“You are Peter…Get behind me Satan!”  What is the Church to say about itself?

Tracy Niven
Wednesday 4 November 2020

Preacher: Revd John Bremner, United Reformed Church Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Officer
Readings: Numbers 22: 20-50; Matthew 16, 13-23

My friends, I want to start this sermon with a word of thanks to the University Chaplain for his kind invitation to preach here today. It is a great honour to be invited into this pulpit, but I will leave it to you, the listeners, to decide whether I have come anywhere close to repaying that honour with a sermon worth listening to!

Today is All Saints Day when the Church gives thanks for the witness of Christians down the ages, and gives thanks also for its present day communion with those saints; tomorrow is All Souls Day, when many Christians will remember the souls of the departed – and in many countries will pray for those souls, hoping thereby to help those souls enter heaven. Today is also ‘Reformation Sunday’, and the fact that Reformation Sunday comes at the same time as All Saints Day and All Souls Day is no accident, as we shall see.

St. Andrews was the scene of many events connected to the growth of the Reformation movement in Scotland in the 16th century; but I am sure you are all aware of that. Three years ago, I was among the congregation at Holy Trinity Church, here in St. Andrews, when Archbishop Rowan Williams preached a sermon marking the five hundredth anniversary of the start ‘The Reformation’. In that sermon, he spoke about a profound sense of betrayal felt by the general populace of northern Europe, and he offered this as one of the factors in the success of the Reformation: to put it bluntly, the Church had failed to live up to its calling, and people knew it! The Church, therefore, had to be reformed, renewed, put back on track. Rowan Williams’ sermon was a reminder to us that the Reformation was a multi-faceted series of events, rather than something which can be reduced to a single issue. Today, therefore, I make no claim to speak about the Reformation as a whole, but I invite you to explore one aspect of the Reformation which, it seems to me, still speaks to us in our own day. The question I ask is this: “What is the Church entitled to say about itself?”

Whatever else may have contributed to the start of the Reformation, one thing is clear: the catalyst which sparked Martin Luther into action was the fundraising effort aimed at getting the German public to contribute to the building of a new basilica in Rome. A Dominican friar, by the name of Johann Tetzel, was promising that monetary offerings to help this project would allow souls in purgatory to go to heaven. His campaign motto was “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/ the soul from purgatory springs.” But this raises the question: Is the Church entitled to claim this power for itself – to decide whether someone leaves purgatory and goes to heaven? Is this what Jesus meant by talking about ‘the keys of the kingdom’?

And this is the link between the Feast Days of All Saints and All Souls, and Reformation Sunday. Luther, seeing in Tetzel’s campaign something which provoked questions, posted (so it is claimed) 95 ‘theses for debate’ on the Wittenberg church door on October 31st, 1517; in them he raised questions regarding the right of the Church, and of the Pope, to declare forgiveness of sins in exchange for payment of money (27); the authority of the pope to use ‘the power of the keys’ to bypass true repentance and God’s judgement (12 & 75); the right of the Church to declare forgiveness of sins without placing humanity before the cross of Christ (92, 93).

We may doubt that Luther understood where these questions would lead him; it was not his intention at that point to challenge the whole edifice of Catholic theology! His chief concern at the time was to come to greater prominence as a young professor at Wittenberg University – the posting of ‘Theses for Debate’ was a common occurrence, and was aimed at encouraging particularly senior students and young professors to engage in public debate and become better known; and of course, Luther, as an Augustinian monk, was always on the lookout for ways to get ‘one up’ on the Dominicans! But without doubt, the way in which money was raised for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica provoked important questions, which led, eventually, to a fundamental change in the church in Western Europe.

Sola Scriptura

One of the foundations of the Reformation is the phrase ‘sola scriptura’; this phrase is shorthand for saying that the Holy Scriptures are authoritative over all other sources of knowledge about God. So one of the questions raised by Luther, during the development of his theological position, was whether the Church is allowed to pick and choose which bits of Scripture to emphasise and which to ignore, when speaking about the Church, or anything else for that matter.

An example of this is easy to find if we look at the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Perhaps some of you have been there. Around the base of the dome, above the high altar, is written in letters almost six feet high Jesus’ words: “Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petrum aedificabo Ecclesiam meam” – “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”. Jesus here uses a play on words between Peter’s name and the word rock: rock (English) = cephas (Aramaic) = petros (Greek and Latin). This play on words can be taken to indicate that the Church was to be built on Peter, and the Latin perhaps points us in that direction; but equally, it can be taken to indicate that the Church is to be built on Peter’s confession of faith, which was “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. My reading of the Greek New Testament, for what it is worth, would point us in this latter direction. I leave you with that to ponder; but I would remind you that one of the great slogans of the sixteenth century was “Ad fontes!” – back to the original! So Greek trumps Latin in Biblical interpretation.

More to the point for us today is the complete lack of any reference in St. Peter’s, Rome, to Jesus’ next words specifically directed to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance (stumbling block) to me….” Why concentrate on one phrase, to the complete exclusion of the other? Are Jesus’ two phrases, both spoken to Peter, not of equal importance? Why are these latter words not proclaimed by the Catholic Church (or by any other Church, for that matter), as often as the former? This brings us to another important aspect of Reformation thought.

‘Iustitia extra nos’ and ‘simil iustus et peccator’

During the course of his development of a distinct theological position, Luther became convinced that, in effect, these two phrases from Matthew chapter 16 are, at one and the same time, of equal importance and are equally true. In other words, the Christian, even when justified and in a right relationship with God through faith, remains 100% a sinner: simil iustus et peccator. This turns on its head the common assumption among many Christians, that our sanctification, our ‘becoming better people’, our ‘growth in grace’, is part of the process which puts us right with God.

Luther rejected that version of salvation. Instead, he insisted that our ‘justice’, that is to say: “that which puts us right with God”, is not and never shall be ‘internal’ to us. It is always ‘extra nos’, always outside us; it is to be found not in us but only, and exclusively, in Jesus Christ – another Reformation theme: solus Christus. We come before God not in our own righteousness, but only in the righteousness of Christ. Our hope of salvation must never be looked for in ourselves, not even in the strength of our faith, and certainly not in the Church! It is to be found only in Christ. We remain sinners, even when, in Christ, we are in a right relationship with God through faith – sola fides! Sanctification comes afterwards – and is never to be the basis of our hopes, because in this life we can never know how ‘sanctified’ we are: that is something only God can know.

For Luther, then, Peter is at one and the same time both (potentially) the rock upon which the Church will be built through his confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and also Satan, the stumbling block, the sinner whose pride in his own position as ‘leader of Christ’s disciples’ makes him blind to the realities of the cross.

My friends, we need to heed this warning! The Christian life is a constant experience of two conflicting realities: on the one hand, the saving confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and, on the other,  the realisation that we remain, in ourselves, 100% sinful. Pride in our own faith is a trap! It blinds us to the cross as the sole focus of salvation. Likewise, any claim by the Church, as an institution, to be the focus of our attention will do the same! As Luther came to see, the Church is not to proclaim itself, for the Church consists 100% of sinners, even if we are sinners who are put right with God through faith.

We started this sermon with the question: “What is the Church entitled to say about itself?” In one sense, the answer, according to the Reformers, is “Nothing”! There is, at the end of the day, no place in Reformation theology for the phrase ‘The Church teaches’; for the church’s task is to hand on only what it has learned from the Biblical witness about Jesus Christ. The Church is not called to proclaim its own importance or glory or egocentric certainties. It is called to proclaim Jesus Christ.

Our reading from the Old Testament would appear to give this same clear answer: “You shall speak only the word that I tell you.” (Numbers 22, 35 & co.)

The passage we heard from the Book of Numbers is part of a long and rather complex story, but basically, Balaam had been asked by King Balak of Moab to come and curse the Israelites who had arrived from Egypt and were occupying Moab. Who Balaam was, and what religious or political authority he had is a matter for another time; what matters for us today is that Balaam was given strict instructions by God as to what he was to say to Balak and to Balak’s associates.

This matter of being obedient to the Word which God gives us to say is more than just a question about preaching styles! Some preachers are great orators; some take their listeners on a tour of the imagination; some regard it as their task to talk about their own experiences as a template for how others are to understand God. In one sense, the style does not matter. What matters is whether the preacher speaks the words given by God, or, instead, goes off on his or her own, exploring all the highways and byways of human thought, the latest philosophical or social novelty etc., so determined to be ‘relevant’ to the world that the fundamental content of the Gospel message is lost.

For the Reformers of the sixteenth century, what mattered most was that the message proclaimed to the world should not be based on what seemed sensible or interesting or obvious to the human mind, but based only on the Biblical message, which speaks of what God has done, is doing and will do, through Jesus Christ. “You shall speak only the word that I tell you.” At the end of the day, that brings us back to ‘sola scriptura’ as the ‘canon’ or ‘rule’ by which what we say is to be judged.

So when we return to our question – “What is the Church to say about itself?” – our answer has to be something like this: “The Church is a servant of the Word of God, and must humbly place itself under the authority of that Word”. “What is the Church entitled to say about itself?” Only that its sole purpose is to proclaim Jesus Christ, her crucified, risen, and glorified Lord, who will come upon the clouds of heaven to judge the living and the dead. All else is secondary.

And sometimes, my friends, even a talking donkey, such as myself, may be used by God to remind his people that this is so. Amen.

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