12 March 2015

Lenten Midweek Homily III

We have heard the Lenten call of the Church summoning us back to the font, reminding us as we confess in our Catechism that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die and that a new man daily should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Which is another way of saying that something in us needs to die and something God gives us need to take its place.  Today we see this in the matter of Confession.

Not the Confession of sin, but the Confession of the holy faith, the Confession of who Jesus is and what our relationship is to Him.  Jesus is mostly silent during his mockery of a trial, but when the high priest asks him point blank:  "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?"  Jesus confesses and does not deny:  "I am.  You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God's power and coming with the clouds of heaven."  Those were the words that sealed his fate.  "Do we still need any witnesses?" cried the High Priest.  "You have heard this blasphemy.  What is your opinion?"  And they all agreed He was deserving of death.  Deserving of death because He had told the truth about Himself - a truth they did not want to hear.

And then there's Peter.  He has the opportunity to confess Jesus too.  Remember, how boldly he had said:  "Lord, even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you."  There is no reason to doubt his sincerity.  He meant it.  But when the moment came, in the flicker of the light from the fire, he withdraws into the darkness and insists:  "I do not know what you mean."  And again:  "I do not know the man."  And again with a solemn oath, calling down curses upon himself, he lies and says:  "I do not know the man."

Why?  What was it that enabled our Lord to make the good confession to the High Priest, even though that Confession meant his death?  What was it that hindered Peter from confessing and owning up that yes, he knew Jesus and further was His disciple.  We understand Peter's response all too well.  We live by nature with what was eating at him:  fear.

When push came to shove, Peter's courage failed him because he was afraid.  Afraid of suffering and most of all, afraid of death.  And that made him a captive to the fear that he served.  That's exactly what the Apostle tells us in Hebrews:  that the devil, who has the power of death, keeps in life-long slavery those whom he locks up in the fear of death.

And here is the key to our Lord's boldness.  For though He hates death, despises it, scorns it, He does not fear it.  He came into this world to destroy it.  He came among us to let it devour Him so that by taking its stinking gullet Him over whom it had NO claim, it might be destroyed forever, and so His people set free from their slavery, free from their fear.

Jesus, standing before the High Priest, knows what is about to happen.  He knows that He will yield His life upon the cross - a fragrant offering and sacrifice to His Father, His blood blotting forever the guilt of our sin and the sin of the whole world.  And He also knows and rejoices that His Father will never abandon Him to the grave.  That though death takes Him, death's bands will be burst.  The way several early fathers put it, He was death's poison pill.  Having swallowed Him down - the utterly indigestible Divine - death began to wretch and ended up vomiting up all it had swallowed.  Jesus does not fear death, because Death will never be the end of Him - or of any who are joined in living faith to Him.

But Peter has only heard that Jesus will be raised from the dead; and now that he sees the Master in the hands of those who will turn Him over to crucifixion, his heart quails and he trembles and fears and rather than in peace confessing His Lord, in terror of death he denies Him.  Jesus calls Peter to repentance with a look, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.

He wept bitter tears for his own fear and sin and cowardice, but he did not despair.  Unlike Judas.  Did the look that Jesus gave him communicate to him:  Remember, I told you you would deny me, and I was right, so you have; but remember I also told you I would rise again, and I will be right about that too!  I have prayed for you, Peter, that you faith fail not!

Think of the man we meet here on the other side of the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost!  The man who cowered before the serving girl boldly tells the crowds that day:  "This Jesus whom YOU murdered by hanging on a tree God has raised from the dead and we are all His witnesses!"

What stands in between?  The resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  And so with you and your Baptism.  For in the waters you are placed into the tomb with Christ and raised with Him as the guarantee of a life that will never end.  In the waters the Holy Spirit Himself descended upon you even as He descended on Peter and the other Apostles on Pentecost - transforming them from quavering cowards to bold confessors.  What changed was the conviction of faith that Jesus truly HAS destroyed death's power by enduring it.

Years later Peter was told:  Sacrifice to the Emperor and deny this Jesus or die!  And in the grace of God he refused.  He refused and he went the way of his Lord.  Even to being crucified, though upside down because he did not feel himself worthy to die the same as his Lord.  But in the end, Peter looked the fear of death in the face and laughed at it.  "You can't scare me this time!  I know Who lives forevermore and I know you have NO power over Him and I am in Him and His body and His blood are in me.  You lose, even as you take me.  I am not afraid of you."

Something has to die and something rises as a gift of God to us.  Slavery to fear of death gets left behind in the baptismal water, and courage to boldly confess the Master is poured out fresh each day.  Lent calls us to return to this gift of the water - to embrace the death of fear and the resurrection of bold confession in the Spirit's power.  O Lord, set us free and loose our tongues to confess!  Amen.


Anonymous said...

What wonderful consolation. I too am baptized into the Victor over death.

Unknown said...

Thank you for an edifying sermon. But there is something that has always bothered me; that is when we are made equal to the Apostles, as in, “In the waters the Holy Spirit Himself descended upon you even as He descended on Peter and the other Apostles on Pentecost - transforming them from quavering cowards to bold confessors. “ This would justify the countless sermons I have heard about the mighty acts of the Apostles, berating the listeners for their weak faith and inability to do the same.
The fact is that our Lord counted baptism so important that it was the first thing He did when He met the Apostles on the day of His resurrection. John 20:22, “When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” But this did not transform them to “bold confessors”, even as it appears to have little effect on the infant or grown-up who has just been baptized. At some point Peter said, John 21:3, “I am going fishing”. He did not know what to believe or hope for any more. And just before our Lord’s ascension, the Apostles said to Him, Acts 1:6, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” So they were still clueless. The Lord responds, Acts 1:8, ”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. Peter felt this “power” a little early, so he talked the other Apostles into electing a successor to Judas.
I believe that one of the reasons for the 50 days between our Lord’s resurrection and Pentecost is to demonstrate that during that time the Apostles were just like ordinary Christians today. This makes it clear that we should not despair because we cannot equal their labors. The Apostles became “bold confessors” when they “received power”, very special power that nobody has ever received before or since. For this reason, God inspired the author of Revelation to write, 21:14, “And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve name of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb”.
When the day of Pentecost had come, there was no mistaking the power that had come on the Apostles. The Holy Spirit had already transformed them into members of the Kingdom of God, when He came to dwell in them on Easter Sunday. On Pentecost He “came upon them” bringing the special powers that transformed them into “bold confessors” and workers of miracles. If it seems that one should not make a case for the mere difference between “in” and “upon”, here are the words of our Lord concerning the Holy Spirit, spoken on the day before He died, John 14:17, “You know Him, because He abides with you, and He will be in you”.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart