Posted on January 19th, 2009
A common temptation Christians face is to look for greener ecclesiastical pastures. On a congregational level, programs, facilities, location, and fellowship with others all play a factor in one’s choice of a church, and whether to stay or go. Denominationally, churches with dramatic claims to antiquity or authority sometimes beckon. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus can serve as an illustration here. I had a deep admiration for Fr. Neuhaus, who very recently passed away, on Jan. 8; he was a brilliant man who read voraciously and wrote with immense clarity and a sharp wit. He also was the son of a Missouri Synod pastor who became one himself, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism. Fr. Neuhaus gave a speech at a conference I attended a few years ago, entitled, “How I Became the Catholic I Was.” For reasons of time I must oversimplify. He said that one of the reasons he joined the Roman church was his belief that the church is “the historically specifiable community of ordered discipleship through time, until the end of time.” In other words, it’s the continuity of the institution that ultimately matters. The church is then defined by a bureaucracy. Put simply and crassly, the church has an address: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.
But on the other side, among the Eastern Orthodox, there is a similar claim to antiquity and authority; their claim to orthodoxy rests on how old their liturgy is, and on the adherence to so-called holy tradition. In an age when everything is up for grabs, when the worship services change by the week, doctrine is despised, and churches are managed like businesses and marketed like circus acts, there is a great appeal for both pastors and laity to look to Rome or the East to find something more substantive, more permanent, more lasting.
But it is a false option. For the holy catholic church is not founded upon a pope, a bishop of Rome. It is not founded on patriarchs. It is not founded on a slavish devotion to liturgy. It is not founded on an institution or a bureaucracy or a peculiar form of church government. The Church, we learn today from Holy Scripture, is founded on a confession, a declaration of truth.
Today is the festival of the Confession of Saint Peter. Everything hangs not on the man Peter, or the office of Peter, but on the words that Peter was given to say by God, in answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter confessed, “You are the Christ.” Every one of us must give answer to that same question: Who do you say that Jesus is? At its very core, to be a Christian is to give the same answer as Peter: “You are the Christ.” That is the confession that binds us together. That is the truth that joins us together in the holy catholic church. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed One, the incarnate God come to redeem us from sin, death, and hell.
But there is a great danger for us. That confession costs something. At the very least, it’s costing you time on Sunday morning. It costs us the money we give up in offerings to support the church and to do works of mercy. And it can cost us something else – a higher place in this world. To be a Christian—a real one—will not sit well with a world that delights in abortion on demand, revels in sexual promiscuity, and embraces the teaching that all religions and no religion lead equally to the same place. So Jesus warns, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father.” So we are tempted to set aside our confession because we are ashamed of it. We are afraid of being called unenlightened, intolerant. We are afraid of what it might cost us in our careers, friendships, families.
Besides that, we are terribly prone to what St. Peter calls “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” You know, and hopefully battle with, that corruption and desire: The desire for sex for the sake of pleasure, not for the sake of expressing love in marriage; desire for money, desire for power, desire for fame, desire to be proven right, desire to be served rather than to serve. All this is corruption, and from it our world is corrupted such that the earth is decaying; our bodies are corrupted such that they are already decaying and will become thoroughly decayed in the ground.
But being a disciple of Christ, being a Christian, being one who confesses the same thing Peter confessed, is to take up our cross and battle against these sinful desires, denying ourselves. A Christian of an earlier age put it this way: “Just as we are lost through loving ourselves, so we are found by denying ourselves. Love of self was the ruin of the first man. If he had not loved himself in the wrong order, he would have been willing to be subject to God, preferring God to self.” (Caesarius of Arles)
Everything rests on the truth of Peter’s words: “You are the Christ.” There is no other name by which we must be saved. Some popular fiction today, like Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” purports that the idea of Jesus being divine is a later fabrication, an invention of a corrupt, misogynistic church. These things are not just works of fiction; they are malicious lies intended to deceive the faithful and turn them away from the one Name by which we are saved. But don’t take my word for it; you heard St. Peter himself today call Jesus “God” and “Savior.” That is not a doctrinal invention from the fourth or fifth century. Those are the words of a man who hosted Jesus on his fishing boat, who left his business to follow Jesus, who denied Jesus during His trial, who saw Him executed on a Roman cross, who saw Him risen again from the dead, who touched and ate with the risen Jesus, who saw Him ascend into the heavens, who heard His promise to return. Of that Jesus, Peter confessed, “He is the Christ.” He gave his life for that confession, that doctrine.
Mark this well: the words “You are the Christ” are doctrinal words. Doctrine, pure doctrine, matters. Modern errorists seek to drive a wedge between doctrine and practice, teaching and living, head knowledge and heart knowledge. The truth is, they cannot be separated.
Think about the doctrine of marriage. The teaching tells us that when one man and one woman are united in holy matrimony, they are to love and honor each other, be sexually and in every other respect faithful to each other, with the wife submitting to the husband and the husband loving his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church. That’s all “doctrine.” A wife denies that doctrine when she sleeps around. A husband denies that doctrine when he withholds his goods from his wife. Spouses deny this doctrine when secrets are kept. You see that the doctrine and the life hang together; they are two sides of the same coin.
Another doctrine is the teaching that life is sacred, created by God, and cannot be trivialized or abused. So we cannot hold to the doctrine, which is also scientific truth, that life begins at conception, and then act in ways that show we do not care about those lives, or worse, act in ways that permit and encourage abortion and infanticide. Holding to the correct doctrine necessitates striving to bring one’s life in conformity to that doctrine.
When our doctrine and our practice do not match, the Bible has a word for that: hypocrisy. And the truth is, we are all hypocrites. St. Peter admonishes us about our hypocrisy when he urges us to increase in the doctrine that Jesus is the Christ: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The doctrine that Jesus is the Christ, you see, contains with it the doctrine that you have been cleansed from your sins. So if you continue willfully in sin, you are really saying that Jesus is not your Christ, that you neither have nor seek the new life that is in Him.
So how do we apply this doctrine, this confession, to our daily lives? The Lord Jesus says that we are to lose our lives. Certainly He does not mean that we should kill ourselves. However, He does mean that we should kill those things in ourselves that are unduly attached to the earthly, the things that make us take too much pleasure in this life, at the expense of the life of the world to come. (Augustine) Thus our cross is taking up the killing of those things in ourselves; and it is suffering under our mortality; and it is suffering the ridicule and ostracization that comes from being a Christian.
We won’t find the strength to do that within ourselves. But Peter gives us this joyful news: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” Notice that it is a gift. We do not obtain life through what we do, and we do not accomplish godliness by our efforts or actions. His divine power has granted all these things to us. As a gift. That is the gospel – a free gift. And that is the confession that makes me a Lutheran, and a member by grace of the holy catholic church. That Church is founded on nothing other than Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. And now, in this blessed Sacrament, the Lord JESUS Christ bids us commune with Him, with the promise that in Him we might become partakers of the divine nature. God bless you and keep you in this confession and church until you draw your last breath!