Of Keys and Gates (Matthew 16: 13 - 20)
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21st, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Ah, now here’s a sermon for a Marine to preach. The gates of Hell, Jesus declares, will not prevail against My Church. So let’s strap on our gear, grab our rifles, and get after it. The time has come to throw ourselves into storming the gates of Hell, to bombard the battlements of Beelzebub, to be about destroying the defenses of the Devil. Let’s go, you sons of Abraham, you daughters of destiny, what are you waiting for? Do you want to live forever, or what? It’s time to fight!
So, what do you think? Sound good? Make sense? Yes? No? Maybe? You may have heard sermons based off today’s text, sermons that, with or without the Marine Corps lingo, declare that if we are going to be real followers of Jesus, we must be bold in our assault of Satan’s stronghold. This idea is promoted by many a church leader, a great way to get people fired up for a cause. Well, in a week we will hear in vivid detail how things go, when, fresh off his great confession of Jesus as the Christ, Peter, the leader of the twelve, boldly tries to take charge, actually trying to apply his ideas and his authority to grow the Church, as he sees fit. That bracing story is in next Sunday’s Gospel. For now, let’s just remember that the validity of a particular idea about the Church and her business does not depend on what we think, or how hard we work, but rather on what God has said, and on what God has done, and is doing.
After all, if the true Church of God could be run based on the wisdom and strength of men and women, then why did we need a Savior? We know better than to get caught up in a fervor about all the great things we are going to do. We also know that our rule and guide is the Scripture, so let’s take this idea of storming the gates of Hell and see how it fits with what our text actually says.
Jesus does promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church. However, nowhere does Jesus tell us to grab our weapons and assault Hell. This imported idea stems from the fact that we quite naturally like to imagine ourselves the heroes in a great struggle. And indeed there will at various times be great struggles in our lives as Christians, but are you the hero? Essential to being a Christian is admitting that all the really important work, all the really difficult tasks, must be done by God, for us, because we just don’t have what it takes to save ourselves, or anyone else.
But then, what does Jesus mean about the gates of Hell not prevailing against His Church? Peter has just correctly answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” by confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. How should we understand what Jesus says next? Listen again: Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Jesus praises Peter’s confession, because the right understanding of Jesus’ identity is the first essential building block of the Church. Remember, the Church is not a building, or an institution, but rather the Church is the gathered believers in Jesus Christ. So building the Church means bringing people to true faith in Christ. Peter has, by the Father’s gift, come to believe and confess Jesus’ identity, leading Jesus to express great joy. “Way to go, Rocky!” Jesus promises to build His Church on the rock of Peter’s confession, that is on Peter and those to come who, like Peter, will be given the right understanding of who Jesus is.
Following this build my Church statement, Jesus promises “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against my Church!” Great! But what does this mean? Notice, Jesus doesn’t say the Church is to assault the gates of Hell, but what else could He mean?
Let’s go back for a moment to how Christ builds His Church. The Church is built when God brings unbelieving sinners to true faith in Christ. Where are such unbelieving sinners before they are converted? They are trapped in the Kingdom of Hell, bound by their sins to the devil. Remember how Jesus describes His ministry, that He comes to set the prisoners free? Prisoners of whom? Prisoners of Satan, who rules the domain of the lost. As Paul writes, we are saved when God transfers us from the domain of darkness to the Kingdom of His beloved Son. The gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church, that is to say Hell has no power to hold sinners who trust in Christ.
Indeed, Jesus then goes on to talk about keys, which are used to lock and unlock doors, or gates. Jesus tells Peter, “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.” Peter and the other Apostles, and indeed as we hear later in Matthew 18, the whole Church, are given the authority to forgive and retain sins, which is called the Office of the Keys.
To bind and to loose. To bind is simply to call a spade a spade, to correctly diagnose reality for sinners outside of God’s grace. To bind is to declare to the unrepentant sinner that they face eternal punishment for their sins. Binding is frightening work, but binding is used by the Holy Spirit to serve the Gospel. The Church uses the binding key to bring sinners to repentance, that is to confession of and sorrow for their sin, and a desire to escape. Binding seeks to prepare the sinner to be loosed. For to loose is to forgive sins, to free repenting sinners from the gates of Hell, and usher them through the gates of Heaven. The Apostles and the pastors following them are called out from the congregation to publicly administer the Office of the Keys, and the Church at large has this gift to use in your personal, private interactions, a gift to be extolled, the very power to free sinners from Hell, to open the gates of Hell by the forgiveness of sins, which robs Satan of all his power.
Indeed, as Luther states in the Large Catechism, “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here. So even though we have sins, the ‹grace of the› Holy Spirit does not allow them to harm us. For we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but ‹continuous, uninterrupted› forgiveness of sin. This is because God forgives us and because we forgive, bear with, and help one another.”
Pretty sweet. But how can this be? How is it possible that Christians can forgive sins, whether publicly or privately? It might even seem the height of arrogance for one sinner, which is what every Christian is and remains throughout this earthly life, the height of arrogance for one sinner to presume to forgive another sinner. Instead of gratitude for the gift, it is possible for the sinner who hears the Word of forgiveness from another sinner to think: “Who do you think you are, forgiving me?” “Aren’t you high and mighty?” The accusations can easily fly from our defensive lips. Indeed, this is such an offensive notion that most Christian churches have ceded this power, giving up on the Church’s call to forgive sins, leaving individual sinners to seek their own forgiveness with God directly, on their own.
Most churches have given up the authority to forgive sins in God’s stead, which is a terrible tragedy, since God in His wisdom has not made Himself directly visible or directly audible to us. Waiting on a direct declaration of forgiveness from God for my particular sins will leave me lingering in doubt, for there are many voices in my head, but God has not promised to speak to me directly. When the Church abandons her authority to forgive sins, great harm is done, great comfort and assurance is forfeited, for God has chosen to speak through His Church, through His people, and especially through called public servants. To set aside the blessing of one sinner forgiving another in God’s stead is to set aside the way God has designed to deliver forgiveness.
Still, the question remains: On what basis is the Church to wield this power? On what basis do the called and ordained servants of Christ publicly proclaim the forgiveness of sins? On what basis are you, Christian, authorized to declare God’s forgiveness to another? Well, it is not based on your goodness, or the righteousness of the pastor. It does not depend on how holy or pious we Christians seem to be, nor on all the good works we do. The power of forgiveness is based on one thing only, the blood of Christ.
The power of sin is the law of God, which promises punishment for all sin. Therefore, the power of Satan is also the law of God, the evil one locking sinners within the gates of Hell by the combination of their sin and the punishment God’s law demands. But the blood of Jesus has paid for all sin. The defeat of the gates of Hell is already complete, for this battle was won at the Cross. Satan wants to hold sinners forever, but the blood of Jesus declares that his power to accuse and bind is a lie, an empty shell, a façade of power, an impressive looking gate that crumbles away, whenever we confront it with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The blood of Jesus washes away all sin. In the crucifixion of the Son of Man, all the wrath of God against human sin was poured out. And so the authority to forgive sins rests in Christ, crucified and resurrected, and He is the one who has given this authority to His Church. The sinner who declares God’s forgiveness, whether publicly in the Sunday service or privately in the home, workplace or coffee shop, is God’s chosen representative, but the power of the gift is always the blood of Jesus.
If ever we are to speak of storming the gates of Hell, it would be in this context, the context of one sinner freeing another sinner from the power of Satan by the proclamation of God’s Law and Gospel. No guns, no bravado, just the Word about Jesus’ Cross.
It is no fun to confess that we are constantly in need of forgiveness. To confess the truth about who we are and what we say, think and do exposes all our weakness, shame and vice. But to speak the truth is always worth it, for when we confess the truth about ourselves, we are then able and ready to confess, hear, receive, believe and rejoice in the truth about Jesus. For He is the crucified and resurrected Christ, the Son of the Living God. In Him, by Him, through Him, the gates of Hell are blown open, and the Kingdom of Heaven is open to you, for your sins are forgiven, in Jesus’ blood, Amen.