Let us pray: Dear Savior, You have placed a huge responsibility upon us by giving us the keys to either open or close heaven’s door. As we exercise the use of these keys give each of us wisdom, a kind heart, and a steadfastness toward Your truth. For only then will we be found worthy of this vital gift. Amen
GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE GIVER OF ETERNAL LIFE!
TEXT: John 20: 21-23: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'”
Fellow Redeemed Sinners:
How many keys do you have on your keychain? And do you know what all of them are for? I’ll bet you’ve got a at least a couple of them that are old, outdated, and perhaps you’ve long forgotten exactly what door or lock they are meant to open. Some keys we use all the time and without them we’d be lost. Others just sit there on the chain slowly corroding. In our lesson today, Christ gives special keys to you and me, in fact to the entire Christian Church. And in doing so, He wants you to never forget that:
THESE KEYS ARE MEANT TO BE USED!
On Easter evening the disciples were locked in the familiar confines of the Upper Room which was located in a house owned by the apostle John’s family. They were fearful of what had just happened—Christ being crucified—and yet intrigued by the reports of His resurrection from the dead. Suddenly Christ appeared in their midst. And the first words out of His mouth were: “Peace be with you!” Yes, the Prince of peace wanted to provide His beloved disciples with comfort in their moment of need. And it worked, didn’t it? “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Yes, having Christ speak His Word of truth to us, reminding us that we’re not alone and we stand forgiven and holy in His sight because of His victory over sin and death, that is comforting! Don’t you feel comforted each Sunday after the absolution, after that moment when Christ has lifted the weight of your sin-filled week off your shoulders and thus provided His peace anew to you? Next, Jesus does something quite amazing. He repeats His greeting to solidify His peace in their minds and then breathes on them. Just like God the Father breathed the “breathe of life” into Adam and gave him a living soul by giving him the Holy Spirit, so Christ does the same right here. Yes, Christ has power over everything and uses that power right here to share with them the powerful presence of the Spirit of eternal Life! And then, then, Jesus gives to them the keys. He gives them the keys to either open heaven’s door or to lock it. Awesome power, indeed!
To the unbelieving world, your telling someone that they are forgiven or not forgiven is just words. That’s because they don’t believe there is any real power behind them. Sometimes Christians forget that fact, too. Sometimes we don’t really think about the fact that we have the awesome power to open heaven’s door to comfort hurting sinners who are repentant, and the fact that we also have the power to shut the very doors of heaven in the face of those who chose to live in persistent sin. But, my friends, never doubt Jesus like Thomas did! For the power that He gave to them and gives to us is real, just as the Savior we cannot physically see is real.
One of the distinguishing marks of the Lutheran Church is our adherence to this truth. Unlike the Roman church which says that only ordained priests have this power, we agree with St. Peter and Christ that each believer has been given this awesome responsibility. Recall Peter’s words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” So, you have these two keys. Now, use them! For Christ did not give them to you to rust and corrode away. Use them to uplift troubled consciences. Use them to free captive souls bound by guilt and shame. Use them to liberate hurting hearts who struggle with particular sins. When people confess their sins you need to forgive them. And when you do, rest assured that heaven’s doors are thrown open to them. For right here, Christ says so!
Of course, there is another key, too. That is the key which closes heaven’s doors. Sometimes you also need to employ that key. It’s hard. It’s frightening. And yet, sometimes we need to employ such “tough love.” For the only way to awaken hardened hearts and to prick people’s consciences is to remind them that: “If you persist in your sin, you’ll lose your soul.” Yes, sometimes we need to remind people that they are not forgiven; that they are on the road to hell. Telling this truth is hard. It is viewed much like a skunk at a picnic. Yet, if you wish for the truth to make them free, you must get through to them and lead them to real repentance. Not the “I’m sorry I got caught,” kind, but the “I’m sorry I did it,” kind. For to simply throw forgiveness around to people who don’t care cheapens Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is what Jesus is referring to when he tells us “not to cast pearls before swine.”
All believers possess these fabulous keys. The individual believer is to use them privately in their everyday life—at home, work, school, among friends and neighbors. And the Pastor, the publicly called servant of Christ, is to use them publicly on behalf of the entire Church.
This morning we had a confession of sins in the service. Afterwards we had an absolution. In the absolution, I exercised my office given to me by Christ to take away your unclean heart and guilty conscience and to also open heaven’s door to you. That forgiveness wasn’t mine to give. It was Christ’s. I was just the mouthpiece. And yet, it was just as real as if Jesus had appeared in our midst, looked you squarely in the eye, and spoken those words of comfort to each of you. It was His “peace be with you” moment. The greatest honor given to me each Sunday morning is the ability to forgive your sins and to preach to You Christ’s Words of truth. Such power is humbling yet awe-inspiring at the same time. And the awesome power of the Spirit lies behind them.
Sometimes I also must use that other key. In our politically correct society where no
one ever wants to say “No” for fear of being ostracized, my flesh recoils at telling someone: “No, you’re wrong and you’re not forgiven.” Yet, use it I must. Otherwise, I’d be calling Christ a liar and mocking His trust in handing that locking key to me. Now, this locking of heaven’s door doesn’t take place in a vacuum and isn’t to be done lightly. No, it’s usually a long, drawn-out process. It is called “church discipline.” And it has various stages because we want to get it right, after all, because souls are involved. It begins with admonishment, continues with more admonishment, then it leads to a suspension of communion privileges, and ultimately if nothing else has worked, it leads to excommunication. It ends with cutting that unrepentant sinner off from Christ, or of consigning their soul to hell. But, each step of that lengthy process is designed to do one thing—cause them to see their error and repent and be forgiven. So, it must always be motivated by love for their soul.
The Church is God’s family. And like all families it is filled with dysfunctional people—we call them sinners. So just like in your family, the church must practice both kinds of love to keep itself going—the warm, giving kind, and the tough kind. That is why Christ has given to you and me both keys—the one which opens heavens door and the one which closes it. And in both cases, these keys are meant to be used! For without the practice of love and the honesty that comes with it, no family can survive. But with the practice of love comes unity, strength, and blessing. Amen