Last Sunday, in the story of the Canaanite woman, you heard the first decisive movement of Jesus our Lord toward Gentile territory. In the Gospel then, He approached the regions of Tyre and Sidon — well-known for their pagan idolatry — and there He was confronted with the outstanding faith of a Gentile woman who sought His help as the Messiah.
Well, the coming of our Lord into Gentile territory continues this morning, as Jesus brings the Twelve Disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Ironically, this location is now best known as the place of St. Peter’s great confession of Christ, and rightly so. But just as Tyre and Sidon were an odd place to find such great faith as that of the Canaanite woman, so does Caesarea Philippi seem like the last place one would ever expect to hear such a bold confession of faith. Of course, it should be understood that Christians are in fact called to confess Christ in the context of a hostile world.
As far as Caesarea Philippi is concerned, it was founded on the site of a cave (or grotto) used for the worship of the Greek god Pan. For that was reason, it was first known as “Panias.” It became “Caesarea Philippi” when King Herod’s son, Philip, established a larger city and erected a temple for the worship of Caesar. There was, in addition, a temple for the pagan god Baal.
This was Gentile territory at its worst: a regular smorgasbord of false gods and paganism. Located at the northern-most tip of Galilee, it was a long way from Jerusalem and the Temple of Yahweh. Yet — even though surrounded on all sides by false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice — Jesus chooses this place, Caesarea Philippi, for the groundbreaking ceremony of His House.
Here He lays the foundation for His Church, a new House of Israel. As He once chose Abram, calling him from the land of pagans, changing his name to Abraham (“the father of many nations”), and raising up a multitude of people from his seed, so does He now choose Simon, changing his name to Peter (“the rock”), and establishing the Church upon the ministry of his confession.
And just as the Lord once chose Jacob, changing his name to Israel, and raising up the Twelve Tribes of Israel from his twelve sons, so does He now choose Simon Peter, as the leader and spokesman of the Twelve Apostles, to be the first among those spiritual patriarchs of the new Israel, the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now, if we simply consider the balance of the New Testament Scriptures, we can readily see the use that Christ Jesus makes of Simon Peter already in the Holy Gospels, and then especially in the Acts of the Apostles. He is identified specifically as the “first” of the Apostles, and his place as such is demonstrated by the fact that he always speaks on behalf of the others, both to Jesus and to the crowds. Whenever a select group of the disciples is mentioned, St. Peter is among them.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter remains the most prominent of the Twelve. In point of fact, he absolutely dominates the first half of the book. He was in charge of replacing Judas with Matthias. He gave the sermon on the Day of Pentecost, when three-thousand souls were added to the Church. He healed a lame beggar in the Temple gate, and then followed this miracle with another sermon. The crowds sought him out for healing. He boldly answered the questions and charges of the Jewish authorities, following Christ and obeying God rather than man. Along with St. John, he confirmed the Church in Samaria with the laying on of hands. And then, perhaps most important of all, he began the Gentile mission when he was sent by God to the Roman Cornelius.
Beyond all doubt, our Lord was clearly at work among His people in a most powerful way in the preaching and miracles of Simon Peter. And so does the work of Christ Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer continue to the present day, even to the close of the age. For He speaks and acts through the preaching and ministry of those who are called and sent in His Name and stead.
As St. Luke indicates in his words to Theophilus, his Gospel account was the beginning of all that Jesus did and taught, and the Acts of the Apostles is a record of all that Jesus Himself continued to do and teach. Christ has not left His people on their own to fend for themselves. He continues to build and support His Church through His Apostolic Ministry — from Peter and Paul, James and John, to your pastors in this time and place.
But at all times and in all places, throughout the history of His Church on earth, the one decisive factor remains ever and always the same as it was at Caesarea Philippi.
Which is to say that Jesus cuts right to the chase in this Holy Gospel with a single question, the line by which you and all people are measured in the presence of God. It is the one, all-important question which makes all the difference in this world and the next: What do you think of Jesus?
The foundation, heart, and center of the faith, and of the entire Christian life, is Christ Jesus, the Son of God and “Son of Man.” Who is He, and what has He done? And what does this “Jesus” mean to you? That is the question He puts to you today. That is the Question (period). And the answer is crucial for everything pertaining to godliness, righteousness, and everlasting life.
Of course, you can find all sorts of answers to the question, and some of them sound pretty good. Those who thought that Jesus, the Son of Man, was a Prophet of Yahweh were surely thinking well of Him. And many today, as well, have nothing but good things to say about Jesus: “Oh, he was a good man, a wise man, a pious Jew; a deep thinker and profound teacher; a real humanitarian; a genuine social justice warrior, and a righteous liberator of the oppressed; a true prophet of God.”
The trouble is, both now and then, that none of these glowing accolades is sufficient. None of them cut the mustard. They all have grains of truth, but they all miss the real significance.
As for St. Peter, so also for you and everyone else: You do not know and confess Jesus for Who and What He truly is, except by the grace and blessing of God the Father. You do not and cannot “choose” to believe in Him, nor make any “decisions for Jesus.” The best that anyone might do on his own is perhaps to see Jesus as “a prophet.” But genuine faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is granted only by the Father through the Holy Spirit. And as Jesus says to His disciples elsewhere, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.”
Ironically, the correct Answer is already implicit in the Question, for those who have ears to hear. That is to say, when Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man,” He thereby identifies Himself as the Christ, the incarnate Son of the Living God. Because the designation, “Son of Man,” is far more significant than most people realize. It is not just a way of saying that Jesus was a true human being. It is rather a rich, descriptive, theological title, invested with deep meaning already in the Old Testament Prophets, especially the Prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.
As the Son of Man, Jesus is One who has great authority: He teaches with authority; He performs miracles with authority; He has the authority to forgive sins; and He has the authority to send others in His Name and stead. And yet, the Son of Man has Himself been sent by another — by God the Father — to follow the way of the Cross for the sake of all mankind.
He is the Son of Man because He is the God who suffers in the flesh on behalf of all the children of men. His suffering and death are not His defeat, but His victory over all the enemies of God and man: the devil, the world, and sinful flesh. So the Son of Man is also, most decisively, the One who will return upon the clouds with power and great glory, as the Judge of the living and the dead, in order to gather the righteous to Himself as the beloved children of His Father in heaven.
Ultimately, the Confession of Christ, such as Peter makes by the grace of God, is a confession that absolutely nothing has any meaning or purpose apart from Christ Jesus. He is the Bottom Line, not only for Simon Peter, but for you and for all people. For the Church of all times and places, and so also for Emmaus Congregation here and now, Christ alone is the only Answer.
No one knows God the Father apart from Christ the Son; and no one receives the Holy Spirit apart from Christ who sends Him. No one has any real significance or lasting purpose apart from Christ, who gave His life and shed His blood to save all people. Even Holy Scripture, and the Ministry of preaching and the Sacraments, would mean nothing at all if they were not the Word and Ministry of Christ. Nor does the Church have any true identity apart from Christ, who is her Lord and her heavenly Bridegroom. Nothing that you have, and nothing that you do, has any value apart from Him. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.
Nothing means anything without Christ. And by the same token, as a word of encouragement, nothing will ever be able to overcome Christ Jesus or His Church. Not even the gates of hades.
This phrase, the gates of hades, is a poetic description of death. And those gates wait for you and all your loved ones, don’t they? Such is your inheritance as a sinful child of sinful Adam and Eve. There’s nothing you can do to stop death. Even at your best, you cannot put off the inevitable.
The fact of your mortality, therefore, seems an insurmountable fate, and of yourself it surely is. Yet, today you have the sure and certain promise of Jesus, the Christ, that even death is powerless against His Church, because He has conquered death and the grave once and for all. For all those who are in Christ Jesus, who died and rose again, the gates of hades have become the entrance into Paradise. For everyone who lives and abides within His Body, the Church, death from this world is but a doorway to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of body and soul in Him.
How tragic, then, for those who pass through the gates of hades without Christ. Saddest of all, because He has already purchased them to be His own, atoned for their sins, and redeemed them, by the shedding of His holy, precious Blood. But for those who do not know Him — or worse, who reject Him and turn their backs on Him — there remains nothing but eternal death and hell.
But for those who are in Christ, there is nothing but life and salvation. For those who trust in Him, there is no condemnation, no eternal death. All has been freely forgiven, with no strings attached. Those who are baptized into Christ have already passed through the gates of hades with Him, and so have a share in His Resurrection. And those who commune with Him, who eat His Body and drink His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving, are united with Him as sons of God the Father.
So it is that, whether you live or die, your life is in Christ Jesus. While you live, therefore, confess Him as your Savior and your God: With your life, with your own words of faith and love, and with the language of the Church’s Liturgy and catechesis. So also confess Him with your works and with all that God has given into your hands. In all these ways and means, you join with Simon Peter in confessing Christ Jesus; and so do you live with him and the other Apostles, safe and secure within the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church, the House that Jesus has built.
Living within that strong House, established on the solid Rock of His Gospel, wait upon the Lord for the coming of that great and glorious day when you shall stand with all the saints, gathered together forever around the Lamb upon His throne. To Him be the glory forever and ever!
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.