18 January 2017

The Ministry of the Confession of Christ Jesus

Now you know who the Wise Man is, who builds His House upon the Rock.  And when the winds blow, the rains pour down, and the waves beat and slam against that House, it shall not fall, because it is founded on the Rock

The Wise Man is your Lord Jesus.  He is the One who builds His Church.  And it is His Church.  If we simply remember those few important points, then we shall not be ensnared by the many fights and arguments that have been fought over this beautiful Holy Gospel.

It is the Lord’s Church, and He is the One who builds it, using the same Wisdom by which He has been the Architect of all creation: The Word and Wisdom of God, who speaks, and it is so.  But He brings His creation to fulfillment by His own Incarnation.  Not only that He has become Flesh, but also that in His Flesh He has borne your sin and become your Savior, and has poured out His holy, precious Blood to atone for you, to make peace with God; to reconcile you to the Father; to cleanse you with His Spirit, and to anoint you with His Spirit, so that you are now His Christian.

So it is that He also brings you into His House, His Holy Church, and herein He keeps you safe.

Remember that it is His House, and that it is in Wisdom that He builds it, even though the way in which He goes about it seems altogether foolish to this fallen and perishing world.

So have the Scriptures told us, that the Wisdom of God is foolishness to man; that the Cross is a scandal and a stumbling stone.  Likewise, the Office of His Holy Ministry.  How offensive it is, that God should call men like Peter and Paul, a denier and a persecutor, men who are sinful and mortal and in need of salvation, like yourself.  Finite creatures.  Fallen.  Frail.  Flawed.  Sometimes too timid to speak, when they ought to speak.  Sometimes too quick to speak, when they ought to shut their mouths and listen.  Sometimes courageous and bold, even to the point of sticking their feet into their mouths.  And otherwise scared to death to do that which God has given them to do.

It is easy to know the faults and flaws of St. Peter, at least some of them, because that holy Apostle has seen to it that his own faults and failings were included in the preaching of the Holy Gospel.  They were written down by St. Mark and by St. Matthew.  And yet, God chose this man, and through his mouth, his lips and tongue, through his voice, the Lord caused His Gospel to be heard.  He caused His Holy Name to be confessed.  He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This man, who was at one point afraid of a little servant girl, huddled around that charcoal fire when our Lord was led to His Passion, stands up in the strength of the Spirit and boldly preaches to those crowds of people on Pentecost: “You crucified the Christ, the Son of the living God.  But now, repent, and believe the Gospel.  Be baptized in His Name for the forgiveness of your sins.  For this promise is for you, and for your children, and for as many as God shall call to Himself.”

So has He called you.  By His Word of the Gospel, that is why you are here.  That is why you have been baptized.  That is why you pray and confess.  That is why you are a faithful Christian within your own stations in life, whatever those may be.  That is why you live by faith in the midst of sin and death, and why you cling to Christ Jesus, though for now you cannot see Him.  It is by the Word that He speaks to you through sinful, dying men whom He has called and sent, into whose mouths He has placed His own Name for the sake of your repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.

That is what He did for St. Peter.  And not only for St. Peter, the Rock, but for the whole Church.

Our Lutheran Confessions answer that persistent question, as to what exactly is “the Rock” to which the Lord Jesus refers.  To be sure, many other answers have also been given, and various interpretations.  But our Confessions say it simply: Christ Jesus addresses St. Peter as a minister of the Gospel, and so He says, “Upon this Rock,” that is, upon the Ministry of this Confession.

The preaching of Christ Jesus by those whom He calls and sends, that is the Rock upon which He establishes His Church.   He does it through St. Peter and the other Apostles to begin with, and in the apostolic Holy Scriptures to the close of the age.  Thus do we confess one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  And on the basis of that apostolic Word, He continues to build and sustain His Church on earth through those men who are called and sent in His Name.  Perhaps some of you will someday be called and sent in that way, but already such men are sent to each and all of you.

And what is it that characterizes that Office of the Holy Ministry?  That Ministry of the Confession upon which Christ Jesus builds His Church, what is it that chiefly defines it?  What is it all about?  What is it for?  It is for the forgiveness of sins.  That is what this is all about.

It is the Office of the Keys that defines the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Keys of forgiveness in Jesus’ Name.

Again, you hear it in Peter’s preaching on Pentecost: “Repent, and believe the Gospel, and receive the forgiveness of sins.”  For as Jesus promises, “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”

Astounding.  Miraculous.  The Glory of God placed not only into the mouth of men like St. Peter, but into the ears of sinners like yourself.  And what your ears hear, it is so.  Here, then, is the New Creation.  Here man is taken again out of the dust of the ground and made into a living being.

Here there is Life and Light and Salvation, where there was only darkness, death, and damnation.  Here there is now something very good, called forth by the Word of Christ from out of nothing.

Not only mighty winds and heavy rains and powerful waves, but even the gates of Hades, that is, the gates of death and the grave shall not be able to prevail against Christ’s Holy Church.  That is His promise.  And that is true for you, as well, who live within His Holy Church.  The guarantee of that Word, the guarantee of your forgiveness and of your resurrection from the dead, is the fact that God has raised this Jesus from the dead, who was crucified, dead, and buried for your sins.

It was impossible for death to hold Him.  His Body did not suffer decay.  His soul did not remain in Hades.  Death and the devil could not contain Him or restrain Him.  Nor can they have or hold you, who belong to Jesus, who believe in Him and are baptized into His Cross and Resurrection.

When I was growing up, I always loved this particular passage.  But I also puzzled over it.  This phrase, “The gates of Hades (often translated, the gates of hell) shall not prevail against her, against the Lord’s Church,” what does that mean?  For years I struggled with that picture.  Sometimes you hear people talk about the Church storming the gates of hell, or some such thing.  But that seems backwards.  That seems skewed in some way.  But what is really going on here?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, He is the stronger Man who has invaded Satan’s kingdom and bound him up by the way and means of His Cross, so that He who is our Savior and our God in the Flesh might release us from the bondage of sin, death, the devil, and hell.  And that is getting to the point at hand.  We, His Church, are not the ones who storm the gates of Hades in order to get in!  Rather, on account of Christ our Lord, the gates of Hades shall not prevail against us to keep us in.

Fast bound in Satan’s chains you lay, death brooded darkly over you.  The gates of Hades had you trapped, and they were locked, shut tight by sin.  But where there is forgiveness of sin, there is life and salvation.  And as Jesus was raised from the dead, so shall you also be raised from death and the grave, and so shall you be glorified in Him, both body and soul, together with all who have departed in the faith, in the confession of His Holy Name.  Hades, death, and the grave shall not be able to hold you nor any who belong to Christ; they shall not prevail against His Holy Church.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Wise Man, and He has built His Church well.  He has set her pillars, and He has prepared His Feast for her in the face of all her enemies.  So here you are set free from your sins, from the fear of death, and from all the assaults and accusations of the devil.  Here you are safe and sound in Christ Jesus, so that you may eat and drink in Peace, receiving the Fruits of the Tree of Life, His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for you and for the many, for the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.  Here you have life with God in Christ, now and forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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