7 August 2011 - Pentecost 8 - Romans 10:5-17

Many people in the world hold to a fairly unsophisticated belief in the possibility of achieving eternal life by good works. The idea is that God’s primary role in the universe is to punish people who perform evil works, with damnation; and to reward people who perform good works, with the delights of heaven.

It is acknowledged, of course, that the lives of most people are a mixture of good and bad, to one degree or another. And so, according to this scheme, God, on judgment day, will, in a sense, “pile up” all our wicked works, and will also “pile up” all our good works.

Someone’s eternal destiny will then be determined by which pile is bigger and higher.

But as I said, this is a pretty unsophisticated notion. There are other people in the world, therefore, who consider the question of their eternal destiny in a more esoteric and lofty way, or in a more sober and morally-serious way.

Advocates of New Age religion, and other forms of philosophical mysticism, believe that their main spiritual problem is spiritual ignorance. If people could just tap into the wisdom of the ages, and lift themselves up into the higher realms of mystical insight, then they will be enlightened, and cease to be spiritually ignorant.

And so, those who aspire to such enlightenment would answer the question, “Who will ascend into heaven?,” by saying, “I will!” Through meditation and contemplation, I will lift myself up to a higher spiritual plane.

But people who have a deeper sense of their ethical shortcomings, don’t often take the time to think about such esoteric ideas. In their conscience, they are preoccupied with the fact that there are ultimate standards of right and wrong in the universe, and that there is a coming judgment, in which they will have to give an account of themselves.

And, they know that in their current state of moral failure, they deserve to be on the receiving end of divine retribution, and to be punished for their wrongdoings. Their conscience tells them that their sins must be atoned for, and cannot be ignored.

And so they conclude that they must mortify their flesh, and endure hardships, to pay off their moral debt to justice; to justify themselves and make themselves righteous; and to purge and purify their bodies and souls.

They embrace a spirituality of suffering, perhaps even a suffering unto death, with a belief that with such suffering comes redemption.

Admittedly, a spirituality of suffering is less common in the pleasure-obsessed culture of America than is a spirituality of enlightenment. But there are places in the world where a lot of people do believe this.

Such people, then, would answer the question, “Who will descend into the abyss?,” by saying, “I will!” By lowering myself into a life of chastenings and deprivations, I will eventually make myself acceptable to the cosmic forces of justice that someday will judge me.

Both of these spiritualities are more sophisticated than the simplistic idea that God sends externally “good” people to heaven, and externally “bad” people to hell, regardless of what kind of interior spirituality they have. And such a bare-boned works righteousness is definitely not God’s way of bringing people to eternal life.

But God’s way is also not the way of exaltation through mystical enlightenment. And the way of degradation through suffering and mortification is not God’s way either.

The way of God, is the way of Christ; the way of the Word of Christ; and the way of faith in the Word of Christ.

St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down).”

In our natural state, we do need heavenly enlightenment. We are spiritually ignorant.

But that is not our most basic need. At the most fundamental level, what we really need is salvation, or rescue, from our bondage to sin and death.

Our spiritual ignorance is not our chief problem. It is just one symptom among many of the chief problem.

God reveals to humanity what humanity needs to know, so that we can be enlightened at least to the point of understanding that our sin problem is our chief problem; and so that we can see and realize that Jesus Christ - God incarnate - has solved that problem. God the Father reveals this to the human race by the sending of his Son to the human race, to become a part of the human race.

We need to be satisfied with what God reveals to us in Christ, and not presume to use that revelation as a stepping stone for the attaining of more and higher mystical knowledge. As far as the deepest needs of the human soul are concerned, there is nothing more than Christ to know.

And we need to pay attention to what God reveals to us in Christ, and to appreciate this Gospel as the greatest and most wonderful wisdom there can ever be. Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

What more could possibly be known in the realm of spiritual truth, above and beyond Christ? If you think there is something more, and if you think that you might be able to gain access to it by some kind of mystical meditative technique, this is a deception, and an illusion.

Likewise, nothing that we do can bring Christ down to us on our terms, for the satisfaction of our religious curiosities. Christ has already come down to us on his own terms, and for the fulfillment of his own purposes, to live for us, and to die for us.

St. Paul also tells us, “Do not say in your heart..., ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).”

Our conscience does tell us that we deserve to suffer and be punished on account of our sins. We deserve humiliation and degradation - all the way down to an abyss of judgment.

But what our conscience in and of itself cannot tell us, is that Jesus Christ has already endured all the suffering and degradation that our sins deserve. What our conscience does not know - until the message of the Gospel is preached to it - is that God the Father had accepted the suffering of Christ in our place, as a completely satisfactory payment for our transgressions.

By the power of the life-giving Spirit of God, our divine-human Savior has already been brought up from the dead. In the resurrection of his Son, God the Father demonstrates to the world that the atoning sacrifice for the world’s sins that he demanded, has been accomplished; and that he is therefore at peace with the world, in Christ.

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

In Christ, therefore, the world is free from condemnation. When Christ is embraced in faith, this freedom, and this justification, are embraced.

You cannot make yourself righteous before God’s tribunal by any amount of suffering for your sins that you endure. God’s standard of righteousness - true, eternal, and perfect righteousness - is too high.

But your faith in God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ will be counted as righteousness to you, as you believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord - who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

People are not saved by works. But people are also not saved by achieving mystical enlightenment, or by atoning for their own sins by personal suffering.

We are saved by the revelation of God in Christ. We are saved by the redeeming work of Christ, in his death and resurrection.

And how does this salvation actually connect itself to us, here and now, where we are in this life? If we’re not supposed to try to lift ourselves up into a realm of heavenly wisdom through mystical meditation, and if we’re not supposed to try to purge and purify ourselves through personal sufferings, then what are we supposed to do?

Well, let’s listen to St. Paul. The righteousness based on faith says:

“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

What are we supposed to do? Nothing.

Everything that needed to be done to make human salvation an objective reality, was done by Jesus, through his cross and empty tomb. And everything that needs to be done now, to carry this salvation to each of us - so that it can be personally received by each of us - is also done by Jesus, through the proclamation of his Word.

In your spiritual need, do not try to exalt yourself through meditation or self-chosen religious techniques. Do not try to degrade and punish yourself through mortifications.

Instead, in humility and repentance, and with an admission of your inability to do anything for your own salvation, call on the name of the Lord. Acknowledge that everything you need, comes from him alone.

He alone can rescue you from the slavery of sin and death. He alone can forgive you, and make you acceptable in God’s kingdom.

And then believe what God tells you, and confess that what God tells you is true, when God’s Word declares to you your liberation, and your justification, in Christ.

The Word of God is the source and focus of everything you believe about Christ. And it’s at the heart and center of everything you are in Christ.

The Word of God is powerful and active. It supernaturally instills within your confused heart a new desire for what you truly do need, and for what the Word of God itself offers.

And then the Word of God satisfies that need, by giving you the new, godly desire of your heart. It satisfied that need by giving you Christ.

The Word of God - the living and life-giving message of God almighty - is intimately near to you, and lodges itself within you. It’s what makes the Lord’s absolution to you a real bestowal of forgiveness, and not just a wish for forgiveness.

It’s what makes your baptism to be a real washing of regeneration, and not just a symbol of a hoped-for regeneration. It’s what makes the Lord’s Supper to be an actual giving and receiving of Jesus himself: in the body that was sacrificed for your reconciliation with God, and in the blood that was shed for the restoration of your peace with God.

“For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction...; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Amen.

14 August 2011 - Pentecost 9 - Matthew 15:21-28

According to the doctrine of vocation, God, in his supreme wisdom, assigns particular duties to people, which he wants them to carry out in particular ways, according to his will and plan.

At different times in people’s lives, God may assign different vocations to them. So, the duties that you were called to perform when you were a child or a student, will not be the same duties that you have now, as an adult and as an employee.

But whatever your vocation is right now, that is the calling that you are to pursue right now. You should not meddle in the affairs of someone else’s vocation, or “jump the gun” on duties that you think might someday be yours, but that are not yet yours.

Jesus “lived out” the doctrine of vocation in his own life, especially during the time of his earthly ministry. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we see an example of this, in a very concrete situation involving a non-Jewish woman who wanted to receive a miracle from Jesus for her daughter:

“Jesus...withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word.”

“And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’”

The woman’s problem, as she identified it to Jesus, was that her daughter was oppressed by a demon. Of course, she was from an idolatrous nation, where demons were no doubting possessing people, and leading them to all kinds of sin and vice, all the time.

This woman’s problem was not an anomaly. God’s Word did not have free course among the Canaanites.

At this time in history, there was nothing to restrain Satan in his machinations among the Canaanites. They were a spiritually enslaved people.

Jesus casting out one demon from one girl would not have had any real effect on this frightening, national horror. And so, he initially ignored the woman’s request that he intervene in the case of her daughter, and give her the exorcism she wanted.

And he explained the reason why he was ignoring the request: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The people of Israel had been chosen by God to be the special repository of the oracles of God. The Messianic expectation was instilled by God in the people of Israel, so that this hope could be kept alive, by them, for the sake of all nations.

According to God’s plan, the salvation from sin and death that the Messiah would someday bring would indeed be “for the Jews.” But not just for the Jews.

As Jesus on another occasion told a Samaritan woman, salvation is also from the Jews - that is, going out from Israel, for the benefit also of the gentiles. But not yet.

The apostles, who would someday be given the commission to make disciples of all nations, had not yet been given that commission. They were still learning what it would mean for them, someday to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

And Jesus himself, in his role as prophet and teacher in Israel, had also not been given the task of going to all nations.

His calling was to go to the one nation that was ready for him - or at least that was supposed to be ready for him - where his expositions of the Hebrew Scriptures would make sense, and where his fulfillment of the prophecies of those Scriptures would be appreciated for what they were.

His miracles would likewise be understood - by the more thoughtful people among the Jews - to be pointing to deeper, eternal realities, and not simply to be the tricks of a wonder-worker.

But none of this would have made any sense to the Canaanites, or to any other pagan nation. And Jesus, during the time of his earthly ministry, was not called by God the Father to try to make it “make sense” to such nations.

He had enough to do to make it “make sense” to the Jews! There were indeed many lost sheep among them, who needed to be called to repentance and faith by their Messiah.

And that’s what he did during the time that he walked the earth - while also giving specialized training to the apostles, for the ministry to which they would someday be called.

And then, at the culmination of his earthly ministry - in a way that showed forth the true meaning of Israel’s Passover, and of Israel’s Temple sacrifices - Jesus took upon himself the transgressions and the moral guilt of all humanity. And he carried those transgressions and that guilt to the cross.

As the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Jesus offered his life as an atonement for all the wickedness, all the unbelief, and all the idolatry of all the nations. Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God - who had created us all - was now reconciled to us all.

Then - and only then - was it time to bring the message of this redemption and this reconciliation to all the peoples of the earth.

But Jesus himself, according to his humanity, was not called to do it - at least not directly. He was now going to be seated at the right hand of the Father, and to fill all things according to the power and glory of his divine nature.

Previously, Jesus had been sent by God the Father to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But now, after the resurrection - with a view to all the lost everywhere - Jesus says to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Christians are often troubled by the account of the Lord’s interaction with the Canaanite woman. They are surprised by his seeming indifference to her need.

Based on the way he treated other people in need, It’s not what they would expect. But remember, those other people were Jewish.

The woman in today’s text was not. And except for those of us who might be of Hebrew heritage, if we were there, in that time and place, Jesus would have treated us in the same way.

It’s true, of course, that Jesus did finally relent and give the woman what she was asking for. But this was an exception - something beyond his actual calling at that time.

We recall, too, that Jesus on another occasion made such an exception also for the Roman centurion, who had a sick servant. But in general, Jesus did not deal with gentiles.

He did, however, want to help the apostles learn how to deal with gentiles - because someday, they would in fact be called to go to all nations, to teach all nations, and to bring salvation to all nations.

And so it is significant that the disciples were there to witness the exception that Jesus made on this day for the Canaanite woman. For them, in the future, this exception would be the rule of their ministry. We read:

“she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’”

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

When Jesus gave the Great Commission to the Eleven, he told them to teach the disciples who would be made from among the nations, to observe everything that he had commanded. And he also promised that he would be with them, always, to the end of the age.

One of the chief things that the church would be taught to observe, would be the Lord’s Supper, in regard to which Jesus gave this command: “Do this.” And in this sacrament, Jesus’ promise to be with his church always, is fulfilled in the most marvelous of ways.

He speaks his own body and body into the bread and wine, and he then intimately unites himself to his penitent and believing people by means of that body and blood.

Notice that the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman includes comments - by Jesus, and by her - that call to mind the experience of a meal:

“He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’”

In the four Gospels, this is not uncommon. Several of the Lord’s parables are set in the context of a meal or banquet. Many of his miracles took place in the context of a meal.

His resurrection appearances also tended to occur in the context of a meal, or at mealtime. In his teaching and preaching, Jesus often used the motifs of eating and drinking, to illustrate the nature of his kingdom, and the life of faith.

The preponderance of mealtime images in the four Gospels provides many points of connection, between the life and ministry of Jesus, before his resurrection and ascension; and the church’s experiencing of Jesus in his special sacramental meal, after his resurrection and ascension.

The Gospels were not written as comprehensive biographies of Jesus, in which the writers put everything they knew about him. Rather, the material in the four Gospels was edited - under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - to optimize the faith-creating and faith-strengthening power of the Gospels in the life of the church.

The Gospel of St. John, for example, was written several decades after the historical events that it describes and explains. It was written to communities of Christians who were already gathering regularly in the name of Christ, around the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Jesus had instituted for his church.

To such people, St. John writes - toward the end of his Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

What is written in the Gospels, is written so that the faith of God’s people - baptized into the church from all nations - can be renewed and strengthened. What is written in the Gospels, is written so that gentiles, who could never have known Jesus during his earthly ministry, can know him now - and be united to him, and commune with him.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did not socialize with gentiles. That was not a part of his calling.

But he certainly does socialize with them now - especially in that wonderful sacramental meal through which he comes to forgive us, and to embrace us, and to love us.

We are not transported back into the earthly ministry of the Lord, by the power of human sentimentalism, as we “imagine” what it would have been like to be with Jesus during those years. When the famous Spiritual song asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” the actual answer must be: No, I was not there.

And if I, as a gentile, were somehow able to travel in a time machine and be there, I would not have been invited to accompany him in his travels. I would not have been welcome to sit with him at table.

Jesus, in the time of his earthly ministry, was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He was not sent to me, or to people like me.

But, he is with me now, in his Gospel and Sacraments. As he sent the apostles to go to all nations in his name, invisibly he went with them. As he continues to send his church, and the ministers of his church, to go to all nations, invisibly he goes with them.

He goes with us. He stays with us.

We do not transport ourselves back in time by our sentimental imagination. But Jesus, and the ministry of Jesus, are transported forward in time to us.

When Jesus instituted his Supper, he put himself, his saving work, and all the blessings of his saving work, into that Supper.

And now, whenever that Supper is celebrated according to his Word - and by the power of his Word - he “unpacks” all of these things for those who commune according to his will. And he fills them with all of these things.

In our need - today - to know Christ, and to be drawn ever closer to him in the midst of the trials and temptations of this world, we can be inspired and encouraged by the example of the believers of the early church.

As Jews and gentiles who together had received the Gospel of Christ, they knew how their continuing fellowship with Christ, and with each other, was sustained. C. F. W. Walther tells their story:

“The first Christians celebrated [the Holy Supper] almost daily; especially in times of persecution, in order to be daily ready for death. ... The Holy Supper was regarded as the most glorious divine Armory, in which one receives the most invincible weapons for the spiritual battle. ... The Holy Supper, with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, is the new Tree of Life, which stood in Paradise, which Christ has now again planted in His kingdom of Grace.”

As members of the church of Jesus Christ - spread over the face of the whole earth - we gratefully partake of the crumbs that fall from our Master’s table. We attend, as invited guests, the wedding feast of the Son of God.

We rejoice to know that by the grace of God we are among those who have come from east and west, to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.

And we are thankful beyond words, that the disciples and servants of the Lord have been faithful to their calling, to bring the Gospel, and the salvation of Christ, to all nations - to bring the Gospel, and the salvation of Christ, to us. Amen.

21 August 2011 - Pentecost 10 - Matthew 16:13-20

Laying a good foundation is one of the most important things to do when you’re erecting a building. Indeed, if the foundation is not right, and if it does not provide a stable platform for the rest of the structure, then nothing else really matters - because a building that is erected on a poor foundation will eventually collapse.

The idea of the necessity of a proper foundation for the Lord’s church is a common theme in the Bible. It’s an illustration that makes sense to everyone.

Today’s text from St. Matthew is one of the key passages where this imagery is employed. But today’s text is also one of the more controversial passages, as far as its interpretation in Christendom is concerned.

Jesus has asked his disciples what people in general were saying about who he really is. They reported some of the wild ideas that were floating around.

Then he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...”

“Peter” was a nickname for Simon that Jesus has actually already given him, when he first met him. It means “rock.”

In today’s text, Jesus refers to this nickname. And he uses it as the basis for teaching Peter - and all of us - some important things about Peter’s ministry.

Our Catholic friends maintain that this passage is a primary proof-text for their belief in the papacy. The doctrine of the papacy actually passed through many centuries of development before it reached its final form.

This development reached its “apex” in the First Vatican Council in 1870. For the first time, in an official, dogmatic way, it was decreed there that when the pope, in the exercise of his Petrine office as the shepherd and teacher of all Christians, defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he does so with infallibility.

That’s certainly a lot to hang on the hook of today’s text. And with all due respect for the sincerity with which many people believe this, we would have to say that we do not agree that such a belief can legitimately be drawn out of this passage.

Jesus Christ alone is the infallible Lord of his church. And he governs and guides his church by means of his inerrant Word, in the Sacred Scriptures.

However, in our rejection of what we would consider to be an exaggerated interpretation of the authority of St. Peter’s ministry, we should not swing over to the opposite extreme, and ignore what Jesus does in fact say in this passage about the authority of St. Peter’s ministry.

On the basis of a balanced and careful reading of the text itself, the Book of Concord says this:

“As for the declaration, ‘on this rock I will build My church,’ certainly the Church has not been built upon the authority of a man. Rather, it has been built upon the ministry of the confession Peter made, in which he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, Christ addresses Peter as a minister: ‘On this rock,’ that is, this ministry.”

“Furthermore, the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to places and persons... Rather, it is spread throughout the whole world. That is, where God gives His gifts: apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers. Nor does this ministry work because of the authority of any person, but because of the Word given by Christ.”

We have to keep track of the sequence of events in today’s text. First, God the Father revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.

Whenever God’s Word breaks into the life of someone, it makes radical changes. In the midst of human confusion and error, God’s Word brings clarity and truth. In the midst of human guilt and fear, God’s Word brings pardon and peace.

And that’s what happened here, too. Through the things that Peter had heard Jesus say, and in light of the Old Testament Scriptures which had predicted all these things, God had impressed upon Peter’s conscience the truth of who Jesus really was.

Jesus was not merely a man, but he was the Son of God - God in the flesh. And he was not merely an interesting and inspiring person, but he was the Christ - the promised Messiah - who would win salvation for all people by his life, death, and resurrection.

And second, Peter confessed this revealed truth. He gave testimony before Jesus and the other disciples that he understood, and believed, what God had made known to him.

He passed this “test,” as it were, by demonstrating that his faith on these points was correct. Then - and only then - did Jesus speak the famous words, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

The church of Jesus Christ would not be built on the person of Peter. The church would also not be built on the office of Peter - with the idea that this office would somehow be a continuing source of binding doctrine.

Rather, the church of Jesus Christ would be built on the content and substance of what Peter had just declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, the church would be built on the firm foundation of the revealed Word of Christ, as that Word would then also be proclaimed to the world.

There are two important points to be noted here. The first is that the church is built on the proclaimed Word.

A closed Bible - insofar as it is a physical object - will not save you from your sins. But a preached Bible will - not only when it preaches itself into your mind and heart as you read it, but also and especially when the called ministers of the Lord preach it to you, in sermon and sacrament.

It was only after Peter declared - out loud - what God the Father had revealed to him, that Jesus then spoke of how his church would be built on the confession and ministry of Peter.

And the second point is this: Peter is not the only one who would be doing this - who would be laying the foundation of the church of Christ, by proclaiming the truth of Christ. This ministry is not limited to those few individuals in history who are understood to be the successors of Peter either.

Everyone who preaches from Scripture the warnings of God’s law to fallen humanity, and the necessity of repentance for sin; and who then preaches from Scripture the redemption that the Son of God has accomplished for sinners, is laying that foundation.

A proclamation like this - of Christ, the Son of God - is always the “rock” on which the church is built, regardless of the person through whom that proclamation comes.

St. Paul was not present for the events that transpired in today’s text. Still, he spoke more than once of the “foundation” that was laid through his ministry, for the building up of the church. He writes:

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. ... For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

He also writes: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”

And as the Gospel continues to spread around the globe, and as the rock and cornerstone of the confession of Christ continues to be laid for the building up of the church, Jesus continues to use - for this purpose - also the ministry of the ordinary pastors and missionaries of our time.

These men are also sent out in Christ’s name, to preach and teach the saving message of Christ - but only after their confession of faith has been heard and tested, like Peter’s was, before Jesus gave him his commission.

Today’s pastors do not need to be under the jurisdiction of Peter’s successor in order for their ministry to be valid. But in the actual content of what they preach, today’s pastors do need to follow the example of Peter - and to preach what he preached - in order for their ministry to be valid.

The revealed truth of Jesus Christ alone can serve as a foundation for the church - and as a foundation upon which you can build your faith. If a preacher today does not boldly proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, then the church of Jesus Christ cannot be built from his ministry.

If a preacher today does not clearly teach what the saving mission of the Christ was - that in the cross of his Son, God was reconciling the world to himself; and that God raised his Son from the dead for our justification - then your faith will have nothing to cling to, for eternal life, from such a ministry.

But when you have the blessing and privilege of hearing and believing the same message that Peter heard and believed - and that the other apostles also heard and believed - then you can know, deep down in your heart, that the way of fellowship with God is the way of mercy and forgiveness, through his Son.

When you have the blessing and privilege of confessing as your own faith, the faith that Peter and the other apostles confessed, then you can know, in your conscience, that your sins are forgiven; that the mercy of God fills your life through the indwelling of his Son; and that you are indeed a member of the eternal church that has been established by his Son.

The ministry of Peter is still among us. This is not because Peter in his person is here. It is also not because someone who stands in the place of Peter has the infallible authority to govern our faith and morals.

The ministry of Peter is still among us, because by means of the inspired Scriptures, the revelation of Jesus Christ is among us. This is the same revelation that Peter, in his own way, received and believed.

And because that revelation is among us, the foundation of the church - the rock upon which the church is built - is being laid among us.

The ministry of Peter is still among us, because the Gospel of Christ is among us, in Word and Sacrament, enlightening our minds, and comforting our souls. This is the same Gospel that Peter confessed, and that he faithfully preached for as long as he lived.

And because that Gospel is among us, the church of Jesus Christ is being built up among us. As St. Paul elsewhere says:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone...”

Jesus said to the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...” Amen.

28 August 2011 - Pentecost 11 - Romans 12:9-21

A “competition” impulse seems to be built into people. It explains why competitive sports are popular, in virtually all cultures. And this bleeds over into life in general too.

Children compete with their siblings for the attention of their parents. Students compete with their classmates for good grades.

Workers compete with their fellow employees for promotions. Pastors might even compete with their fellow clergy for calls to good congregations.

It’s easy for the sins of pride and greed to pollute our thinking, in the various competitions in which we are engaged. But the Bible doesn’t teach that competition is necessarily wrong in itself.

It often uses the imagery of competition - especially sports competition - in illustrating what faith is like. Most of the time, though, what is accentuated in these illustrations is the idea of our competition against our own spiritual weakness, and our own spiritual fatigue, as we press forward in Christ.

As the end of St. Paul’s earthly life was approaching, from jail, he wrote to Timothy:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

The Epistle to the Hebrews picks up on the image of an Olympic-style track meet - with many fans in the stands, watching the runners - when it says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us - looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”

This epistle goes on to show how the life of Jesus on earth was also like a competition, in which our Lord pressed forward to the fulfillment of his saving purpose. We read that “for the joy that was set before him,” he “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus persisted in his mission, with a perfect dedication to doing what needed to be done to save us from sin and death. As we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus knew “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

As he pressed forward to the cross - and to the resurrection - our Lord successfully resisted the temptations that came his way, which would have impeded his solitary race to Calvary, or even brought that race to an end altogether.

St. Peter’s well-intentioned but diabolical rebuke to Jesus, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” was one such temptation. The agony in Gethsemane - when he prayed to his Father as to whether it might be possible for the cup of hellish suffering to pass from him - was another such temptation.

As Jesus pressed forward in his dedication to finish his race, and to win the ultimate victory for you and me in his crucifixion and resurrection, he was competing against these many distractions. He was resisting them, and winning victories over them.

And he did win that ultimate victory once and for all. He prevailed.

For the sake of accomplishing your forgiveness, he paid the price for your sin on the cross, as he needed to do. For the sake of accomplishing your reconciliation with God, he opened up a new pathway of peace and life - from God to you - so that in his Gospel, all the blessings of his victory can be yours.

The way in which these blessings are received is by faith. That’s because these blessings come to you in form of divine promises - as statements from God to you, in Word and Sacrament, that all of this is true, and that your sins, too, are forgiven and lifted from you.

The way that you receive any promise or pledge, is to believe it. And with God, too, when he speaks, he wants to be believed.

From one point of view we might say that it is easy to believe what God tells us - especially when we remember that faith in Christ is a divine gift, and not the result of an internal human effort. But from another point of view it is not easy at all.

The old sinful nature - which still clings also to believers - remains hostile to God, and is always throwing up roadblocks in the pathway of faith. The devil and the sinful world are eager accomplices, with the flesh, in these distractions and impediments.

What this means, therefore, is that in this life, persistence in faith is a struggle. Our faith is in a constant competition with all these forces that oppose it - and that oppose the Savior to whom our faith is attached.

And sometimes, in the race to eternity, faith’s competitors seem to get ahead, at least for a while. Evidence of this is when the primary competition in our life cease to be the struggle of our faith against the flesh, the world, and the devil; and becomes instead a carnal struggle against other people - for dominance, for supremacy, for control.

When we slip back to these baser impulses - taking our eyes off of Christ, and putting them back onto ourselves - the people whom we challenge in these pride-inspired competitions, tend to be the people who are closest at hand. That is, our family members.

And so, husbands and wives compete against each other in their bickering, to see who will be proven right. Brothers and sisters compete against each other in their sibling rivalries, to see who will be more successful.

In highly dysfunctional families, parents and children compete against each other, to see who will actually control what the family does, and how it does it - through manipulation, deception, flattery, and threats.

This is competition at its worse, filled with sin and serving the destructive purposes of sin - chipping away at relationships; chipping away at our own human decency.

These are not the kind of competitions that bring out the best in competitors. They bring out the worse.

When you compete against your spouse, or your siblings, or others who are close to you, in these self-righteous and self-important ways, it doesn’t build you up. It tears others down. And ultimately, it tears you down.

And that’s why the Lord calls upon you to turn away from such competitions, and to turn your heart back to him and to his salvation. That’s why the Lord invites you today, to resume your involvement in that earlier and rewarding competition - that godly and righteous competition, which brings life, not death; which builds up, and does not tear down.

What I’m talking about is the struggle in which our faith is engaged, against all the dark and evil forces of the flesh, the world, and the devil. That is the good fight, in which we will ultimately be victorious - as Christ fights with us, and in us, for his holy cause.

Because our faith is in Christ, who has promised to be with us always, we know that he will not abandon us in this struggle. As we cling to him, he clings to us. He sustains our faith, and strengthens it against its adversaries.

As St. John writes, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith. Who is it who overcomes the world except, the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Because of this guarantee of an ultimate victory in Christ, we can and do find a wonderful rest and peace in Christ, by faith - even in the midst of faith’s struggle against those influences that oppose it. This is why it is possible for a Christian to remain serene in the most frightening of circumstances.

We find and enjoy such peace, not in our own strength and will-power, but in a supernaturally-given confidence in the Fatherly protection and love of God. And we know in faith “that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

From this vantage point - as we once again look at our relationships with those who are close to us - we no longer see rivals, for power and attention. In Christ, we need no longer feel a compulsion to try to “outdo” spouse, siblings, and others - in various forms of self-promotion and self-assertion.

Instead, we see opportunities for yet another kind of competition. St. Paul talks about it in today’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans:

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. ...”

“Contribute to the needs of the saints, and seek to show hospitality. ... Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.”

“Live in harmony with one another. ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The kind of competition that God wants to see in families - and perhaps even more so in Christian congregations - is a competition whereby we vie with each other to see how much respect we can show to each other: how much sympathy we can express in times of sadness; how much encouragement we can give in times of adversity; how much love we can show in times of fear and insecurity.

God wants us to compete with each other, in such a way as to see who will be first among us, in offering an apology, and in expressing forgiveness, when a misunderstanding or an offense has occurred. God wants us to compete with each other in such a way as to see who will be first among us, in “taking back” a harsh or judgmental word, and in speaking an uplifting and kind word.

And in this new kind of competition - a competition that will continue as long as our life together in Christ lasts - the Apostle tells us: “Do not be slothful in zeal. Be fervent in spirit. Serve the Lord.”

Indeed, in our God-given desire always to build one another up, and not to tear one another down, we are thereby serving the Lord, even as the Lord is still continually serving us. All of this takes place under the protective umbrella of the victory over sin and death that Jesus did win for us, when he successfully competed again those foes of our salvation once and for all.

For us, and for our godly competitions - as faith inwardly seeks to prevail over its enemies; and as love outwardly seeks to show honor to others - the Lord serves us, and fortifies us, in his continual bestowal upon us of the fruits of his victory.

We believe him when he speaks his word of forgiveness. And thereby the sin that entangles us - in our race of faith - is lifted off, and laid aside.

We believe him when, by the power of his sacramental institution, he comes to us in his very body and blood. And thereby his promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age - even to the end of the “race” - becomes vividly real for us.

As we “compete” in these ways, therefore, we do not compete alone. Jesus is our captain. Jesus is our inner source of strength, as we persevere in these struggles.

Jesus is our goal, as we press forward toward him - indeed, as we are drawn forward by him - to the inevitable victory of faith and love that those who trust in Christ, and are led by Christ, will enjoy forever.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity. Amen.