The True Foundation- Sermon for August 23, 2020 from Pastor John

Sermon for August 23, 2020


     As you watch the news during an election year, there are terms you hear frequently. For example you often hear about the latest “poll” measuring which candidate is ahead among a certain class of voters. Or you will hear often enough the term “battleground state”. We live in a battleground state. In such states the election results are perceived to be very close and candidates are very keen about “fighting” with advertisements and rallies to win over each important voter.

In the gospel lesson it sounded as if Jesus was taking a poll asking the disciples about what they have heard people say about him. Jesus asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus had been attracting large crowds with his acts of compassion and folks were ready to tell the disciples what they thought of Jesus. Some said Jesus is like John the Baptist. John had recently been beheaded by the local ruler for the crime of calling him to repentance. Rulers do not like to be told they are doing something wrong by breaking the commandments of God because they often think they are above the law. But the people admired John for his courage and his faithful preaching. Other people compared Jesus to Elijah, or actually thought he was Elijah. This famous prophet of old was expected by some to return to earth and prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Others compared Jesus to Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. True prophets would constantly call people away from a complacent faith which ignored God’s call for compassion for the poor and needy. The disciples reported good poll results: the people knew Jesus was sent by God to speak words of courage, compassion, and commitment.

But Jesus wanted to know more than what his disciples were hearing, he wanted to know what was in their hearts. Imagine Jesus calling his disciples together and asking, “But who do you say that I am?” This is the important question. The importance of the question is also revealed by the location. The lesson said Jesus and his disciples were in the district of Caesarea Philippi. First of all this was an important seat of regional government. You hear the name of “Caesar” as in Emperor, the Roman Emperor, the super power and occupying power of the time. You hear the name of ‘Phillip’, the regional ruler who served at the pleasure of the Roman overlords. This city was also along a important trade route between the coastal city of Tyre and the important city of Damascus. This was also a region dedicated to the worship of pagan gods, most notably the god “Pan”. Pan was kind of a scary looking god from which we get our English word “panic”. So Jesus was asking his disciples about who they felt he was in a ‘battleground state’—a place of government power, financial power, and religious loyalty. Jesus was not asking the question “Who do you say that I am” because he was mildly curious. This was a question about allegiance and faith. For the battle for our souls, where does one stand?

The disciples knew Jesus was more than John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. After Jesus calmed a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee that threatened to capsize their boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” But in the text, it was Peter who spoke up and confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus did not say to Peter, “Very good, Peter, have earned an “A” on the Messiah Quiz with your insightful answer.” Imagine Jesus smiling telling him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” What did Jesus mean? Did not Peter and the other flesh-and-blood disciples witness Jesus’ miracles: feeding multitudes with a few loaves of bread, healing so many who were brought to him sick, walking on water and calming nature’s chaotic storms? You would think they could figure out Jesus’ identity. But no, to confess Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, was a gift from God. This would mean that God would continue to reveal to the disciples the full measure of Jesus’ mission of mercy and compassion for a hurting world. The same is true for us. I think of Martin Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. Luther explained our need for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives for faith writing, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel and keeps me in the true faith, just as the Holy Spirit calls the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

We need more than a flesh-and-blood understanding of faith because as the apostle Paul would write in Ephesians “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh-and-blood but against spiritual forces of evil.” In the reading from Romans today the apostle Paul encouraged “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Martin Luther did warn about the trifecta of the world, the devil, and our own sinful natures. We need, by the mercy of God, for Jesus to be revealed to us, so together as the church, sisters and brothers in Christ saved by grace, we know throughout life that Jesus is with us always, revealing the good news that God is not angry with us, but loves us beyond all measure.

Jesus made it very clear that he is for us, the church, when he said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Notice Jesus did not give the church any name but “my Church”. Baptism must be understood as not being a part of a denomination but a part of Jesus and his redeemed family throughout the world. The church is in the world, where there is so much evil at work and where death seems to have the final verdict. In the world there is the lure of other powers: and there is temptation to make a religion, where we root our lives, in military strength and financial wealth. But fear not, the church is Jesus’ church. The Holy Spirit is at work to reveal the cross of Jesus proving his priceless love for all of humanity. The Holy Spirit reveals the risen-from-the-dead Jesus, who gives the priceless gift of living hope. It is too bad we cannot sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with that wonderful stanza, “Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane, but the Church of Jesus, constant will remain; Gates of hell can never, ‘Gainst that church prevail, we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail. Onward Christian soldiers….”

In one of our Lutheran college magazines there is an article about Kathryn Koob. She was a government worker who was held hostage, along with 51 others, in Iran after their 1979 revolution. A long-time Lutheran she wrote of her experience, “I know firsthand the power of prayer. During my time in Iran, I felt the safety net of prayer that was being said for all of us during the time of our captivity….We often face things over which we have no power, like an unexpected illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, so many different things. And yet we have the grace of God to face those things with the support of friends and family.” A wonderful thing about Kathryn was that even though she knew she was a political prisoner, yet she found freedom in prayer. She would not only pray for her release and her friends and be sent home safely; she would continue to pray for many others in there need: the hungry, homeless, the sick and fearful. Through prayer she would continues to do God’s work.

Jesus told Peter that he would be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose will be loosed in heaven.” The Church, built on the true foundation of Jesus and his love for the world, has given the church the authority to represent him in our world of need. The gospel of Jesus, the good news of his love, hope, and peace, has power to set the captives free. We may know people who feel the weight of guilt on their lives; they can be set free by the good news of forgiveness of sins. We may know people deeply troubled by fear of COVID-19, the church has the power to bless people with hope, a living hope because it means the presence of Jesus to give peace. As we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, “God’s salvation will be forever, and the deliverance of God will never be ended.” We often feel that we live in a battleground with so much that can be against us. But Jesus said the church is his church, and the powers of evil will not prevail against it. Let us be people of mission and mercy, for “we have Jesus’ own promise, and it will not fail.”