Sermon based on Mt 16:13-20 for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Dear absolved children of God: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Heaven’s gate has keys. This of course means that you cannot get into heaven without the keys. There’s no sneaking in the back door or climbing over the wall. The only way to get into heaven is through the use of the keys. And Jesus gave these keys to His Church on earth. He said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). This is the same as what Jesus said in John 20, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (v. 23).
So there’s a key that locks heaven and there’s a key that opens heaven. Both have been given to the Church. Those who are unrepentant have their sins retained as long as they do not repent. This means their sins are bound to them. Their sins are not forgiven. If one does not seek to turn away from sin and live a life pleasing to God, there is no forgiveness. If one is not sorry for his sins and thinks that he can do whatever he wants despite what God commands, he is not forgiven. His sins are bound on earth, which means they are bound in heaven.
On the other hand, those who repent of their sins and are sorry for their sins are forgiven. Their sins are loosed. Their sins are removed from them as far as the east is from the west. This happened after you confessed your sins this morning. In response to your confession, I said, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I… forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Since Jesus has commanded me to speak these words of absolution to you, it is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ Himself spoke these words to you (Lk. 10:16, SC V). What I have loosed here on earth is loosed in heaven.
But this forgiveness can be rejected. It is rejected by the person who thinks that they don’t need forgiveness. It is rejected by the one who plans to continue doing what God has forbidden. It is rejected by the one who does not believe that his sins can be forgiven. That is the devil’s work. The devil wants you to think that you have done something unforgivable. When you hear the absolution in church on Sunday morning, the devil wants you to think that it doesn’t apply to some horrible sin that you’ve committed. He whispers in your ear, “If the pastor knew what you had done, he would never have forgiven your sin.” But this is the devil’s lie.
Knowing the devil’s tricks and the frail nature of man in dealing with sin and guilt, Lutherans have always sought to preserve Private Confession and Absolution. When there is a particular sin that weighs you down; when you hear the General Absolution but doubt whether it is for your particular sin; when guilt overwhelms you and makes you feel crushed by its weight – then go to your pastor for Private Confession and Absolution.
Luther, in the Large Catechism, writes, “When I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian” (LC VI.32). For the Christian who seeks to be free from guilt and have a joyful conscience, Jesus gave this key to the Church.
But do not misunderstand. Individual Confession and Absolution is voluntary. No one can or should coerce you to go. Lutheran Confession and Absolution has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic variety, where you are compelled to confess every sin you have ever committed, greatly burdening and torturing the conscience with enumerating all kinds of sins. There you confess in fear lest you forget something you have done. There you confess even if you don’t want to. Further, there you receive no full absolution, but are given penance to perform as if by doing something assigned to you by the priest you can appease God or undo the sins you have committed.
No, unlike under the pope, we have the freedom to go to confession without coercion. We know that we cannot even list every sin we have committed this morning, much less this year. Thus we pray in the words of Psalm 19, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” We are free to confess only those sins that are weighing on our conscience.
And Jesus gave no partial keys. Jesus didn’t give a half-key to His Church saying that we need to do something to earn the other half-key. He said, “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus did not say, “whatever you kind-of-a-little-bit-slacken on earth shall be kind-of-a-little-bit-slackened in heaven.” Absolution isn’t partial, it is complete. Forgiveness isn’t partial, it’s complete. Absolution doesn’t partially cover your sins, it completely covers them. They are removed from you as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
Jesus’ death for you paid for all of your sins completely, and absolution gives that forgiveness to you personally and completely. And Jesus instituted the Church in order to give that absolution, that forgiveness to you.
And despite what you see going on in the church around the world, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This Jesus has promised. Despite the fact that the church is aging and shrinking, the Church will stand. Despite the fact that what is preached in the Church is hated by the world around us, the Church will stand. Despite the persecution of the Church around the world, especially right now in Iraq and Nigeria, not even the gates of hell will prevail against the Church. This we sang just before the sermon saying, “Built on the rock the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling. Crumbled have spires in every land; bells still are chiming and calling, calling the young and old to rest, but above all the souls distressed, longing for rest everlasting” (LSB 645:1).
The devil will continually attack the Church. Church steeples will fall and spires crumble, but the Church still stands. The loosing of our sins on earth still stands in heaven. The keys Christ gave to His Church on earth still open the gates of heaven. The keys Christ gave to His Church on earth still give distressed souls rest everlasting.
But having keys is of no use if you don’t use them. David writes that before he confessed his sin to Nathan the prophet, “my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (Ps. 32:3-4) But then he confessed his sin and writes, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5) David is thus able to sing later in Psalm 32[:11], that he can now be glad in the Lord and rejoice. He can now shout for joy! His bad conscience and guilt had been replaced with a good conscience and a joy without compare.
Absolution is the same for us. It forgives the iniquity of our sins. It opens the gates of heaven for us. It removes our sin from us. Thus, absolution gives us a good conscience and joy without compare, knowing that we are forgiven. And absolution gives our distressed souls rest everlasting. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.