Editor's Note: Prof. John T. Pless preached this sermon at a Continuing Education course on Hermann Sasse last week. It touches on the important issue of the continued necessity to confess Christ to a world gone awry. It was preached at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Nashville, TN on July 10, 2013.
Text: Matthew 16:13-17
—by John T. Pless
Jesus puts the question to his disciples, a question that will not go away: "Who do men say that I am?" Whether on the History Channel, in popular magazines, scholarly seminars, or chance conversations, it is an enduring inquiry, this question about Jesus. The disciples chime in with their speculative answers: "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets." The answers are even more diverse today: "Some say a Galilean peasant turned revolutionary, others say a wandering sage imparting parables of wisdom, yet others a misguided mystic who thought himself the Messiah." The question of Jesus evokes response; it is either denial or confession.
At Caesarea Philippi, Peter confesses. That is, Peter repeats that has been revealed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Peter says back to the Lord and to the world what God has revealed. This week, we've been studying Sasse who teaches us that this is precisely what confession is, saying back to the Lord what he has first spoken to us in his Holy Word. It is not creative wordsmithing of religious opinions. It is not cleverly devised descriptions of spiritual convictions. It is also just repeating what the Lord has first spoken to us. And this compact creed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," is, as Sasse reminds us, the basis of all true creeds and confessions of the Holy Church.
Revelation and confession always go together. God reveals; we Christians confess. What we confess is not revealed by flesh and blood. It is not the product of human ingenuity or enlightenment. Jesus says to Peter: "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven." Peter's confession, like our confession, is a response to revelation. The Father revealed Jesus as his Son in the baptism in the Jordan River as his voice declared: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased," and the Spirit descended on him as a dove marking him as the anointed, the Christ, who would bear the sins of the world.
To confess is to speak the truth before God and before the world. We pride ourselves in being confessional Lutherans, but Sasse would remind us that confessional Lutherans must be confessing Lutherans. It is not enough to hold on to the Confessions a spiritual artifacts, as a legacy to be prized but never used. In a world where the tempter never tires of posing the question he first put to Eve back in the garden, "Did God really say?" it is now our turn to confess the truth to a world that has grown secure in falsehood.
In an essay written just prior to WWII in 1938, Sasse penned these words: "Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie." ((Union and Confession, 1)) In this wonderfully lucid little booklet, Sasse contrasts the truth with the lie. He notes that from the beginning the lie and the truth have done battle within the church. So it was in the days of the apostles as Paul said to the congregation at Corinth: "For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (I Cor 11:17). The lie, Sasse said, takes on various forms. There is the pious lie, that hypocrisy with which man lies to himself, to others, and even to God. The pious lie easily becomes the edifying lie. This is the lie that takes comfort in untruth. Sasse sees an example of the edifying lie embraced by medieval Christians when they trusted in the power of the saints, relying on the excess of their merit to further them in the struggle toward righteousness. The edifying lie was the lie unmasked and expelled by the Reformation. Then there is the dogmatic lie, the assertion that we have come to greater doctrinal maturity and old teachings are to be changed for a more contemporary, relevant theology. Finally there is, Sasse warned, the institutional lie when the churches embody the lie in their own life, instituting false teaching as normative. Confession rejects the lie in any of its forms and speaks the truth for Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
In one of our ordination hymns, "God of the Prophets, Bless the Prophets' Sons," we sing the line, "each age its solemn task may claim but once." Brothers, this is the age-this is the time we are given to confess Jesus Christ. It is not our task to grow the church or revive the culture. It is given us to confess Jesus Christ, God's Son who was born of Mary and put to death on a Roman cross for the sins of the world. It given us to proclaim that this Jesus and no other is Lord, for God raised him from the dead and seated him as his right hand in glory everlasting. We have been given to know this truth by the Spirit in the Gospel. And it is nothing other than a pure gift that we could not obtain for ourselves by our own reason or strength. There is no room for self-congratulating pride here but only repentance and the speaking of the truth. Our prayer can only be, "Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word," but we cannot stand on our own two feet. Left to ourselves we are overcome by apathy, weak resignation, cynicism, laziness, lifelessness, unbelief, and despair. That is why when we confess the Catechism's Third Article, "I believe that by my own reason I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel," we are not just talking about our conversion but the present tense life of faith. But God who is rich in mercy for the sake of his crucified Son does continue to call and enlighten, sanctify and keep you in the true faith. He keeps opening your mouth that your lips might show forth his praise, and there is no higher praise, no higher doxology, than the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In a few hours, we'll be on our way back to the congregations where the Lord has put us to live and work as his servants. We go in the confidence that the Father who has brought us by the Spirit to confess that his Son will guard and defend us by his word to speak his truth and not be put to shame. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
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