Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon for St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles (June 29, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“A Confession, A Conversion, and a Church Convention” (Acts 15:1-12; Gal. 2:1-10; Matt. 16:13-19)
            Very early in the history of the church, June 29 was set aside to honor the two great apostles Peter and Paul.  One early tradition states that this was the day they were both martyred in Rome during persecution ordered by the emperor Nero.  Whatever the case may be, we give thanks to God today for Peter and Paul and learn from them as we consider Peter’s confession, Paul’s conversion, and a church convention at which they played a key role in preserving for us the freedom we have in the Gospel.
            Peter gave a succinct and beautiful confession of faith when Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus commended Peter for this God-given revelation.  He promised build his Church on the rock of this confession of Peter.  He promised to give to the Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that the same verdict of forgiveness announced on earth would be valid in heaven as well.
            Although Peter gave such a bold confession of faith, he is also well known for his public denial of Christ.  Three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus while Jesus was on trial.  The rooster crowed as Jesus had foretold.  And Peter went out and wept bitterly.  But the Lord Jesus was gracious to him and forgave him.  On the day of his resurrection, the angel at the tomb told the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7).  The angel knew that Peter specifically needed some extra encouragement.  Some time later, the Risen Jesus prepared a seaside breakfast for the disciples.  There, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to confess his love for him three times and commissioned him to “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15-19).  That’s exactly what Peter did as a leader in the Church and missionary pastor until the day he was crucified in Rome.  He fed the lambs of Christ’s Church through his preaching and through writing two letters of the New Testament.  It’s also thought that Peter’s eyewitness accounts are behind the Gospel of Mark since Mark was a companion of Peter.
            Now on to Paul.  The story of Paul’s conversion is a dramatic one.  At first, Paul – or Saul as he was known in Hebrew – was involved in hunting Christians down, rounding them up, and having them put them to death.  It’s apparent that he also oversaw the stoning of Stephen, the first post-Pentecost martyr.  But the Lord Jesus was gracious to Paul, too.  Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, where Paul was on his way to arrest more Christians.  He was blinded by a bright light.  Jesus spoke to him and sent him to the house of Ananias who preached to him.  As he did so, scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he regained his sight.  Ananias baptized him. Paul came to repentant faith in Jesus as Savior and the Lord Jesus sent him out as his “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  That’s exactly what Paul did through his missionary journeys recorded for us in the Book of Acts.  Paul also is responsible for 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament … or I should rather say that the Holy Spirit is responsible for inspiring Paul – and Peter – to write their letters.  Paul’s letters give us insight into the life of the Church in his day and continue to have application to the Church today.  The four Gospels are the center of the New Testament, no doubt … but it’s hard to imagine what our Church life and doctrine would be like without the writings of St. Paul.
            The lives of Peter and Paul converged in Jerusalem and Antioch, leading up to the church “convention” described in Acts 15 where the first serious doctrinal conflict was hashed out.  Jerusalem was the headquarters of the early church.  Antioch lay around 400 miles to the north.  It became a prominent church and was the sending congregation of Paul’s missionary journeys.
            At Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, it took some convincing for the disciples to accept Paul.  They were afraid of him at first.  They knew his reputation.  But Barnabas stepped in and defended Paul and told how he “preached boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts. 9:27).  14 years later he met with the “pillars” of the church again – James, Peter, and John – and they extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas.  They were pleased that Paul did not “yield in submission” to those “false brothers” who were demanding that you had to live like a Jew first before you could become a Christian … that you had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.
            Later in Antioch, some men from Judea arrived who tried to introduce that same false teaching.  This was the issue that led to the council in Jerusalem to settle this once and for all.  The very truth of the Gospel was at stake.  It was a crisis that directly impacted the doctrine of justification … that the person who has faith in Christ is declared righteous in God’s sight, not guilty.  The teaching of these “false brothers” nullified the free gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life apart from the works of the Law.  Peter said that it placed “A yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”  The Law was a heavy burden because it demonstrated that no one could keep it perfectly and be holy and righteous before God.  Only Jesus kept the Law perfectly, and did so on our behalf so he could be the perfect, holy sacrifice for the sins of the world at the cross.  Therefore, Peter went on to say that “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as they will.”  In other words, the Gentiles who have never lived like Jews never have to.  They are saved completely and totally by the grace of the Lord Jesus because of his saving work at the cross.  We all are saved completely and totally by the grace of the Lord Jesus because of his saving work at the cross.  Never for a moment think that you have to add any of your works to what Jesus has already done for you.  Any works we do naturally flow from a heart that is forgiven and produces the fruit that the Holy Spirit plants there … but this is not what saves us.  Jesus already took care of that on Good Friday and Easter morning.
            When Paul wrote to the Galatians, they were being threatened by the same teaching that the Jerusalem Council dealt with.  Paul reflects on his initial encounters with the false teachers and writes, “We did not yield in submission even for a moment so that the truth of the Gospel might be preserved for you.”
            Now, there are times when “yielding in submission” is a good thing.  In fact, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul stressed the importance of submission between Christians.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” he says.  Recognize your station in life.  Humble yourself in selfless service to one another.  Paul goes on to talk about how this works in marriage.  Husbands are to selflessly sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ demonstrated his love for the Church.  In response, wives are to lovingly order themselves under the loving leadership of their husbands.  “Yielding in submission” in marriage is often about compromise and putting the needs of your spouse before your own.
            In our egalitarian society, this makes us uncomfortable.  But even more than that, it’s our hearts that are turned in on themselves that make us squirm and rebel against this word from the Lord.  But remember that Jesus perfectly yielded in submission to the will of his Father.  He yielded in submission at the hands of his persecutors in order to win for us freedom from the condemnation of the Law through his death and resurrection.
            On the other hand, there are times when we should never “yield in submission.”  This is especially true in the Church.  If it’s about what color the carpet should be, compromise is fine.  If it’s about the truth of God’s Word, then there should never be compromise.  When the truth of the Gospel is at stake, there should never be an ounce of submission … only submission to the Word of the Lord. 
            So today, as we recall Peter’s confession, may the Lord enable us by his Spirit to daily confess our sins and daily confess our faith … to each other and to others who do not know the freedom from sin and the fear of death that Jesus won for us.
            As we recall Paul’s conversion, may the Lord daily convert us by returning us to the promises of our Baptism and enabling us to daily turn away from our sin and turn to our Savior.
            And as we recall that first “church convention” where truth prevailed, may the Lord move us to gather often with fellow believers to hear the Good News, receive God’s gifts together, commune with the Lord Jesus and with one another at the altar, seek to be of one mind and one spirit, and never for one moment submit to anything that would obscure or jeopardize the sweet, pure, free, forgiving Gospel of grace.

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