Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon for the Confession of St. Peter

Confession of St. Peter (January 18, 2009)
“They Had Been With Jesus” (Acts 4:8-13)

Mom and Dad noticed something was different about their twenty-something son. Instead of dressing all disheveled, now his hair was combed and his shirt was tucked in. He no longer smelled like the leftover french fries inside the McDonald’s bags piled up in his musty old car. Now, the sweet smell of cologne surrounded him wherever he went.

Their son’s behavior was different, too. He stood a bit taller. He was more polite. His language had improved ... and I’m not just talking about his grammar. When he came home in the evening, they could tell where he had been. He had not been out with his buddies. He had been with his girl. And not just any girl. This one was different. He truly loved this one. And she loved him. They could see it in his eyes. They could tell by the way he talked about her. They could tell by the way his eyes lit up when anybody mentioned her name. They wouldn’t be surprised if one day she came to visit and had a ring on her finger. Every time their son came home, Mom and Dad would notice the spring in his step and the smile on his face, and it was obvious that their son had been with the girl he was going to marry.

When Peter and John appeared before the rulers and religious leaders in Jerusalem, it was obvious to them that something was different about them. It wasn’t their new way of dressing or combing their hair. It wasn’t their new cologne. And it wasn’t about a girl. But there was something noticeably different about them. The reading from Acts ends with these words: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

Why were Peter and John standing before the leaders in the first place? What led up to this conclusion that “they had been with Jesus”? The previous day, Peter had healed a man who had been crippled from birth. Every day, the man’s friends would lay him at the Beautiful Gate, the eastern entrance to the temple. There, he would beg the passersby for alms, as he did to Peter and John as they approached. Peter looked at the lame beggar and said to him, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) Peter took the man by the hand, raised him up, and the man’s feet and ankles were as good as new. He had to try out his refurbished equipment, of course, made new by the Lord. So he entered the temple court “walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:8)

This got the attention of the crowd, and Peter preached a sermon in which he proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. There were some Sadducees present, and this did not sit well with them. After all, they did not believe in such a thing as resurrection. So they arrested Peter and John and brought them before the whole gathering of leaders the next day. Perhaps you recognized two familiar names. Annas. Caiaphas. Both were involved in the plot to arrest and kill Jesus. Peter and John had every reason to be afraid. But listen to Peter’s courageous message to them: “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:8-12)

When the leaders heard this, they recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus. Does this mean that Annas and Caiaphas finally recognized their faces? Did they remember seeing Peter and John hanging out with Jesus in the temple courts in the days leading up to his crucifixion? Did they remember Peter lingering in the shadows when Jesus was on trial? Did they catch a glimpse of John at the foot of the cross, comforting Jesus’ mother? The text suggests it was more than that. It was their boldness, and the fact that they were uneducated, common men.

They were bold all right. They told it all. Peter wasn’t afraid to lay it all on the line. He freely confessed that they themselves had no power to heal, but that it was Jesus who healed this man. It was “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Moreover, Peter was not afraid to confront the leaders with their rejection of Christ “whom you crucified,” as Peter said, but “whom God raised from the dead.” And Peter concluded by declaring that salvation is found only in Jesus.

You are I are often quite the opposite of bold when it comes to confessing our faith to others. We are timid. We get nervous. We are silent. We are afraid of offending others who believe differently than we do. We are fearful of being labeled intolerant in our politically correct culture.

Peter and John were also uneducated. They were not trained by the most famous rabbis of the day. They were trained by Jesus. And the same thing was said of Jesus at one point. During one particular visit to Jerusalem, the religious leaders were amazed at Jesus, considering he had never had any formal education. (John 7:15) And recall what happened to him when he was a boy in the temple. As a twelve-year old boy, Jesus amazed the teachers with his knowledge of and insight into the Scriptures.

The number of letters following your name does not determine your status with God. Your IQ does not determine your status with God. The Bible is a big book, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand. In fact, there are some very bright people who completely miss the meaning of Holy Scripture. They get caught up in the minute details of history and grammar and structure and poetry, but miss the big picture ... that the Bible is all about God’s working in history to bring about the Savior, how God became Man in the person of Jesus Christ to atone for the sin of the whole world and to conquer death and the devil at the cross.

And Peter and John were also called “common.” The Greek word is the one from which we get the word “idiot.” Now, that certainly doesn’t mean they were “idiots.” The word “idiosyncracy” might help us understand the meaning. Someone with “idiosyncracies” has unique characteristics. Their being called “common” probably refers to the fact that they were not men of noble birth. They were fishermen. What would their unique characteristics be? Blue collar workers. Calloused hands. Rough around the edges. Uncultured. Not the most artful of public speakers.

That may very well apply to us, too. Now, I’m not saying we’re all a bunch of idiots. Rather, I’m saying that we all have our own unique idiosyncracies. Perhaps we think that no one will listen to us because we are “common.” Remember, it’s not necessary to be cultured, sophisticated, or artful in order to speak about Jesus. Besides, it’s not you doing the converting. It’s the Holy Spirit. Even before Peter opened his mouth in our text, the writer makes the point of saying that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” That is where his boldness came from.

Peter and John had been with Jesus. They had spent 3 years with him. They learned from him firsthand. They saw him crucified. They saw him risen from the dead. Jesus visited them in the Upper Room and breathed on them the Holy Spirit. They went out and began to preach the Good News.

You and I have been with Jesus. We have heard his Word. We have heard the testimony of Peter and the other Apostles, that Jesus, the one who was crucified, is alive forevermore. Jesus visited us in our Baptism, when he poured out the Holy Spirit upon us. Jesus visits us every time we celebrate his Holy Supper and we eat and drink his body and blood.

How can people tell we have been with Jesus? First, when we repent of our sin and admit that we have not been bold in confessing that Jesus is the only Savior of the world, that we have neglected the study of God’s Word because we think that it’s too hard to understand, that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel because we worry that we are not eloquent or persuasive.

Our souls are like that lame beggar. Our souls are crippled. We are unable to do anything apart from the grace and forgiveness of God. And through Christ’s blood shed at the cross, our hearts are given wholeness and healing ... salvation, the forgiveness of sins, peace with God who gave his Son into death in our place.

In today’s Epistle reading from 2 Peter 1, the Apostle says that we have a faith of equal standing. That’s a remarkable statement. We look at the Apostles and think “Wow, these guys were really something.” And they were indeed, no doubt about it. They had been with Jesus. Peter himself confessed, “You are the Christ,” the confession we commemorate today. The Apostles were called by Jesus directly to be his special authoritative messengers. They saw him and touched his risen flesh. But when it comes right down to it, the faith we have is no different than theirs. Our faith, too, is a gift, just like theirs. It’s not something they or we stirred up inside ourselves by force of will. It’s all the Holy Spirit’s doing.

We contribute nothing toward our salvation. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, our renewed will can diligently work toward showing forth those things of which St. Peter says, “make every effort to supplement your faith with” virtue (putting your faith into action) ... knowledge (insight and understanding through reading and hearing God’s Word) ... self-control (keeping a handle on your desires) ... steadfastness (patient endurance, especially in times of temptation, suffering, and persecution) ... godliness (right worship directed toward the one true God) ... brotherly affection (being united in love and concern for our fellow believers), and love (a self-sacrificial, self-giving attitude towards others).

Like Peter reaching down and taking hold of that lame beggar, God has reached down to us and taken hold of us lame beggars. He hasn’t given us gold or silver. He has given us something of infinite value. Baptized in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, he has raised us up to new life. Now we can walk and leap and praise God.

Marked by the cross of Christ in Baptism, we enter into a life marked by the cross. That may mean suffering. It may mean rejection. He told the disciples ahead of time, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Little did Peter know at that time that he, too, would take up a very real cross. Peter denied Jesus three times. But the Risen Jesus restored Peter and forgave him in that wonderful exchange on the seashore where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep.” Then he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18) The ancient church historian Eusebius tells us that Peter was crucified upside down, apparently at his own request. Perhaps he did not feel right to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord was. Whatever the reason, St. Peter stretched out his hands and died confessing that Jesus is the Christ ... and that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

God grant that we may be able to boldly confess the same.


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