Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 16:13-20
Dear absolved believers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The jokes get Saint Peter all wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard many of them. Saint Peter stands at the pearly gates giving an entrance examination which must be answered correctly to get into heaven. There are many varieties of these jokes, but the funniest ones seem to involve lawyers, politicians, and celebrities. Saint Peter supposedly gives a last chance to outwit or outsmart him or get his question correct to get into heaven.
Of course, we don’t get our theology from jokes, but these jokes do stem from bad theology – the idea that Jesus made Peter the first pope and that the pope has the authority to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. It is the misunderstanding of our text where Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, as if that gives Peter the authority over who gets into heaven.
First of all, Jesus did not give the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter alone. Two chapters later in Matthew, Jesus tells the same things to all His disciples. He tells all of them, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you (plural) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you (plural) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18) Also, in John 20, Jesus also speaks in the plural to the disciples, saying, “If you (plural) forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you (plural) withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (v. 23)
This did not, however, give the disciples the authority to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. It did not give them the authority to decide on a whim whose sins they would forgive and whose sins they would retain. So based on what did the disciples absolve and retain sin? Based on confession.
Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the rock on which Christ builds His Church. Christ does not build His Church on Peter himself, but on the truth that Peter confessed.
Jesus did not give Peter the authority to decide who gets asked the hard questions and who gets asked the easy questions at the pearly gates. In fact, no one will be asking any questions at the gates of heaven. By the time you are dead, your sins have already been loosed or retained. No amount of correctly answering easy or even difficult questions will change that fact.
Christ builds His Church on the confession of who He is and what he has done. These are what the church confesses.
Christ sees the hearts of all, but we cannot see hearts. We cannot see faith. But we can hear faith being confessed. Thus, the decision of whose sins are forgiven and whose sins are retained is based on confession. This is as true today as it was in the time of Saint Peter and the other apostles.
The Church teaches the faith. Those who learn and believe the faith as taught by the Church, confess the faith. They confess, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” All Christians of all time confess the faith as outlined in the three creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
When someone wants to join the church, since we cannot see their hearts, we simply ask them their confession. Do you believe what Scripture teaches as it is summarized in the Small Catechism? Do intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully? Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
If they confess these things affirmatively, the church takes them at their word, and they are brought into the church. We cannot see faith, but we can hear it confessed.
In addition to what Christians confess about God, we also confess something about ourselves. We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We confess that we are sinful by nature and have sinned in thought, word, and deed.
Again, we cannot see hearts. The pastor cannot see the hearts of those who speak the words of Confession. He does not know if they mean what they say. However, based on the confession he hears from their mouths, He absolves them in God’s name – remember, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” and “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The pastor does this, because whether or not someone believes the words they confess – that they there are sinners deserving hell, it is true. Whether or not someone believes the words of Absolution – that their sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is true. These are just as true as the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Whether or not someone believes that it is true does not change the reality of it.
Speaking the words of Absolution is nothing other than speaking the Gospel. Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. If someone does not believe it, they get no benefit of it being true, but it still remains true.
Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. This remains true even for those who do not believe it. Everyone’s every sin was paid by Jesus. If you reject His forgiveness then you do not have it and will go to hell, but His offer for forgiveness remains. His death in your place remains true.
So who then has their sins retained? Those who confess that they are not sinful. Those who confess that their sin requires no forgiveness. Those who refuse to turn away from their sin and want to stubbornly remain in sin. Those have their sins retained who do not confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Even for such people, however, there is hope. There is hope that they will still come to realize their sin and turn away from it. There is hope that they will hear God’s Law which condemns their sin so that they would fear God’s righteous punishment and repent. There is hope that they will hear the sweet words of the Gospel that Jesus has paid the price of their sins and believe.
For those who struggle to believe that some sin from their past is forgiven, private Confession and Absolution is offered. Private Confession and Absolution is offered so that the burden of sin can be unloaded on Jesus who has already carried that sin on the cross. Private Confession and Absolution is offered so that those who struggle with sin can be strengthened in their fight with sin by hearing it specifically absolved from the mouth of the pastor as from Christ Himself, since He is the one who sends His minsters saying, “He who hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16)
Absolution heard in private is the exact same Absolution heard in public in the Divine Service. It is not because of the length or detail of Confession that sins are absolved. The Absolution is the same, whether you spend an hour tormenting yourself to confess every detail of every sin to God that you can remember, or if you merely say as we did this morning, “Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.”
Absolution is the same, because Absolution is the Gospel. Absolution is the good news that because of Jesus’ death for your sins, you are forgiven. Absolution is the good news that because of Jesus’ death for you, you have eternal life. Absolution is the word of Christ Himself which forgives your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.