Dear Friends in Christ,
I want to share with you this month a wonderful portion of sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German Lutheran of the early 20th century who was an outspoken opponent of Nazism and Adolf Hitler. He preached this sermon in 1933 in Berlin, on the Gospel text of Matthew 16:13-18.
I especially want to share this as an ongoing reminder to us of what we are given to do: we are given faith and lips which are to confess Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world from Sin. Using this, Christ builds His Church. We don’t look to how things are going in any sort of worldly sense; instead we merely ask ourselves, “are we confessing Jesus Christ and His Word to each other and the world?” If yes, then we are doing what God has given us to do. As Bonhoeffer says below, “Christ builds.”
Peace in Christ,
…Jesus himself puts the decisive question, for which the disciples had been waiting: “Who do people say that the Son of man is?” Answer: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Opinions, nothing but opinions; one could extend this list of opinions as much as one wanted…some say you are a great man, some say you are an idealist, some say you are a religious genius, some say you are a great champion and hero, who will lead us to victory and greatness. Opinions, more or less serious opinions–but Jesus does not want to build his church on opinions. And so he addresses himself directly to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” In this inevitable confrontation with Christ there can be no “perhaps” or “some say,” no opinions but only silence or the answer which Peter gives now: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Here in the midst of human opinions and views, something quite new suddenly becomes visible. Here God’s name is named, here the eternal is pronounced, here the mystery is recognized. Here is no longer human opinion, but precisely the opposite, here is divine revelation and confession of faith. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
What is the difference between Peter and the others? Is he of such heroic nature that he towers over the others? He is not. Is he endowed with such unheard of strength of character? He is not. Is he gifted with unshakable loyalty? He is not. Peter is nothing, nothing but a person confessing his faith, a person who has been confronted by Christ and who has recognized Christ, and who now confesses his faith in him, and this confessing Peter is called the rock on which Christ will build his church. Peter’s church–that means the church of rock, the church of the confession of Christ. Peter’s church, that does not mean a church of opinions and views, but the church of the revelation; not a church in which what “people say” is talked about but the church in which Peter’s confession is made anew and passed on; the church which has no other purpose in song, prayer, preaching, and action than to pass on its confession of faith; the church which is always founded on rock as long as it remains within these limits, but which turns into a house built on sand, which is blown away by the wind, as soon as it is foolhardy enough to think that it may depart from or even for a moment neglect this purpose.
But Peter’s church–this is not something which one can say with untroubled pride. Peter, the confessing, believing disciple, Peter denied his Lord on the same night as Judas betrayed him; in that night he stood at the fire and felt ashamed when Jesus stood before the high priest; he is the man of little faith, the timid man who sinks into the sea; Peter is the disciple whom Jesus threatened: “Get thee behind me Satan”; it is he who later was again and again overcome by weakness, who again and again denied and fell, a weak, vacillating man, given over to the whim of the moment. Peter’s church, that is the church which shares these weaknesses, the church which itself again and again denies and falls, the unfaithful, fainthearted, timid church which again neglects its charge and looks to the world and its opinions. Peter’s church, that is the church of all those who are ashamed of their Lord when they should stand firm confessing him.
But Peter is also the man of whom we read: “He went out and wept bitterly.” Of Judas, who also denied the Lord, we read: “He went out and hanged himself.” That is the difference. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Peter’s church is not only the church which confesses its faith, nor only the church which denies its Lord; it is the church which can still weep. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Ps.137:1). This is the church; for what does this weeping mean other than that one has found the way back, than that one is on the way home, than that one has become the prodigal son who falls to his knees weeping before his father? Peter’s church is the church with that godly sadness which leads to joy.
It does indeed seem very uncertain ground to build on, doesn’t it? And yet it is bedrock, for this Peter, this trembling reed, is called by God, caught by God, held by God. “You are Peter,” we all are Peter; not the Pope, as the Roman Catholics would have it; not this person or that, but all of us, who simply live from our confession of faith in Christ, as the timid, faithless, fainthearted, and yet who live as people sustained by God.
But it is not we who build. He builds the church. No human being builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever intends to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess–he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him–that he may build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that from a human point of view great times for the church are actually times of demolition. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province.
Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions, don’t ask for judgments, don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Let the church remain the church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord, from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you. Death, the greatest heir of everything that has existence, here meets its end. Close by the precipice of the valley of death, the church is founded, the church which confesses Christ as its life. The church possesses eternal life just where death seeks to take hold of it; and death seeks to take hold of it precisely because it possesses life. The Confessing Church is the eternal church because Christ protects it. Its eternity is not visible in this world. It is unhindered by the world. The waves pass right over it and sometimes it seems to be completely covered and lost. But the victory is its because Christ its Lord is by its side and he has overcome the world of death. Do not ask whether you can see the victory; believe in the victory and it is yours…