Monday, January 19, 2015

Sermon January 18, 2015 - The Confession of St Peter

The Confession of St Peter January 18, 2015
Acts 4:8-13; Psalm 18:1-7, 17-20; 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, Matthew 16:13-19
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.


I'll say that again.
Church unity is not about being nice!
Nor is any unity, when you come to think about it.

Unity is built upon something.
It can be built upon parent-child relationships.
It can be built upon vows of mutual love and support
between a wife and a husband.
It can be built among a community of people
with shared history, shared ideals, shared goals, shared values.
But it cannot be built upon being nice.
Not that it's okay to be mean.
But being nice is not just good enough for unity.
And this is especially true of the unity of the church.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins today.
As someone who was married to a Roman Catholic,
and as someone who has many friends from other Christian communities,
and as someone who loves the Church,
I have made ecumenical relationships and cooperation
a significant part of my ministry.
When I was in Williamsport, I served for ten years
on the Board of the United Churches of Lycoming County,
and for a few years I served as President of the Board.
I have attended Orthodox vespers, Roman Catholic masses,
ecumenical worship services in many churches.
So I have a stake in the visible unity of the Church,
and I long for it.

On the other hand,
I am part of the brokenness of the Church,
and I have actively contributed to that brokenness.
In 2012, I left the ordained ministry
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
to become a pastor in the new North American Lutheran Church,
which broke off from the ELCA in 2010.
Granted, part of this was a matter of convenience.
I needed a call, you as an NALC congregation were offering a call,
and we both felt good about each other.
But there was more than that.
I was not convinced that the ELCA was a unified church anymore.
We were teaching too many different things at the same time.
We could not interpret Scripture or our Lutheran Confessions together.
We had put ourselves in a position where certain pastors of the church
would be glad to speak God's blessing over a same-sex union
and certain pastors of the church would not.
If you've got some pastors saying 'blessed' and some saying 'not blessed,
who can you trust about what God blesses?

But perhaps most importantly,
I was concerned that the truth of the Gospel was in jeopardy,
I am not saying that my colleagues were evil people,
or even that there were no Christians among them.
Far from it!
But there were certain pastors and congregations
and even bishops who were saying things about God
which were completely contrary to the Bible, the Creeds,
and the Lutheran Confessions.
I'm not going to go into the details,
but there are plenty of them.
We who objected were often told
that we were 'intolerant' and not acting in the spirit of 'inclusivity,'
that we were 'literalists' and 'fundamentalists' and 'hate-filled.'

And so I was willing to embrace disunity with the ELCA
for the sake of the unity of the Church.
That is absolutely nonsensical and utterly stupid
unless you believe that church unity is not about being 'nice.'
Unity has to be built on something.
Something solid.
And so what constitutes the unity of the Church?

Jesus is walking with the disciples,
and he asks them, 'Who do people say that I am?'
And they report what the people say,
that Jesus is a prophet, someone who speaks God's word.
Some identify him with John the Baptist,
some with Jeremiah, some with Elijah.
But then he asks them something far different.
'Who do YOU say that I am?'

We can only imagine how the disciples felt at that moment.
They had been walking in Jesus' dust,
tramping after him all through Galilee
and into the region of Tyre and Sidon
and now following him to Caesarea Philippi,
and they finally were confronted with the question
which they must have been asking themselves from the beginning:
Who is this man?
Is he a teacher, a prophet, a faith-healer,
a social reformer, a moral example, an all-around nice guy?
Or is he something more than all of these?
Is he the someone that Israel, and yes, the world,
had been hoping for all of these years?
Is he God himself come to save his people?
For a moment, no one speaks.
And then Simon Peter says,
'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.'

Bold Peter, impetuous Peter,
Peter who tried to walk on water like his Lord,
Peter who promised to die with Jesus
and then denied him three times in the courtyard;
it is upon his confession that the unity of the Church is built.
'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.'

These words of an uneducated fisherman
constitute the unity of the Church;
they are the rock upon which the One Church is built.
This is the word which the Church preaches about the Word himself,
the word about the Word in which we put our faith.

If Jesus is a prophet, a social reformer,
a moral example, or just an all-around nice guy,
he is of no help to us.
We can follow his teaching,
but we have no assurance that God helps us or saves us or forgives us.

But if he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,
then we know who God is, because he reveals himself to us.
The Church is the community that confesses with Peter
that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of the Living God.

This confession living in people
constitutes the unity of the Church.
The Creeds of the Church
confess this faith while preserving it from error.
'We believe in one God,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.'
We are one with all who confess this, whether living or dead.
So I am in union with Peter, and with St Augustine,
and with Martin Luther, and all the forgotten anonymous Christians
who staked their lives to Jesus the Messiah.
It is why I am in union with Pope Francis,
and with Bishop Bradosky,
and with the LCMS,
and with the Orthodox priest down the street,
and with the Presbyterians
and the Bible churches (at least those who agree with the Creeds).
And yes, I'm also in union with the many, many, and perhaps most in the ELCA,
pastors, bishops, laypeople,
who have the confession living in them.
We are one with all who confess the name of Jesus.
But then why so much disunity in the Church?
Why can't we commune among other people who also confess Christ?
Why different denominations and even different denominations with the same name?
Why lots of church buildings on one street rather than one big one?
Well, the simple answer is sin,
and we can point to a lot of symptoms of that disease;
racism, doctrinal differences, cultural differences,
historical distrust, worship wars,
and maybe just people who plain don't like each other.
But another way to think about it is this:
Only people who share a basic unity
can argue with each other about what unity means.
Only people who are agreed on the basics
can fight about different interpretations.
And so, in a way,
the disunity which presents itself
can indeed be a sign of unity.
Sounds weird, huh?
But I think it's true.

'Church unity is not about being nice.'
That applies to congregational life as well.
I think this congregation is a very nice one,
and I treasure that.
We call ourselves a 'faith family,'
and I feel that.
But the faith family is not based on our being nice.
It's not only our union with other denominations,
but our union within this congregation
that is built on the confession of Christ.
We accept people into this congregation
not based upon whether or not they're nice
or whether we feel nice towards them,
but based upon their confession of the Creed.
We share the peace with each other
and we're not saying, 'Hey, I like you,'
but, 'I recognize you as a brother or sister,
because Christ has redeemed us both.'
Sometimes I can be annoying.
Sometimes some of you can be annoying.
But we are called to love each other and serve each other
because Christ Jesus has loved and served all of us.

And so, as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes around again,
we pray.
We pray that the Church would be made one
not simply into big organizations,
but as believers living in the one confession
which Saint Peter made:
that this Jesus of Nazareth
is the anointed one of God, the Son of the living God,
the one who brings salvation to human beings.
And let the people of God say,