August 23, 2020
When I was about six years old, I experienced my first solar eclipse. I was at my grandma’s house with my younger sister, Tara, and our cousin, Tonya, who was a year older than me. We were told NOT to look at the sun—that we could ruin our eyes permanently. I, being very serious about this, was incredibly worried. It doesn’t matter that you shouldn’t look at the sun, anyway. I was worried about my mom who was going for a walk—outside. And for my grandma, who had gone into town—probably to have her hair done. What if they looked up and were blinded for life? And I was worried for my sister and cousin and myself. How would we make sure we were safe?
Well, you can’t look at the sun if you’re not even in the sunlight. We decided to up to the second floor of grandma’s farmhouse and hang out in the linen closet. Only, as I was closing the door, my cousin was frantically warning me that the doorknob often falls out. Too late. We found ourselves locked inside grandma’s linen closet. I, of course, started praying. My sister started crying, panicked that we would run out of air and die. And my cousin started looking for a way out.
Since the doorknob that fell out was on the outside of the door, our only hope at reaching it was to somehow get through the door. One of grandma’s old irons was on a shelf, and Tonya used the pointed end to start chopping a hole in the panel of the farmhouse door. Once a large enough hole was made, she reached through, replaced the doorknob, and out we came—right about the time grandma got home. And did she have a fit! Ironically, though, when grandpa suggested replacing the door, grandma wouldn’t hear of it. Her girls made that hole, and it will stay there—and there it is still: a testament to desperation and incentive.
When I was in grad school, I lived with two other students in a house up in St. Peter, MN. One day, I went out for a run. When I left, my roommates were home and the house was unlocked. When I returned, they weren’t and it wasn’t. And I needed to get in. My room was at the back, and luckily I’d left the window open. I don’t really remember now how I did it, but I managed take off the screen and jimmy the rest of it open enough to climb in. Not exactly the most secure residence, but again, a testament to desperation and incentive.
In one case, we were desperate to get out; in the other, I was desperate to get in. In both cases only a locked door stood in the way.
Today’s gospel passage begins with Jesus asking a question and he and the disciples stood before a monument to pagan worship, empire, and a legendary cave leading to Hades. He asked, “Who do you say that I am?” When it comes to their own answer, or Peter takes the risk. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” An answer which Jesus rewards by handing over the proverbial keys to the kingdom.
And the good Lutheran question to all of this is: What does this mean? Is it like handing over the keys to the city—a symbolic action that gives one authority to come and go at will? No, Jesus explains, this is so that you can bind and loose what is bound and loosed in heaven.
What does this mean? What are we binding to or loosing from? If keys open doors, are we about the business of letting people out or letting them in? If keys can lock doors, are we about the business of locking people out or locking people up?
Over the centuries, the Church has become quite adept at keeping people out—probably more than letting people in. But in and out of where? The kingdom of heaven? Participation in worship? Leadership and preaching? And in John 20, this conversation between Jesus and the disciples happens when he bestows on them the Holy Spirit and says, “If you forgive the sins of any; they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Do we lock people out of heaven and out of the church because of their sins and lack of repentance? Do we lock them up because we are afraid?
Jesus also says in John that he came to save the whole world. And from the cross, he asked the Father to forgive his murderers because they did not know what they had done. They had not repented, and yet he forgave. Are we not to be just as gracious in our forgiveness-in our freeing and binding of one another?
But Martin Luther talks about the office of the keys as the responsibility of all Christians to make use of forgiveness as a means of grace—a way to share God’s grace with the world. We are to forgive as Christ forgave.
Forgiveness is to loose people from the power of their sin. It is also to loose ourselves from the power of anger and hatred, from revenge and contempt, from turning away from each other. It is the power to open the doors to let people into the love of Christ as much as it is to open the doors to let people out of bondage to death, bondage to addiction, bondage to mistakes, bondage to regret.
But we also have the power to bind—to bind people together into community, to bind people into the Body of Christ, to bind people not as a way of impeding movement but as a way of reconnecting, drawing close, forming unity for a common cause. We have the power to bind humanity to the created earth in a way that helps us recognize just how interdependent we are with one another—when the earth groans in pain, we all feel it because we are bound together.
We use the keys of the kingdom of heaven in ministry, not revenge; in mission, not subjugation; in hope, not fear; in compassion, not judgment. The keys have the power to let us out of the closets we hide in so that we may bask in the warmth of the Son. They have the power to let us into the mercy of God’s love when we feel locked out and pushed away by those who claim to represent Christ. They have the power to bind us into one holy Body, living stones crafted together so that we, as one, might extend the kingdom of heaven to every created being we encounter.
The keys are the Holy Spirit, moving within and from us, showing the world the love of God, through Christ the Son. And we’ve been given the responsibility to wield these with grace.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church