Sermon for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul
Jeremiah 26:12-16 + Acts 12:1-11 + Matthew 16:13-20
Dear saints of God, who have been sanctified, that is, made holy, by the blood of Jesus Christ and by the washing of water with the Word: Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Through the Word of God that they preached, you have become saints. And they, in their writings, referred to you baptized believers in Christ as saints. So we will not hesitate to give them the same distinction.
We celebrate their feast day because of their faithful witness of Christ: a testimony they left behind for us both in their preaching and in their blood, which was willingly shed for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, and also for our sake, so that you and I may know that what they preached was worth dying for. They serve as teachers; they serve as examples, specifically for those who hold the office of the ministry as they did, but also for all Christians in their vocations.
Peter and Paul were equals, but they weren’t the same in every way. Peter was a Jewish fisherman from Galilee, a married man; Paul was a Jewish tent-maker from Tarsus who was born a Roman citizen, a man who chose to remain unmarried. Peter was impetuous, quick to speak and act, down to earth and simple in his style of preaching and writing; Paul was a scholar, an intellectual, whose writings were more complex. Peter even referred to that in his second epistle: “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
Peter and Paul were different in many ways, but they were equals in the most important way: equals in confessing Christ. They shared a common Christian confession, a common Christian ministry, and a common Christian cross.
First, they shared a common Christian confession. You heard in the Gospel Peter’s clear confession: Jesus asked His twelve apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Those few words are full of meaning. Peter was connecting all the Old Testament dots of Messianic prophecy to Jesus as the promised Savior, who was true God and true Man, who is the only hope, the only Redeemer of sinful men.
Paul, at first, denied that Jesus was the Christ and was a persecutor of Christians. But after Jesus converted him, Paul’s confession couldn’t be clearer: And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Peter and Paul confessed Jesus as the Christ by preaching against sin, by calling sinners to repentance, by teaching that sinners are justified before God by faith alone in Christ. Peter’s sermons recorded in the book of Acts are beautiful Gospel gems. Here is part of one of them: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.
Paul’s words to the Romans are just another way of saying the same thing: But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe… Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
You may remember that St. Peter himself once stumbled on this point when he was in Antioch and, for fear of the circumcision group, stopped associating with the uncircumcised Gentiles. Paul had to confront Peter on that occasion to bring him back to the truth: I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
In all things, in all articles of doctrine, Peter and Paul confessed in perfect harmony with one another, as equals who didn’t come up with their own doctrine or borrow it from others, but were given their common doctrine directly by their common Lord Jesus.
In the same way, neither of them took it upon himself to be an apostle, but they were chosen equally by Jesus and called into a common Christian ministry.
We learn in Luke 6 that Jesus personally chose twelve of His disciples, including Peter, to be apostles. The book of Acts and Paul’s own epistles tell how he, too, was directly chosen by Jesus to be an apostle, and that he didn’t get his apostolic authority from Peter or from any man, but only from Christ. In this ministry, none is superior or inferior to the other. You heard in today’s Gospel of the ministry Jesus gave to Peter: I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
The rock on which Jesus will build His church is not Peter the man, but Peter the chosen minister who confesses Jesus as the Christ. In other words, this is the ministry of Christian confession on which Jesus would build the church, the preaching ministry by which the Holy Spirit would convict sinners of their sins, and bring sinners to faith and so justify and save them. And it’s not the ministry of one man, but of all the apostles in general, as St. Paul also writes to the Ephesians: Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.
The tools of this ministry are also the same among all ministers—Peter and Paul and all ministers after them who are called by God, through the Church, into the office of the Holy Ministry. The tools are keys, the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It is the authority given by Christ to speak and to act in His name and in His place, to forgive sins to penitent sinners and to retain sins to the impenitent. It’s the ministry of Word and Sacrament that convicts sinners of their sins, calls them to repentance, and applies the righteousness of Christ to the penitent.
It was Peter who proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” It was Peter who said, “Baptism saves us.” It was Paul who spoke of baptism as the “washing of water with the word,” and as “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” It was Paul especially who taught the Corinthians about the importance of Lord’s Supper as the communion with the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. And it was both of them who emphasized the power of the Word of God to give new birth and new life.
Finally, Peter and Paul were equals in confessing Christ in that they bore a common Christian cross, the cross of suffering for the name of Christ. They bore it faithfully, even to death. You heard in the reading today from Acts how Peter was imprisoned and shackled for his confession of Christ. It wouldn’t be the last time. Jesus had told Peter ahead of time that Peter would die a martyr’s death, and after He told him that, He said to him, “Follow Me.” And Peter did follow, rejoicing that he was counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. So when, in his epistles, he encourages Christians to endure suffering patiently and joyfully for the sake of Christ, he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Paul once “boasted” of his sufferings, not to make himself look good, but to show how weak he was and how powerful Christ was to sustain him: Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? And Paul, writing to Timothy, shows us how a Christian prepares for death: I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory…For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Dear saints of God, there is so much for us to learn from St. Peter and St. Paul and from their confession of Christ. Let us honor them, not with a Sunday service, but with a lifetime of learning and studying the doctrine they have handed down to us, and by following the example they have left behind for us, their example of faith in Christ, of ongoing repentance and renewal and growth in holy living. Let us follow their example of bearing the Christian cross with patience and with joy. And let us be bold, as they were, to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, in life and in death, and in hope of the resurrection of the dead and in the blessed eternal life to come. Amen.