Lutherans have sadly sometimes erred in robbing St. Peter in order to give St. Paul his due. But the Church, in her God-given wisdom, has chosen to remember and give thanks for these two great Apostles on the same festival day. And if St. Paul shall be the champion of Justification by grace alone through faith alone, then St. Peter shall be the principle example that “such faith” is not the one thing left that you must do for yourself. To believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not of yourself, but God has instituted the apostolic Office of Preaching and the Sacraments, by which He obtains faith where and when He pleases in those who receive this Ministry of His Gospel.
And in all of this, at all times and in all places, it is all about Jesus. Everything, everything, everything depends on Him. Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no Church; there is no Gospel; there is no faith, no forgiveness of sins, no life or salvation. Apart from this only Son of the Living God, there is no Father and no Holy Spirit; no heaven, no earth, nor anything else.
So, what you need — in the deepest, most profound and significant way — is Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. This your song must ever be, the faith in your heart, and the confession on your lips: That He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who became flesh and bore your sins in His own Body to the Cross. That He was crucified for your transgressions and raised for your justification. That there is salvation in no one else, in no other Name in heaven or on earth.
There are those who thus conclude that celebrating the memory of the saints and Apostles detracts from this faith and confession of Jesus the Christ. And some have likewise gone so far as to suggest or imply that even the institution of the Church on earth and the pastoral office are somehow a distraction from the one and only thing that really matters. As though the Lord Jesus Christ were accessible to you apart from the preaching of His Word and His Holy Sacraments.
Perhaps you have adopted the same false thinking and fallen into your own version of the same error, by supposing that you can live and get along just fine without God’s Word and the preaching of it, without returning every day to the significance of your Holy Baptism, without confessing your sins and seeking Holy Absolution from your pastor as from Christ Himself, and without the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus on any given Sunday. After all, you may say, at least you “love” Jesus, and you “believe” in Him, and that’s all that really matters. Right?
But how could it be that you claim to love Jesus, and yet not long to hear what He says to you? And what does it mean to say that you believe in Him, if you are not clinging for dear life to His Word of forgiveness, and if you are not living in the way that He has called you and commanded you to live in the confidence of His promises? Just who is this “Jesus,” whom you claim to love and trust, if you imagine that you are able to have the Son of God apart from His flesh and blood?
It should come as no surprise, in such a case, that you do not speak the Gospel to others; that you do not serve your neighbor as you should with deeds of love and real charity; that you do not forgive those who trespass against you; and that you rarely bring anyone to Church. Not when you have fabricated for yourself a disembodied “Jesus,” neither God nor man, who never says or does anything, but who is simply tucked away as a warm fuzzy in your own self-centered heart.
Repent of your sins, and give heed to the Word of the Lord. For the Son of Man, Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, He is not as you imagine. Even the guesses of the people then, that He was John the Baptist or one of the Prophets, were closer to the truth than your fairy tales. But none of these are sufficient, either. If you would be saved, you will need a far different Jesus than that.
Thankfully, the Lord Jesus Christ, conceived and born of St. Mary, is the personal Word of God the Father from all eternity, who has become Flesh for you and your salvation. The Word of God, who is the Word-made-Flesh, that is Who and What your Savior is. And so it is that He is near you, in your ears and in your heart, in your mouth, and in your life, by the preaching of His Word, and by the administration of His Body and His Blood, crucified and risen, given and poured out.
It is for this purpose, that you should thus be rescued from sin, death, the devil, and hell, and saved for eternal life with God in body and soul, that the one Lord, Jesus Christ, called, ordained, and sent St. Peter and the other Apostles, including St. Paul, to preach repentance in His Name unto faith in His forgiveness of sins, to catechize and baptize disciples across the nations, to the ends of the earth and the close of the age, and to administer His Holy Supper in remembrance of Him. For it is by these ways and means of His Gospel that the Son of God is with you and saves you.
There is no Church, because there is no Gospel, because there is no Jesus Christ — not for you at least — except by this preaching and administration of His Word and Flesh. As St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Church at Rome: How shall they believe in One whom they have not heard, since faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, unless they are sent?
It is in this sense that St. Peter is the Rock, as the Lord Jesus declares in this familiar Holy Gospel. Not by any merit or virtue of his own person or his personal faith, which was wobbly at times. But specifically as a Confessor of Christ, which is to say, as a Minister of His Word, and as the first of those twelve holy Apostles who were called and sent to preach the Gospel in His Name.
So long as we bear in mind that Christ Himself, and He alone, is the Builder of His Church; and so long as we do not forget that the Church which He builds is His Church — it does not belong to Peter, to the pastors, or to the people, but to Christ — then we shall not take offense that Christ has chosen St. Peter and the other Apostles to be the Rock-foundation of His Church on earth. As St. Paul writes, Christ Himself is the Cornerstone. He gives strength and shape and stability to the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets; and through them, that is, through their Ministry of the Word, Christ Jesus Himself is at work to establish, to build, and to uphold His Church.
The most central and characteristic aspect of this Holy Ministry is the preaching and practice of the Law and the Gospel, unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins. Thus, when Jesus the Christ addresses Simon Peter as a Minister of His Gospel, and when He describes the Rock-Foundation of this apostolic Ministry for His Church on earth, He focuses upon the Office of the Keys and Holy Absolution. Everything in His Church is so arranged for the forgiveness of sins.
Those who attempt to define and describe the Church apart from this Ministry of the Gospel and the Office of the Keys — who move the forgiveness of sins from the center to the periphery — invariably return to the legalism of the Pharisees, misunderstanding the Christian faith and life primarily in terms of the Law instead of the Gospel. When the Word and work of Christ Jesus, His Body and His Blood, His free and full forgiveness of sins, His Life and Salvation, are set aside or marginalized, then the house is built upon the sand, and it cannot help but fall into great ruin.
Such were the false confessions that St. Paul, in particular, had to preach and teach against. So, as I have said, where St. Peter is the Apostle who embodies especially the Ministry of the Holy Gospel as the Word and work of Christ Jesus, St. Paul is the Apostle who exemplifies the Life that is lived by grace through faith in the same Lord Jesus Christ. Now, it is not a lazy or lethargic life, not in the home, nor in the world, nor in the church. It is a busy and active life that never ceases to praise God and care for the neighbor, to bear the Cross and sacrifice in faith, hope, and love, in prayer and thanksgiving. But it is all of that, and you also live that life in Christ, because it does not rely upon your own reason or strength, but it returns daily to Holy Baptism, depends upon the Word of Holy Absolution, and feasts upon the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion.
It is a robust and vigorous life that you live in Christ Jesus, by His grace, through faith in His free and full forgiveness. For by His death, He has destroyed death; and by His rising again, He has opened the Kingdom of heaven to you and to all who believe and are baptized in His Name. His holy and precious Blood cleanses you of all your sins, within and without, and His own Flesh strengthens and preserves your body and soul in His Life and Salvation. So it is that, safe within His Body, within His Holy Apostolic Church, the gates of hades shall never prevail against you. Just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns eternally, so shall you rise and live in Him.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.