Summary: A midweek Lenten sermon based on John 20:21-23 that covers the Office of the Keys and Confession from Luther’s Small Catechism. Preached 3/13/2013 at Emmons Lutheran Church, Emmons, Minnesota
At the beginning of the service, I mentioned that tonight, we were going to be looking at what is perhaps the least known or understood part of the Small Catechism, which is “The Office of the Keys.” When I said that, perhaps some of you were wondering “Did Pastor Martin misplace the keys to his office already?” We have before us in the Scripture lessons and the Catechism a part of the catechism that for whatever reason over the years is either a) not covered at all or b) not taught very well. I’ve decided to break this discussion down into two basic questions, questions that perhaps some of you have as you listen to this sermon tonight: “What is the Office of the Keys?” and “What does it have to do with my life as a Christian?”
The Catechism directly answers the first one when we read the following:
“What is the Office of the Keys?” The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
Okay, so basically, it says that the church has the authority to forgive and withhold forgiveness. But wait, that kind of sounds like we’re judging right? And doesn’t the Bible say not to do that? Especially when you consider we live in a world where there are few worse things to be labeled than judgmental.
To find the answer, look at our Gospel lesson for this evening again from John 20. It’s the evening of Easter. The disciples were in a locked room, afraid of what might happen to them. And it is there that the resurrected Jesus appears to them for the first time. They see for themselves that He has indeed risen from the dead! And what does He say to them? Listen again:
Jesus said to them again “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even si O am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (v. 21-23)
Jesus gives his Apostles, that first band of followers who will lead His church, the authority to forgive and withhold forgiveness. This lines up with His instructions given for confronting a fellow believer who is wrapped up in sin in Matthew 18 when at the end of giving His instructions for reconciling with an erring brother or sister in Christ the following: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)
This idea of binding and loosing is where we get the phrase “Office of the Keys” in that there are two keys when it comes to forgiving and retaining sins, what we call the “binding key” and the “loosing key”. Look at these keys I have here. Each one of them locks or unlocks a door or some other locked item here at the church. The same idea holds true for the binding key and the loosing key.
Basically, what the church is called to do with the Office of the Keys is to declare to people the truth of God’s Word of Law and Gospel.
When we speak God’s Word of Law, (not ours keep in mind), we are not setting ourselves up as judge and jury over others. We are merely declaring the truth about sin, and what God has to say about it. We’re not judging, we are merely the messenger telling that person what God, not us, have to say about a particular sin. In particular, if someone is caught up in it, in warning them of their sin, we simply share with them what God’s Word has to say about it. For example, if we are talking with someone about stealing their neighbor’s tools, we might say “according to the 7th commandment, we are told “you shall not steal.” Yet, you walked into your neighbor’s garage and walked out with tools that do not belong to you. If the person says “I don’t care, I wanted them, so I took them”, we would exercise the binding key, in this case, telling them “because you do not want God’s forgiveness of this sin, you do not have it.” Again, its not because we don’t want to forgive that person or we think we are somehow better than they are, or that we don’t commit the kinds of sin that they do, instead we are simply telling them what God’s Word says to those who do not want to repent of their sin. Since they reject God’s forgiveness, they don’t have it because He is not going to shove it down someone’s throat. However, because they reject God’s forgiveness, they still live in God’s judgment, not ours, for their sin in the end if they do not repent of it.