Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“But you, who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). That question from Jesus confronts every person, believer and unbeliever alike. “Who do you say that I am?” The answer that you give, that I give, reveals the presence or absence of the faith that saves. In the last few weeks, we have discovered various parts of the Christian answer to who Jesus is: He is the all-sufficient Lord of heaven and earth who cares for both body and soul; He is the Son of God who can and does respond immediately to the desperate cry of the sinking doubter; He is the One who deserves to be worshiped because He is very God of very God; He is the One who gathers people from every nation into the midst of holy, chosen, beloved Israel; He is the One who hears and answers the prayers of those who pray with the faith of Abraham. All of these, and more, are summed up in the answer of Simon, son of Jonah: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter’s faith trusts that Jesus is the Anointed One of God, and from his faith his mouth speaks; whether he understands what his confession will mean is a different question. And Jesus shows us the motion of faith: from the revelation of the Father, to the confession of the Son, to the confession by the Son. “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah! Flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you, but my Father who is in the heavens. And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not be victorious over her” (Matthew 16:17-18). So it is for you and for me: it has been revealed to us by the Word of God that this Jesus is the promised Son who will save His people from their sins. That Word creates the faith that trusts Jesus, the faith that confesses Him with lips and life. And those who confess Him, He will also confess before His Father (Matthew 10:32).
It is that confession, given to Peter to speak, upon which Christ builds His Church. And it is the Church built upon that confession against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. This is a promise given to the Church by the Lord of the Church Himself. Shall we then doubt that He will keep it? Even so, we live in the time between the promise and its final fulfillment. From where we stand, rather than Heaven bursting through the gates of Hell, it is Hell that appears to be storming the gates of Heaven. And how weak those gates appear! How strong the forces of Hell look! Christians are persecuted in many countries around the world. The Church’s numbers continue to shrink, at least in North America. She is assaulted from the outside. The culture seems more and more opposed to the Church, from music and movies to fashion and finance. The states continue to make her position on marriage and the family seem ever more precarious and “outdated.” And the churches betray their Lord by blessing relationships that ought not to be blessed, but rather repented. It seems that when we speak before kings and rulers, we reverse Peter and the apostles: we must obey men, rather than God (Acts 5:29). The Church is assaulted from within, as well. False teachers, softening the Law of God so that it becomes a harmless guide to successful living, sell millions of books to Christians. The Church’s disunity is rightly assailed, but the proposed solution is always superficial agreement without actual unity. And it is the Lord’s Table where this false communion is celebrated; Christians join with anyone who claims belief in a Jesus-any Jesus will do. Christians with contradictory confessions pretend that it does not matter what you believe about Jesus’ words on the night when He was betrayed. Under words of love, lovelessness is promoted that results in the judgment of the Lord; and a hostility that divides Christians from each other at the very same table hides under the name of peace. It is not a coincidence that every single disagreement among the churches comes back to the Lord’s Supper, because it is the heart of the Church’s life. The attacks of Hell, however, are not seen only between believers and unbelievers, or between Christians of different confessions, but also within Christians. The devil’s favorite strategy is not outright opposition to the Word of God, but easy indifference. How much clearer are the paths for the armies of Satan if the people of God have been lulled to sleep in their contentment! How much harder it is to recognize the one who masquerades as an angel of light if the children of the light cease to gather around Him who is the Light of the world! The message of the Church is unclear, the life of the Church unlived, the faith of the Church unconfessed. It seems as if the hosts of Hell will overcome the armies of Heaven. But that is impossible. Because, thank God, the existence and survival of the Church does not stand upon us weak humans who confess the Church’s Lord, but upon the confession itself, which has been given to us by the Father of Jesus.
This confession is not simply words about Christ, but it is Christ Himself speaking His Word. And so the confession by which the Church lives and dies is the confession that this Jesus is the one who forgives sins. That is the sole reason for the Church to exist. The Church may do other things, but unless her sanctuary is the place where real sinners are really forgiven real sins, then she has ceased to be the Church of Jesus Christ, who promises: “I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind upon the earth will be bound in the heavens; and whatever you loose upon the earth will be loosed in the heavens” (Matthew 16:19). To the Church that confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is given the power of that Jesus to forgive the sins for which He died. When I, the called and ordained servant of Christ in this place, forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, “this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with [you] Himself” (Luther, Small Catechism). My forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness, not because of who I am, but because of who He is and the Office into which He has put me. When you are burdened by sin within and without, take refuge in the wounds of Christ, opened for sinners. Take refuge in the promise of His Word and at the Table upon which His Body and Blood are set. It is by that forgiveness, and by nothing else, that you live. Wherever the Church forgets that her life consists of repentance and forgiveness of sin, she opens the gates of the Church to the forces of Hell. But the true Church is built on this rock-hard foundation: that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, forgives your sins. He does it today; do not doubt. He does it whenever you are recalled to your baptism, where God first drowned your Hell-bound nature and raised you to new life in His Church. He does it whenever you hear and receive by faith the Words He has given me to speak: I forgive you all your sins. If Satan is after you particularly hard, if you can feel his breath as he roars his blasphemies in your ears, if you are falling under the weight of the world, if you wear your own flesh like a ball and chain, then come and compel me to give you the forgiveness of your Lord: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will…I, a poor sinner, plead guilty of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and my prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin” (LSB 292). This is the constant confession of the members of Christ’s Body. Remember, to confess means “to say the same.” To confess your sin is to say the same thing that God says about it: that it is damnable and that it has separated you from God and from your neighbor. And I, as your pastor, confess to you what God says about you in Jesus Christ: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace” (LSB 293).
The gates of Hell are stormed, in this world and in you. Its strongholds are broken and its prisoners released. It was your Lord who descended into Hell and declared the victory of His cross. It is this Christ to whom your faith clings: Blessed are you! For flesh and blood has not revealed this Jesus to you, but the Heavenly Father. Yes, go in peace. Go in peace, though you live in the midst of death. Go in peace, though you daily sin much and require much mercy. Go in peace; you have received mercy. You have heard the words of your Lord, and you may hear them as often as you feel the burden of your sin and desire to hear the words of eternal life. Whatever happens in this shifting, changing world, where the armies of Hell seem to hold the upper hand, know that here is a place that is built on the Rock. Our God is a mighty fortress, shielding us from the assaults of the devil and the world and the treason of our own flesh. Here is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, and He stands ready, always and forever, with the key to release the lock of the Law that holds the chains of your sin-because He Himself was bound to a Roman cross by the chains of your sin, but He is risen indeed, alleluia! Nothing else than this forgiveness, given and received every Lord’s Day, is the source of your life. It appears as nothing-just a few words-but the God-given confession of the Jesus who forgives your sins will hold the gates of Hell shut so that they will never swallow you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/19/08