Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 29, 2014| St. Matthew 16:13-19
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” St. Matthew 16:13-19
It is often the case among us Christians that the most comforting words we hear from our Lord Jesus are also some of the most controversial. Think of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. These are comforting words. Christ’s body and blood were given and shed for us. If Christ gives us his own body and blood to eat and to drink we can rest confident that he gives us the forgiveness of all our sins! But here the devil steps in and starts an argument with God, confusing the church with all sorts of foolish opinions. Precisely where God grants us confidence and faith we also find controversy, as the divine mystery is subjected to the standards of human reason with the result that the clear words of Jesus are rejected. We must defend the truth that the sacramental bread and wine really are Christ’s body and blood and that this Supper really does give us the forgiveness of all our sins.
The words before us today also provide us with great comfort and have also been the source of much controversy. These words establish for us our Christian claim that Christ’s Church on earth is truly the gateway to heaven. She has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. She has the power to open heaven to sinners whose consciences suffer from guilt and fear. It is the power to forgive sins. It is the power of the gospel. The Lord Jesus has bestowed upon his Church on earth the power to forgive and to retain sins. The Church is the kingdom of heaven on earth. One need not imagine a future kingdom of political peace all over the world, nor must we rely on military force or political negotiations to obtain genuine peace. Heaven is here on earth – God and sinners are reconciled – wherever the Church of Jesus Christ exercises her birthright and opens heaven to sorrowing sinners burdened by guilt.
The Lord Jesus promised to Peter the keys of his kingdom. How does Jesus govern his kingdom? Where was he identified with the official title of King? Was it not where he suffered and died for us? Is not the power to loose the power to forgive sins? Did not our Lord Jesus purchase that power with his own blood shed on the cross for us sinners? Did not Jesus give this power to all of the disciples after he died and rose from the dead and breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whosever sins you forgive are forgiven and whosever sins you retain are retained”? The authority to forgive and retain sins is a Church power that Christ has given to his Church on earth.
Jesus promised this power to Peter after Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This confession of St. Peter is the confession of Christ’s Church. This confession is the preaching of Christ’s ministers. When Jesus promised to Peter the keys of the kingdom he was promising to give these keys to his Church as her precious possession and to the ministers of his Church as their sacred duty. Here is what we confess about the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the Catechism:
It is the peculiar church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.
When Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world, rose from the dead with forgiveness to give, and ascended into heaven to assume authority over all things, especially over his Church on earth, he did not take the forgiveness of sins up into heaven with him. He gave it to us who need it here on earth. The Church has the God-given authority to forgive sins. This is what makes her Christ’s kingdom. She has the authority of Jesus Christ.
But again, controversy raises its head and confuses God’s people. An evangelical Church power that Jesus gave to his Church to set sinners free from their sins is twisted into a legal power of an ecclesiastical hierarchy to pass laws that burden the Christian’s conscience. Jesus spoke to Peter as to his Church and to her ministers. His words are twisted to say that he is making Peter and whoever is the bishop of Rome to be the pastor and bishop of the whole Church on earth and that full fellowship with Christ’s Church on earth requires submission to the authority of this bishop. What Christ gave as a gift of the gospel is twisted into a burden of the law.
Neither Peter nor Paul nor any other apostle is the source of divine truth or churchly power. As Jesus said to Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” The apostles were but the humble instruments that God used to reveal to the Church of all ages his saving truth. We look to the apostles to speak the words of Christ faithfully, and we are never disappointed. Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit who would lead them into all truth.
Paul’s experiences are unique to him, but his doctrine is God’s, and we honor Paul for the sake of the truth he preached. Paul’s gospel is God’s gospel. Peter’s experiences are unique to Peter, but when the Lord Jesus told him to feed his sheep and his lambs, he was talking to every Christian pastor. Here we have the apostolic Scriptures. Here we have the apostolic ministry. Here it is that Jesus binds the sins of the impenitent and looses the sins of the penitent. Jesus acts here in this place through his holy ministry.
Jesus is more than a prophet. He stays. The prophets came and went. Jesus stays put. John, Elijah, Jeremiah – they are just voices. The voice speaks and is gone. They speak what God gives them to speak. Jesus is the Son of the living God, the Word made flesh. He speaks for God because he is God. He is Immanuel: God with us. He remains with his Church until the end of time. The kingdom of heaven has come to earth and here it will remain until the crucified and risen King returns to take her home. Meanwhile, she is a pilgrim in this world and the pillar and ground of the truth. God’s truth – revealed to Peter and Paul – identifies the holy Church on earth.
We don’t need a visible head of Christendom. We need the pure confession and pure preaching of the gospel. We don’t need religious rules by which the sanctity of the Church is displayed to men. We need the blood and righteousness of Jesus by which the Church is washed clean of all her sins and presented as a spotless bride to her Savior, Jesus.
The gates of hell are built around the souls of stubborn sinners who in ignorance and pride hold onto their sins as if darkness were light, slavery were freedom, and folly were wisdom. They look for the truth within their own fallen nature. But they don’t know they are fallen, so they don’t know they are trusting in lies. They elevate themselves. They trust in themselves. What they feel must be good, or so they think. Trusting in theories that humanity descended from the animals, they behave like animals. Rejecting the God who created them, they reject his institutions as well, twisting marriage into its counterfeit in which every form of selfishness and perversion is sanctified in the name of humanity. For the sake of humanity they deny their true humanity by denying him who made them in his own image and rejecting him who is the image of the invisible God.
But the kingdom of heaven that is here on earth – the holy Christian Church – has the power of the keys. This is the power to destroy the gates of hell. This is the power to set the prisoners free. The folly, blindness, selfishness, and sin in which they are trapped are no match for the power of Jesus’ blood, shed for them. This is the power of the keys. It is a power purchased by the Son of the living God who went to the cross to crush Satan’s head under his heel. The Christ does as the Scriptures say, and in fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures he invades Satan’s kingdom and breaks his weapons.
This means that here, in Christ’s Church that is built upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone, Satan’s power to deceive us, to bind us, and to torment us is broken. Here we are set free. Here our souls find rest and peace in the wounds of the Savior who bore all our sins and sorrows. Here forgiveness flows like a river of life, covering all the wrongs we have ever done, healing us and restoring us and keeping us in the true faith.
Saints Peter and Paul exercised evangelical authority. Peter understood the power of forgiveness. It turned him from a braggart into a martyr. So did Paul. It turned him from a legalistic bully into the greatest evangelist of all time. That’s the power of the keys. When God opens heaven to you by forgiving you all your sins, he also opens genuine life to you here on earth where he places you to live. The kingdom of heaven is not just a religious ideal. It is the defining reality of our lives.