I hesitated to accept this preaching assignment. I’m accustomed to preaching in a small congregation in a small town. The name of the town is West Newton, but I call it “Brigadoon,” if that tells you anything. So I knew I’d be out of my element today delivering this sermon to the Seminary community in this chapel.
But I got over my hesitance when I recalled something from my student days here many years ago. (That’s probably a minor miracle: I remember something from my Seminary training!) Our esteemed professor of preaching, Herman Stuempfle, told us of his experience in preaching at Christ Church, Gettysburg, where half the Seminary faculty were among the congregation. He found it a bit intimidating, until one of the older gentlemen took him aside and said to him, “Don’t worry. They’re all sinners just the same!”
So I decided that if some public speakers can deal with their nervousness by imagining their audience naked, it should not be a stretch for me to imagine this assembly as sinners, just the same. (My wife suggested to me that if I’m really nervous, I might imagine naked sinners. Don’t worry—I don’t think I’m that nervous!)
Martin Luther once described the enterprise of gospel proclamation as a matter of one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. Today we acknowledge and celebrate the source of our food—the Bread of Life from heaven, who is acclaimed in today’s Gospel text as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
If you want to cut to the chase, if you want to get to the bottom line, if you want the essence of the faith, consider the confession of St. Peter. To be sure, there is some build-up to this bottom-line confession. Some preliminary conversation takes place between Jesus and the disciples. Who do people say that he is? The responses come: some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. To this day, many people regard Jesus, if they regard him at all, as a great man or a great prophet. But Jesus is much more—he is the Messiah (or Christ, whichever translation you prefer), the Son of the living God. And as such he is the rock on which our faith, and our church, is built.
Some may think that Peter was the rock. After all, that’s what his name means: Peter. Petrus. “Rock.” “Petrify”—turn into rock. “Petroleum”—oil that comes out of rock.
But the church is not built upon Peter, nor on his personality. This festival day in the church calendar is designed to focus our attention not so much on Peter, but on the object of his confession—the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
I read in a commentary that Ceasarea Philippi was a heathen area. I can imagine the landscape dotted with temples and shrines to pagan deities. Against such a backdrop, Jesus draws forth Peter’s confession. Is not such a confession needful today against the backdrop of our world, full of competing religions and non-religions, all claiming legitimacy? We with Peter need to know, confess, and proclaim whose we are.
We are tempted to assume that if we only do things right, if only we are more faithful, more diligent, more hard-working, hospitable, inclusive, contemporary, Lutheran, or whatever, we can establish the kingdom. We cannot. Only Christ can. While we rightly offer our best efforts to fulfill our vocations, ultimately there are no programs, no strategies, no formulas that will save us. To confess Christ, as did Peter, is to confess our total dependence on Christ. And being so dependent, we’re all in this together. We’re all sinners, just the same.
The festival of the Confession of Peter appropriately marks the beginning of the so-called Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That sounds noble in concept, but it’s difficult in implementation. In my community, Christian Unity is expressed by an organization called the West Newton Association of Churches. This organization brings representatives from all the churches in town to monthly meetings, and sponsors ecumenical worship services during the year. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic priest never comes because he’s too busy. And the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran pastor never comes because he’s not allowed. That leaves me the sole representative of what you might call the liturgical tradition. I derive some measure of ecclesiastical satisfaction when it’s my turn to host one of the ecumenical services—I make them sing the litany!
But if you’ve never taken part in such an organization, you cannot imagine how difficult it is for a Lutheran to deal with Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Church of God, and Missionary Alliance people.
Recently I had the audacity to say so out loud, publicly—somewhat, but not entirely, tongue-in-cheek. The African-American Baptist preacher looked me in the eye, smiled broadly, and said loudly, “Forgive us!” Forgive indeed! I’ve learned that forgiveness is an important component in working for and praying for Christian unity. For while many of our West Newton people will confess “after all, there’s only one God,” I have yet to hear any of them volunteer “after all, there’s only one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” And moreover, I’ve yet to hear any of them say,. “after all, regardless of our denominational labels, we’re all sinners just the same.”
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” Thus he articulated the faith we hold, or, more properly, the faith that holds us together. Here is the bottom line, the main point, the essence of the matter. Here is why this episode at Caesarea Philippi rates a festival in the church calendar. Peter’s confession proclaims the rock on which the church is built, and the rock is Christ. Good news indeed today for us, all sinners just the same.
The Rev. Allen R. Riethmiller is a graduate of the seminary, currently a Seminary Board member and Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, West Newton , PA