Peter had the right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That answer didn’t come from him – he didn’t give the right answer because he was bright and thunk it up all by his own alone self. Jesus makes it clear that the only way anyone comes to that answer is when the Father reveals it to him. So if you confess that Jesus is the Christ, that He is the Son of the living God – this is not your doing, but God’s giving. And not only the confession but also the faith that it is so, is God’s gift to you.
There have always been those who were a uncomfortable with all this gift talk going on. Jesus and all that, yes, BUT they insist, the Law is the Law and it must be obeyed. Jesus plus. Whenever you meet a Jesus plus, you’ve met a falsification of the Gospel that was entrusted to the Apostles.
So Paul and Barnabas, when they encounter the Jesus plus of the circumcision party (yes, Jesus is fine and the Gentiles can be saved through Him, PROVIDED they are circumcised and keep the law of Moses), they totally disagree. And the dispute that arose called forth the first Church Council in history. Barnabas and Paul head up to Jerusalem to present the matter to the Church there.
And there too voices were raised to insist that the Gentiles must be beholden to the Law of Moses. Against this, Peter himself stands forth and speaks utter truth. He was the first to speak to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and look at what God did in response to that. He gave to those Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) the very same gift of the Holy Spirit that He had given to the Apostles themselves, cleansing their hearts by faith. So don’t do it, Peter pleaded. Don’t lay on them that yoke that neither we nor our fathers could keep. All the law does is condemn us and show us our great sin and make us tremble. It does not and cannot save a soul, for it promises eternal life only to those who keep it wholly and none of us have or even can. Rather, we believe that we will be saved by the grace – the unmerited gift – of our Lord Jesus Christ, just as they will.
Peter’s voice, with James’ added to it, carried the day and the Jesus plus was rejected from the Church. Not Jesus and obedience, but Jesus alone, His grace alone, saves. Period.
Here Peter and Paul are at one in their proclamation. And Exhibit A was Titus who went along to that Church Council as proof of a Spirit-filled, baptized Christian, who was NOT circumcised. And so Paul’s preaching of the Gospel as Jesus and Jesus alone and his total renunciation of Jesus plus was upheld. And they went forth preaching this Apostolic Gospel confirmed by the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem.
What’s the plus you want to add to Jesus? I doubt it’s circumcision anymore. But loving the neighbor, doing good for others, these remain popular. As long as we are in the flesh, we will always be tempted to want to stand before God not only on the basis of Jesus but on the basis of Jesus plus something we do, something in us. It’s so damaging to human pride – in fact, deadly to human pride – to stand before God and have no plea except a cry for mercy on the basis of Jesus alone. To cling only to His cross and know that He alone is our forgiveness and our salvation and our hope of eternal life. To know that we not only begin as but remain all our lives beggars before God – that He cleanses our hearts through faith so that we repose our trust in absolutely nothing in us, but solely in His grace, His undeserved kindness toward us in the gift of the Savior.
How wise Mother Church to remind us of this as we come to the Supper. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, grant us peace. We come offering nothing. We come receiving all. We remain nothing but beggars and God keeps on wiping out our trust in other things as we come to rely more and more on Jesus and on Jesus alone. The longer we live with Jesus alone, the more we see how it had to be that way, for the sin in our lives is very persistent and despite our Spirit-led efforts to kill and destroy it, it keeps on keeping on. Old Augustine had it right: “If we did not remain under God’s pardon until the end, we would be tempted to attribute too much to ourselves.”
Sts. Peter and Paul not only witnessed to Jesus alone in their lives, but in their deaths. They both yielded their bodies and poured out their earthly lives in the glad confession that in Jesus and in Him alone was a life that no death could rob them of, forgiveness bigger than all the world’s sin, love stronger any hatred. They went into death without the least trust in their keeping of the Law, but with total trust in the Savior of sinners. May God grant us like trust and like bold confession and total renunciation in our lives of anything that is added to Jesus. May we be a people who say with Sts. Peter and Paul: Jesus alone. Amen.