Monday, June 30, 2014

Saved Through the Grace of Jesus

St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles                     June 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches     Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Saved Through the Grace of Jesus
( Dear Friends in Christ:  On Sunday, June 29th I announced to Trinity and St. John that I have accepted the call received from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Office of International Mission to be a missionary to Sevilla, Spain.  My last Sunday here will likely be either July 27th or August 3rd. 
While Shelee and I are excited by the prospect of serving Christ’s mission in Spain, it is also very sad for us to be leaving our church family here.  We go forward in confidence, for the same God who has so richly blessed us all here will continue to shower blessings, in Sidney, Fairview, and Sevilla.  We will all continue to walk together, because of the One who is walking with us. 
We will be sharing much more about our new call, and there will be much information in the coming weeks concerning the transition for Trinity and St. John.  Feel free to contact me or other congregational leaders with any questions you may have. 
Peace in Christ to you and yours, Pastor Warner)

     Saint Peter and Saint Paul, heroes of the Church. Central figures in the Book of Acts, authors of Scripture, namesakes of thousands of congregations.  What words can we use to describe them?  How about… impetuous?  A braggart.  Short tempered.  Unreliable.  Conceited.  Coldhearted.  Murderous. 

     St. Peter and St. Paul are the Apostles who shine most brightly in Christ’s Church.  And yet they could quite fairly be described with these terrible words.  In the New Testament we see them being stubborn, prideful, impatient, angry, cowardly and hateful.  Peter dared to rebuke Jesus, to contradict and correct God in the flesh, when our Lord began to speak of His coming Cross.  Not wanting to hear about a salvation that comes through suffering and death, Peter dared to tell our Lord how to be the Savior.  
     For his part, Paul stood by, silently approving the murder of the Deacon Steven, stoned by a Jewish mob for declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.  Paul, then called Saul, was too refined and educated to stoop and pick up a stone to throw himself, but happy to watch over the cloaks of the goons who did his bidding.  By his own admission, Paul considered himself holier than anyone else, a self-justifying, arrogant man.  

     Peter also denied His Friend and Master Jesus, at the most critical moment, when He had been arrested, and stood before the sham trial at the house of the high priest, Caiaphas.  Three times Peter denied he even knew the King of the Jews, even though Peter had just hours before promised to lay down his life with Jesus.  And yet, I would argue Peter’s worst moment was yet to come.  Peter couldn’t handle it when Jesus submitted to arrest and persecution, when He willingly walked to His coming death on the Cross.  Which isn’t surprising.  Jesus’ willing submission to the Cross is the most unfathomable, unthinkable, horrible event ever.  That Peter couldn’t muster the courage to confess Jesus in the midst of that terrible night means he is just like you and me: fallen, weak, unable to face the full gravity of human sin, a man needing to be forgiven and raised from spiritual death.  
     But later, after the sins of the world were washed away, after the Resurrection, after Jesus reinstated Peter to his office, after Peter had seen visions and performed miracles, after he had preached to and baptized thousands, after all of that, Peter betrayed Christ again.  Having been saved by grace through faith, apart from works, Peter stood by when this, the central truth of the Gospel he preached, was being perverted.  Certain Jewish Christians began teaching that  non-Jews who wanted to join the Christian Church had to submit to Jewish laws about diet and circumcision, or else they could not be saved, and should not be associated with.  Despite being the first in the Church to preach the pure Gospel of free forgiveness through faith in Jesus, despite having witnessed the death of God’s Son, and His Resurrection, Peter betrayed the faith.  In the face of this false teaching by some influential Jewish Christians, Peter chose racial heritage and family ties over the Truth.  
     Paul describes Peter’s failure in his letter to the Galatians, which he writes to combat the same false teaching which had reached their congregation.  In fact, the incident is described beginning in the very next verse after this morning’s epistle, Galatians 2:11.  Listen again to the end of our epistle, with a few more verses added on.  and when James and Cephas (Cephas is the Greek version of the name Peter) and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
   11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
     As we heard in our first reading this morning, Paul had been with Peter when he declared in a council in Jerusalem that all, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved by God’s grace alone.  However, later, when both Peter and Paul were in Antioch, Peter gave in to pressure from certain men, the circumcision party, who came teaching falsely, requiring circumcision and other works for one to be saved, thereby denying salvation by grace through faith, apart from works.  So Paul opposed Peter to his face, publicly, even using Peter’s own words to correct him.  Paul was bold , because Peter’s betrayal of the Gospel was a condemning error, for Peter, and anyone else who believed it.  For the sake of Peter and the whole Church, Paul corrects him, in essence repeating what Jesus had years before said to Peter:  Get behind me Satan – you have in mind the things of men, and not the things of God. 
     Do you remember that failure of Peter?  It actually follows right after today’s Gospel reading.  Peter by the revelation of the Father makes the good confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, a confession of faith that Jesus praises in the highest terms.  But right after that, when Jesus starts to explain what being the Christ means, that is, when Jesus starts to tell them of His coming Cross, Peter falls from his lofty pedestal.  Listen again.  [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 
     21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
     We’re beginning to see a pattern in the life of Peter.  It almost seems like for every God-given good work that Peter does, along comes a failure, a denial, a betrayal of the Good News that God had used to save Peter, a twisting of the truth that Peter had just confessed.  Sound familiar?  Well, this pattern makes Peter just like Paul.  For Paul is the Apostle who, in Romans chapter 7, confesses that his whole life is a constant struggle with sin.  The good that Paul wants to do, this he does not do.  The evil, (and there is nothing more evil than perverting the free Gospel of forgiveness into a false teaching of works righteousness), the evil that I do not want to do, this I find myself doing.  In the end, as he describes his own struggle with sin, Paul cries out, “who will save me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Which is another way of saying what Peter said in one of his better moments:  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus."
     Why did our readings end before Peter’s failures were told?  Did our lectionary committee decide to gloss over the failures of Peter and Paul, not wanting to sully this day when we commemorate them?  More importantly, should we put a qualifier on their status as saints, because of their failures?  Not at all.  For the whole point of the ministry that God gave Peter and Paul is to teach this very thing, that salvation is, from start all the way to the finish line, only through the grace of Jesus.  Nothing excuses the betrayals of Peter.  Or Paul.  We should be appalled and frightened to know that they were both so susceptible to failure, even after becoming baptized believers.  Appalled, but not surprised.  The difficult truth of Christian living this side of paradise is that we are at one and the same time both saints and sinners.  Baptized believers are at the same time forgiven, beloved children of God, and also still hard-headed and hard-hearted sinners, deserving God’s wrath.  Simul iustus, et peccator, as Luther put it, at the same time justified and a sinner. 
     Our sins deserve punishment.  But God does not give us what we deserve.  We need to be clear, God does not excuse any sin.  No excuses, God hates sin.  God does not excuse our sin, but rather He takes it away.  God washes it away, forgives it for you and me and Peter and Paul, forgiving because Jesus has already paid the full price for all human sin.  This is what Peter meant when He said Jesus saves through grace.  Peter was referring to the forgiveness of sins, God’s free gift, given to all who believe, salvation completely apart from the merits of our works. 
     Sin is horrible.  All the pain in the world, all the hurt, all the death, is ultimately caused by sin.  Sin is horrible.  But God is greater.  In fact, the reality of Saints Peter and Paul continuing to struggle with terrible sins throughout their lives affirms the central truth of the Gospel, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from our works, saved always, from beginning to end, through the grace of Jesus.  It is not that we were forgiven back in time, when we were a sinner, but now we really aren’t sinners and really don’t need to hear of Christ crucified.  No, God’s grace is needed daily, for we daily sin much, and deserve nothing but condemnation.  But Good News, God in Christ has overcome all our sins, and continues to overcome all our sins, and will on the Last Day finally and totally free us completely, from all our sins, forevermore.  What a gracious God we have. 
     Peter and Paul are indeed rightly called saints, which means holy ones of God.  So are you and all who trust in Jesus alone.  (So is little Easton Ostrom, newly baptized, God’s newest saint, a holy one of God because Christ has come to him also with His forgiving word, in and with the water). (So will be, Lord willing little Easton Ostrom, to be baptized at Trinity this morning, God’s newest saint, a holy one of God because Christ will come to him also with His forgiving word, in and with the water.)  Saints are those whom God calls saints, for salvation belongs to God and to his Christ, and to everyone to whom the Holy Spirit delivers it, by His Word and Sacraments. 
     Like Peter and Paul, your sins are terrible, shameful, frightful.  We should not worship the idols of comfort and wealth.  We should not hate, should not hurt, should not speak ill of others.  We who have been brought into the Body of Christ know better, and yet we still betray our Savior.  If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us, and we have no part with Christ.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  These are the keys that Jesus gave to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, the authority to loose, or forgive the sins of all who repent, and to retain, to bind on to them the sins of those who refuse to repent, in hope that this frightful act will bring them to repentance, so they can be forgiven.  This is God’s goal, which He enacts through His Church, in the preaching of His pastors, and in the lives of His saints, day after day. 
     So, there is no point, and no need, for us to try to hide our sins.  Every day, moment by moment, we are called to live without sin.  And also, every day, moment by moment, we are called to confess our sins, in order to receive again the grace of Jesus, which is the only thing that can truly empower us to get up again and try to live rightly.  Every day, every moment, saved through the grace of Jesus, and living from the grace of Jesus. 
     Such is the God we have, the God who has won us for Himself by sending Jesus to us.  The God who sent Peter and Paul.  Apostle simply means “sent one,” a title we reserve for those men sent directly by Jesus Himself, the original architects of His Church.   Peter and Paul were “apostled,” sent, to build God’s Church.  And our God is still sending, sending His Word, sending pastors, sending His people, sending you into your daily life, rejoicing in His great love and declaring it, day by day.  As the Psalmist wrote in our Introit, “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”  And the most marvelous work of the Lord is the salvation He has won for us in Christ, for we are saved through the grace of Jesus, Amen. 

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