a four year seminary education cannot do it justice. More importantly, it is a solid confession. It is so solid that Jesus says that upon this He will build His church (playing, of course, with the name of Peter as “rock”). God promised that He would build His church on a confession, and this was it.
Peter confessed Jesus correctly as Messiah. What went wrong was when he subordinated that to the way he figured things ought to happen with that Messiah. How the messiah ought to be Messiah. And so, almost immediately after confessing rightly, he confesses wrongly, tempted by the idea of a cross-less Christ; eyes on things of men versus things of God. He wants Jesus to work his way. Yet how the true Messiah works and does the “messiah thing” He tells with His own prediction of the passion; setting up a pattern for the shape of the church: of servanthood, as suffering, sacrifice and death. And that blows out of the water the kind of Messiah that Jesus wanted. His first confession, he later denied in those words “You be killed Jesus? Never. I won’t let it happen”. Peter would not let Jesus be Christ His way. He would lay on Jesus the sort of Christ he wanted him to be. Sound familiar?
Now the Gospels make it clear that Peter was a pretty emotional guy, great on gut reactions; speaking before thinking. And by his emotions he usually got things wrong. He certainly loved Jesus. Most Christians do. Visit any local church and you will see plenty of lovers of Jesus. Yet which Jesus do they love? Jesus as buddy, therapist, example of what you could become if you just imitating Him more? What array of confessions underlie their love? Or ours? Was it love for Jesus that prompted Peter to protest against Jesus having such a hard time ahead? His love for Jesus as friend, actually gets in the way of His love for Jesus as saviour, and without even realizing it, becomes ashamed of the real Jesus. The demands of love can get things frighteningly wrong a lot of the time.
Therefore love cannot be the ground that rests upon that rock, but rather faith must be our ground. Faith has nothing to point to of itself, not even how much love it boasts. Faith has nothing to say about itself but is established upon a rock solid reality outside of itself. You are the Christ!…that confession that reality of the true Christ trumps all of our cross-less hopes, cross-less dreams, cross-less expectations and other cross-less personal preferences of how we think our buddy Jesus ought to be. Then all we are left to give, to contribute, is faith.
Now not that long before, up the Jordan River at Jesus’ baptism, the name Servant was placed on Jesus by the Heavenly Father. Well at his temptations of Jesus, Satan takes up the suffering Servant idea in ways that offer alternative ways of Jesus carrying His name and being Messiah. For, after all, Satan is afraid of Calvary and the cross. Because it is precisely in Jesus’ death that Satan himself is executed, and His power over God’s dear precious baptized children finally comes to an end. And so Satan desperately speaks a final time at Calvary. “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross”.
Well, Satan does not speak alone. For Peter speaks for Satan even with a heart-full of love: “Be killed. Never! Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you”. Just because someone is filled with love, even a sincere honest and zealous love, doesn’t mean that he or she cannot be a mouthpiece of the devil. God’s word must always be the judge of that.
And so one can confess, saying all the right words, with a heart-full of love for a different Christ and be the mouthpiece of Satan. And daily people are misled into thinking that it is the same Christ. “Jesus, we did miracles in your name, cast out demons…”…”depart from me, I never knew you”. Through Bible Study and Church service and pastoral counselling/private confession and the like, attempts are made by the Lord’s disciples today to fill us with all the right words, strengthen the true cross-infused confession of Christ, and yet we are daily tempted to alter them, change them, to shape them into forms with which we are comfortable so they look and sound as we would like them to look and sound; in short, to imagine a Jesus without His cross … to picture the Christian life without our cross. Yet all of our foolish attempts, and false confessions, doesn’t change the true one, one bit. And thank God: Just as no devilish temptation stopped this omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Lord from allowing himself to be crucified for all the sins of the world—the most astounding revelation of His glory—so to our lack of faith doesn’t stop this Suffering Servant for remaining the sacrifice for our sin. Yours and mine, too–all of them.
And so you cannot be a bigger sinner than Peter with his Satanic version of Christianity, his “altered confession”, the second one; the one that wants Jesus without the cross; one which wants faith without suffering. We have all caught ourselves speaking those words with Peter (‘suffering and death? Far be it. This will never happen to us!): missionaries getting frustrated with themselves and angry at God that the hard hearted-unbelievers are not more eager to accept the Gospel. Pastors trying to achieve an easy, happy, comfortable ministry in the church. Laity hoping to achieve an easy, happy, comfortable service in their own vocations: imagining ones with no fights over religion in the home; striving for ones, at any cost, that may strain relations with colleagues in the work place over moral issues and faith questions; confessing a Christ who contradicts what is means to be a member of the confessional Lutheran church.
But that’s not Jesus’ way. His way, His path, has a bloody cross on a big rock stuck in the middle of it. Quite the inconvenience and stumbling block for those who think Christianity will be easy and painless. Take up your cross and follow Jesus: not easy; nor pleasant. And yet that cross and rock is our hope in death, our shield from hell fires, our foundation, peace, joy, and happiness at work, home and church life. A rock that is more solid and safe than anything that our minds and human philosophies can invent and imagine. It is that rock upon which the waters of baptism wash us onto it. It is that rock upon which we kneel and eat His flesh and blood. It is that rock upon which He has built His church, and from which he opens the door to heaven and thus a personal relationship with God.
Peter was the greatest possible sinner but he had the greatest possible saviour…a saviour for us all, because this servant and saviour has taken all of our huge loads of sin (including all of our careless satanic denials and well intended demonic rebukes) and crushed them under that rock of Calvary from which flow His cleansing blood, into a font in which you have been washed and into a cup from which you now drink. For such is “the Christ” in whom we believe with our hearts and confess with our lips.
So make sincere confession of your false confessions and receive our Lord’s true and rock solid absolution, and do pick up your cross and follow him. Peter did, in the end, as his faith in the true Jesus, deepened by being fed more and more with His Holy word, hearing His holy voice daily, and weekly, as together they walked the rough road towards Calvary. After all, according to tradition, St. Peter died on a cross as well yet deeming himself so unworthy and “ashamed” of suffering like His Lord, that he opted for a cross upside down, confessing the true faith in word and deed, literally. That is the shape that St. Peter’s cross took. Our Lord was not ashamed of Peter. He gave his life, on His cross, in exchange for his soul. He is not ashamed of you either. And no matter what shape that cross takes in your life, whatever you are going through, struggling with, whatever temptation Satan throws your way to despise the blessed holy cross, when you confess him rightly, prayerfully and faithfully, the Christ, your Christ, does the same with you, in you, and, most importantly, for you. Amen