The Keys of the Kingdom

Text: Matthew 16:13-20
Date: Pentecost XII (Proper 16A) + 8/27/17

Peter J. Scaer, a professor at our Ft. Wayne seminary, recently wrote, “A couple of people have come up to me today and said, basically, ‘What matters is that we all believe the same thing, and that we love one another. That’s what religion is all about.’” And then he makes the critique, “It’s like they’ve swallowed and regurgitated an aisle of Hallmark Cards.” He then goes on about how Christianity is about more than that, namely, Jesus Christ and what He did to save us from God’s judgment.

Today we hear what Christianity is all about as the apostle Peter makes the inspired confession of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And what is the very first thing Jesus then talks about His mission as the Christ? The forgiveness of sins. It is the doctrine we call The Office of the Keys, that is, the authority and power to bring God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners. This Office is given to the whole Church, it is given to you as His disciple, His follower and His representative to your family, friends, acquaintances and fellow members of our parish. It is also given to pastors to proclaim and apply publicly to all.

That this is given to every Christian but also in a special way to the Church’s pastors is revealed in our text especially in what Jesus says to Peter. Employing a little play on words Jesus says to him, “You are Peter,” that is “Petros” in Greek, “and on this rock,” that is this “petra,” I will build my church.” The controversy through the ages has been for some to insist that this passage means that Jesus builds His church on Peter and his successors, the popes of Rome. Others insist, “no, Jesus is saying He will build His church on Peter’s confession of faith.” The truth however is, once again, Jesus means both the confession of the Church, every Christian, among what we call “the priesthood of all believers,” but also Peter as the head of the apostles, the first among equals. For the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And the Christian confession must be made by Christian people.

And what does it mean to confess Jesus is the Christ? It means to exercise The Office of the Keys, that is, to dispense God’s gift of the forgiveness of sins to any and all who repent.

This is what Jesus said His primary mission is when He spoke in Luke chapter four as if reading His call document, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Christ means “anointed one”), “anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). In the Lord’s prayer, He not only has us pray, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but even singles out this petition with a special emphasis, saying, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15). Now, this does not mean that God’s forgiveness to you is somehow dependent upon your forgiveness of others. It does mean or imply that if you do not forgive others their sins it reveals that you really don’t know what forgiveness is all about for yourself, revealing that you maybe have rejected, ignored, or refused to really believe that God has actually forgiven you!

It is called The Office of the Keys. The forgiveness of sins is the key to entrance into the kingdom of God. But keys also lock doors. And this is the authority to warn sinners who refuse to repent that their sins remain bound to them. Though Christ paid for all sin on the Cross and therefore we can say all sins have been forgiven, not everyone receives this forgiveness because of unbelief.

To receive God’s forgiveness, I need to hear it, as St. Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). When some sin has come between us, has exercised its power to divide or separate us from each other, I need to hear or to speak the words, “I forgive you.” Early on in former days, after the confession of sins in the Divine Service, when the called and ordained pastor would speak in the stead and by the authority of the very real and present Savior, “I forgive you all your sins,” I would almost have the automatic reflex of immediately responding with a, cleansing breath!

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! To forgive means to take away the power of sin. To forgive someone of their sin does not mean “forgive and forget” however. It means that, though that sin may be recalled in the memory, I hereby declare that I will not allow that forgiven sin ever to exercise its power between us anymore. It is, as some say, not only to “bury the hatchet” but also to refuse to dig it up again, saying in some future argument, “Oh yeah! Well remember when you…?”

The confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God is to confess His mission to save sinners by the forgiveness of their sins. And since, as long as we are in this flesh we remain both saints and sinners at the same time, it means to learn to live in the forgiveness of sin “by daily contrition and repentance” that our sin may “be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” God’s gift to you in Holy Baptism makes this possible.

Confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. Receive the grace and forgiveness of your sins in order that we may likewise make available to others that same grace and forgiveness, “that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”