Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, June 28, 2020

Text: Matthew 16:21-23

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Dear Friends in Christ. The last two weekends of our summer sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed were devoted to messages on the First Article, meaning they revolved around God the Father. Two weeks ago, we spent our time on a text that displayed God the Father as Almighty; last week’s text highlighted how he is the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Today we make a shift and move into the Second Article, devoted to God the Son. The first and lead-off statement we confess in the Second Article is beautiful in its clarity and simplicity. We declare: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”    

Before we talk more about this phrase, its meaning, and how it ties into today’s text – as well as the immeasurable impact it has on our everyday life as Christians – allow me to make a couple of general remarks on the Second Article.

The first has to do with its length. Maybe you’ve never really thought about it, but if you have you know that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are disproportionate in the words allotted to each person of the Trinity. God the Father gets the least words. God the Holy Spirit gets more. But God the Son by far gets the most.

And for good reason (the second remark). Jesus Christ is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. Without a proper understanding of who he is and what he’s done, there is no Christianity.

The early Christian Church certainly understood this, which is why they wanted to be crystal clear in the words they chose to convey what they believed and confessed. Because in those early centuries there was a lot of confusion and misunderstandings about the person and work of Jesus Christ both inside and outside the church. 

There still is. This past week I watched a number of you-tube videos produced by Christian groups who took to the streets of New York and London and various Universities. They asked random people the simple question of who they believed Jesus Christ to be, and what he was to them personally. As you might imagine, answers ran the gamut.

There were those who questioned his very existence. There were those who recognized the name and believed in him as a historical figure but didn’t know much more than that. Or care. There were those who acknowledged he made an impact on the world with his teachings. And then there were those who confessed him to be the Son of God and their Savior. But, at least in the interviews I sampled, they were in the minority.

All of which is to say, we who bear his name as Christians cannot ever stop reeducating ourselves on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We do this for two reasons. First to constantly appreciate him and strengthen our own relationship with him. To know him is to adore him. Second, so in our words and actions we can always represent him well to a world that does not know him like we do; we who gratefully confess:  

I BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST, HIS ONLY SON, OUR LORD

Let’s turn to our text. It is a clear exposition on the opening phrase of the Second Article. It is also a cautionary tale for us on how even those closest to Jesus can still misunderstand him. So, we reiterate how important it is to always be reviewing who and what Jesus is to us.

Here is the background:  Kind of like the you-tube question mentioned a moment ago, Jesus had just asked his disciples who people thought he was. Peter, as spokesman for all the disciples and as empowered by the Holy Spirit, made a bold and beautiful confession of faith, much along the opening lines of the Second Article: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” he said.

This was a turning point as to the depth of information Jesus shared with them. What he had only implied before, Jesus now lays out clearly. “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” 

What strikes us immediately is how Jesus doesn’t just speak of what will happen, but what must happen.  He says that he must suffer, and he must be killed, and he must rise again. Note that Jesus does not present any of these things as mere possibilities. They are necessities.

What made all this necessary, of course, is us. Or to be more specific, our sin. As Isaiah the prophet puts it so beautifully: “He was pierced for OUR transgressions, he was crushed for OUR iniquities; the punishment that brought US peace was upon him, and by his wounds WE are healed…”  What both Jesus and Isaiah describe is the central teaching of the Christian faith. In theological terms, we call this the doctrine of the “Vicarious Atonement.” Since it does not often come up in casual conversation, let’s explore this expression…

The root word of “vicarious” is “vicar.” Literally it means “substitute.” If we divide the word “atonement” into three syllables and throw in a couple of hyphens, we come up with “at-one-ment.”  The teaching of the Vicarious Atonement is the basic Gospel message: Christ, as our substitute, makes us “at one” with God through his life, death, and resurrection.

The Vicarious Atonement speaks not only of God’s plan to save us, but it also speaks volumes of his great love for us. 

We are the ones whom God asks to be perfect and holy and sinless. We can’t, so God became flesh in Jesus Christ. The Son of God – true God in and of himself – broke into our time and our space and came to our planet for the expressed purpose of becoming our “vicar” – our substitute. And as our substitute he lived the life God demands of us but which we cannot give him.

Having done that, Jesus then – again as our substitute – paid out the wages of our sin by dying on the cross. Should have been us, but it wasn’t, because “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The result of this necessary sacrifice? The words of the hymnist come to mind: “Through Jesus blood and merit I am at peace (“at one”) with God.”

This is what Jesus came to do. He came to live and die so that we might die and live. The only way to accomplish this was through his sacrifice on our behalf.

But all this talk of sacrifice did not sit well with at least one of Jesus’ disciples. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” 

From everything we learn of him in Scripture, we know Peter to be a devout man of God and a pillar of the early church. We also know that at times he could be impatient and impulsive. In that sense, Peter was just being typical Peter here. He engages his mouth before his mind is in gear, speaking before processing what Jesus had just told them.

Peter undoubtedly thought he was doing the noble thing by intervening in a conversation he must have thought was taking a decidedly morbid turn.

The truth is that Peter was being used, as Jesus clearly pointed out. What Peter said was not helpful. It was not uplifting. It was not encouraging. It was absolutely Satanic. And deserving of Jesus’ immediate and sharp rebuke.

Because Peter’s suggestion to Jesus was essentially that he take the route of self-preservation (which Jesus referred to as “the things of men”) rather than fully carry out the Vicarious Atonement (“the things of God”). Had Jesus listened to Peter, our lives – now and eternally – would be entirely different.

But he didn’t. Jesus’ resolve held true. And as a result, we are saved. Eternally. What wondrous love is this?

But the story does not end there. We are not in heaven yet. There we will enjoy the absence and endlessness of time. We remain on this earth. Here we mark time in hours and days and years and decades. So, in the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. This has special meaning for us in the present.

Depending upon the context, the word “lord” can mean a number of things in the Bible. But when we apply it to Jesus it means we know him to be the ultimate authority in our lives. Our benevolent Master.   The one we willingly place ourselves under and order our lives around in profound appreciation for what he has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

In the text we just looked at Jesus spoke of the necessity of his sacrifice for us. In the verses that follow our text, Jesus goes on to speak of the sacrifice involved for us as we follow him as our Lord. This is just a part of what he says: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…”

To follow Jesus means to go where he goes and do what he does. It is the mature, spiritual version of the children’s game, “Follow the Leader.” Jesus tells us follow his will and his example. Even when it may be uncomfortable. Even when it may be unpopular. Even when it may seemingly be inconvenient.

Basic and fundamental to our decision-making process must be the sincere question, “What would my Savior have me do?” We ask this not because we have to earn Jesus’ favor. The fact is there is absolutely nothing we can do to make Jesus love us more than he already loved us – and demonstrated on the cross. 

No, we ask that question because Jesus is our Lord. We know what he has done for us. And we love him for it. How can we not? And we know living for him and through him always brings him honor, and brings us blessings. 

So, what do we believe? We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. And we believe everything contained within that clear and concise declaration of faith.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Amen.