The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of the Confession of St Peter, 18 January 2023.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: In the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the first term of the academic year is named Michaelmas, after the feast of the archangel that falls on 29 September. I’m not aware of any symbolic meaning, as if the academic work in that term were particularly angelic. It’s just the way the calendar fell. Our winter semester invariably begins on or near the festival of St Peter’s confession. (Perhaps we should call it the “Petermas term”.) This, too, is more coincidental than intentional. But in this case the symbolic value is much higher. In this place we learn to confess Christ as Peter did, and to do so is simply to be a Christian. In 1931 Hermann Sasse published what is arguably his greatest essay: “Jesus Is Lord: The Church’s Original Confession”. Sasse highlights the importance of Peter’s confession for the church in four ways: Firstly, Peter doesn’t come up with this confession from the imaginations of his heart (the way a modern person might say, “I feel you’re the Messiah”), but he speaks it in response to revelation. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven”, Jesus adds in Matthew’s account (Mt. 16:17). The revelation Jesus meant is the Father’s word from heaven at His Baptism, followed by the words and deeds that displayed who He was. Secondly, Peter speaks not just for himself but for the whole group of disciples. Jesus had addressed all of them with His question, “who do you [pl.] say that I am?” (Mk 8:29). Just as Peter speaks for them all in his reply, so he also gives the whole Christian church the words we need to confess. Thirdly, this confession arises from the face-to-face encounter with Jesus and therefore must be repeated wherever and whenever He appears. So confession belongs in the divine service, where we acknowledge who it is that speaks to us and holds forth His body and blood. And finally, this confession that Peter first spoke in the town named for the emperor (Caesarea Philippi) is always spoken to the whole world. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, at least not in the same way. Only Jesus is to be worshipped, nothing else in this world or below it.
“Jesus is Lord” is so profoundly meaningful that it’s not only the church’s original confession but her perpetual confession. Paul delivered it to the churches of the first Christians as the central confession of the divine service: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). This confession brings the promise of salvation: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). And this confession will be on the lips of all who are confronted with the glorious Jesus on the day of His return, for “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11). When we confess Jesus as Lord, we confess Him as Adonai, as true God. We confess with Peter’s first epistle and Luther’s catechism that this is the one who has purchased and won us with His precious blood, so that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom. And this final meaning of His Lordship is the reason Jesus forbids Peter to repeat his confession until Jesus has gone to the cross and risen from the dead. Only then will the words “Jesus is Lord” be properly understood.
So Peter’s confession is your confession and mine. It’s what all Christians must confess in order to be saved. But as important as it is to confess like Peter, it’s more important to listen to his confession, to hear what he uniquely had to say. For Peter wasn’t just a disciple (a follower of Jesus), he was an apostle and preacher of Jesus. Peter’s confession delivers to us as sure and true everything that he’d seen and heard. Although his brief confession appears in Mark chapter eight, in a way the entire Gospel is Peter’s confession, what Mark wrote down and delivered to the church as Peter’s scribe. Peter’s confession appears at the midpoint of the Gospel as the culmination of everything that had gone before and the interpretation of everything that would follow. Peter had witnessed Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 in the wilderness and the repeat of the miracle for the 4,000. He’d seen Jesus calm a storm and walk on water. He’d witnessed the crowds of sick people that Jesus healed. He’d seen His power over demons, whom He cast out with a simple word. He’d watched Jesus restore the deaf and dumb and bring sight to the blind. He did the deeds that were prophesied to come in the Messianic age. And he heard Jesus explain those texts and defeat the teachers of the Law at their own game. And so Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is no intuitive guess; he’s not just swayed by love or friendship or loyalty to say nice things. He has seen the deeds and heard the words and has testified to us that these things are true.
We hear so often—and perhaps we’re tempted to think it—that Christianity preaches a message that can’t be proved but just has to be believed. In a way this is true. We believe in hidden realities. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), Paul writes when encouraging us to look beyond the suffering of this age to the glory of eternal life. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2–3). We see a human hand pouring water, but we believe that God is delivering a spiritual new birth. We see bread and wine, but we believe by the power of the spoken Word that it’s more truly the body and blood of Jesus. We cling to the Word even when our eyes tell us something else. But this isn’t to say that our faith is grounded in myths, things that are somehow spiritually true but never really happened. Peter’s confession is entirely other than this. He calls it like it is. He calls Jesus the Christ because he has seen and heard Him do and say what the Messiah was promised to do and say. And so, because Peter has seen and heard these things, he can write to us: “we have the prophetic Word made more sure” (2 Pet. 1:19 RSV). Peter writes this after describing his experience on the mount of Transfiguration. “For when He received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain” (2 Pet. 1:17–18). Peter was there. What the prophets foretold became more sure when it was fulfilled, when the things that were promised actually happened. Peter testifies that Jesus did indeed bring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, that Moses and Elijah appeared to affirm that Jesus is the One. And so we have the prophetic Word made more sure because we have the apostolic testimony; we have Peter’s word that the man He saw and heard and followed is truly the Messiah, the Son of God. And his testimony is true. Amen