Summary: The authority to forgive (The Office of the Keys) has been given to us, but we don't use it.
Church life on the prairies of the Midwest is often quite different from church life here (in Arizona). Small congregations of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and German origins are slowly dying out, and since we no longer preach in the languages of our mother-lands (Thank God!), and because we are part of a denomination that attempts to embrace all ethnicities, for the past few decades, these congregations have been encouraged to merge and embrace.
Oftentimes, this brings renewed life and mission, but sometimes it doesn’t work so well. The Swedish congregation I served was happy to include the Finns when their congregation closed, but one summer day, something went terribly wrong. Jonas Bjorklund was enjoying his post-worship cup of coffee in the church basement and telling jokes, as was his custom. In his third joke that morning, he mentioned Armas and Helmi (instead of his usual “Ole and Lena”), and Pauli Wuollet turned red as a cowberry in anger and stomped up the stairs and out of the building. From then on, Pauli and his tribe sat on the other side of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings so that they would never have to cross the center aisle share the peace of Christ with Jonas Bjorklund. As is so often the case, nothing was ever said to Jonas about his joke being off-color because it depicted Finns. In fact, it took three years for him to find out that his joke was the reason that Pauli stomped out of church and changed pews.
Our text from Matthew is difficult because it outlines for us a procedure that we rarely follow. In the case of the true story above, Pauli (not his real name) should have just told Jonas (not his real name either) that it bothered him, and Jonas probably would have apologized right then and there and maybe would have told only Sophia and Adolf jokes from then on… until someone was offended by THEM. But that’s not the way it happened, and many in the community felt pressured to take a side on the issue which resulted in the Finns feeling like visitors in their own congregation.
But, friends, God is all about community! The Ten Commandments are rules for living peaceably in community. Even as Jesus condenses it further as “Love God and love neighbor,” it’s all about community.
That’s why Gospel writer Matthew doesn’t just end with the procedure on resolving offenses. He continues into what Martin Luther called the “Office of the Keys”: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This Office of the Keys is mentioned in Mark and John, too.
Since some of us haven’t thought about the Office of the Keys since confirmation class, and some of us have never heard of such a thing, let’s hear a little from Luther today:
The Office of the Keys is the authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven. (from Luther's Small Catechism)
This leads to some subtle but important differences between our denomination and most others. Most of us take part in confession during worship with a formal rite or a confessional song, but we also have the option of private confession. And while having private confession with a pastor is normative, it is not necessary to hear absolution proclaimed by a pastor. You have the full authority of God to say it, too.
Let’s practice that as the body of Christ today:
Repeat after me: you are forgiven.
Good, now let’s mix things up a bit. If you’re on this side, you’re going to say, “I forgive you.” If you’re on this side, you’re going to say, “God forgives you.” Now let’s hear both sides together.
Phenomenal. As Matthew writes this and as Luther interprets it, in this context, “God forgives you” and “I forgive you” are synonymous. Our faith community is so important that we are authorized to speak for God about this. God has the power and has given us the authority to use it. We hold the keys of the kingdom.
Back on the Midwestern prairie, Jonas and Pauli and everyone else in that place held the keys, too; but they didn’t use them. Many years later, a pastor walked into that congregation and was so appalled with the situation, that he drafted a plan for Centennial Sunday in which the men would sit on one side and the women would sit on the other. He was hoping that a little nudge would end the silly dispute. The day came, the congregation filed in, and Pauli Wuollet took his usual place next to his sister.