The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven


There are keys to heaven. What a simple yet grand concept: heaven has keys. Everyone understands what keys do, how important keys are, and today Jesus tells us heaven has keys!

However, keys can be lost. Who hasn't lost their keys? Who hasn't searched for keys frantically saying, "I know they were right here a minute ago." Losing your keys can wreck your whole day. The keys of the kingdom of heaven can be lost too, and no locksmith will be able to help you.

The keys are lost in Catholicism. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the keys Jesus gives in this text aren't enough to open heaven. I quote, "Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must make satisfaction for' or expiate' his sins. This satisfaction is called penance'" (p.366 par. 1459). In Catholic theology no one, not Pope, priest, or Jesus Himself can open heaven's gates to you until you expiate, atone for, your own sins. The keys that open heaven freely are lost.

Catholicism loses the keys to heaven on earth; the Reformed (Think Protestants other than Lutherans.) lose them in heaven. Heaven's keys are in heaven not on earth. Protestants are offended at my saying, "I forgive you." John Calvin, the leading Reformed theologian, wouldn't find the power to forgive or not forgive sins in the mouths of men on earth. No, it's in heaven and comes through the preaching of men to earth, but no man dare say, "I forgive you." He can only give a declaration or announcement of pardon on earth. He may say, "The almighty and most merciful Lord grant you forgiveness," but not "I forgive you."

Catholicism loses the keys on earth; the Reformed lose them in heaven. Lutherans have them on earth. We confess that "we receive absolution from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven." In the liturgy for confession, when I ask, "Do you believe my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?" Your answer is, "Yes!"

We take Jesus at His word. He says here, in Matthew 18, and when He established the office of the pastor in John 20, "I give you the keys of heaven. My forgiveness is to be found in the mouth of a man." We haven't lost the keys on earth or in heaven, but still we Lutherans have lost them and in a worse way. Catholicism won't let you find them on earth amid their doctrine of making up for your sins. The Reformed hide them away in heaven. We have an Office of the Keys. We have the keys lying out in plain site, but we lose them by not using them, by not caring about them. We listen more attentively, use more frequently, study more diligently the keys of health, wealth, marriage, or politics than we do the keys of heaven. How shameful! How sinful! How sad.

Everyone has lost keys at one time or another, and everyone has found them. What a joy to find keys that you thought you had lost. Let me help you find the keys of heaven.

Jesus says in our text "keys" plural because He speaks of a key that binds sins on people and therefore locks heaven and of a key that looses sins from people and therefore opens heaven, but really there is only one key to heaven. That is Jesus. Isaiah prophesies of Jesus using the image of a key: "I will place on His shoulder the key to the house of David; what He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open. "

What locked us out of heaven was God's Law. The Law lay heavy on our shoulders. "Do this; don't do that" "Be perfect as I the Lord thy God am perfect." Only a perfect human life lived under the Law could open heaven. Is that yours? Could it ever be yours? Has there ever been a single day in your life that was good enough to unlock heaven? Will there ever be? There was in Jesus' life. All His days were perfect. He didn't sin like you do. He didn't worry, wasn't greedy, wasn't prideful, lustful, or hateful. Though True God, He lived a perfect life as a Man without using His divine power and won the right for men to have the keys to heaven.

But there are 2 locks on heaven's gates. One lock was the Law demanding perfect obedience. The other lock was the Law requiring complete payment for all sins. The Law required suffering, bleeding, crying, and dying to pay for sins. It's serious to sin against the holy God. Just think how mad you get when you've been wronged. You don't think it's too much to demand satisfaction, to require payment. If it's serious enough, you think nothing of wanting blood, suffering, and death from someone, and you're a sinner! You're not the holy God. How much more is God offended who has never wronged a person when people sin against Him? If "Sorry; I'll do better," doesn't satisfy your wrath, why would you, how could you think it could or should satisfy the holy God's?

Be as sorry as you can be; promise to do better the next time all you want; punish yourself with guilt, sadness, pain, and you won't drain one drop out of God's cup of wrath. It takes God to satisfy God; it takes God to appease God. It takes God to pay for sins against God. So God the Son took on flesh and blood not only so He could keep the Law in your place but so He could sigh, cry, and die in your place. The blood, sweat, and tears that flowed from His tortured body were the blood, sweat, and tears of God; they were holy blood, sweat, and tears, and as such they could and did cover the sins of all mankind. Our blood, sweat, and tears stink; the blood, sweat, and tears of God the Son smell sweet to God the Father. By living a perfect life under the Law, Jesus won the keys to heaven for mankind. By satisfying God's wrath, Jesus won the right for mankind to use the keys.

I know you've had this experience. You lose your keys to your house; you search and search and at last find them. What joy it is when you can finally use them again to get back into your house. Use the keys to heaven people of God. Your Jesus won them for you to use them.

You use the keys when you come to Church. Whenever the Gospel is being preached or taught, the keys of heaven are at work. Jesus put them in the mouth of your pastor to open heaven for you. Follow Jesus words carefully and maybe you'll see what a miracle this is. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Jesus doesn't say whatever you lose on earth has already been loosed in heaven. No, the loosing on earth proceeds the loosing in heaven.

The best illustration I have for this comes from the movie "What Dreams May Come?" There a man dies in a car accident. His wife is mourning miserably on earth. She's an artist. One day she paints a vivid picture of a purple tree on earth. When she makes the last brush stroke on earth, that purple tree explodes into view in heaven before her husband's eyes. That's the reality of what happens when I say, "I forgive you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Your forgiveness for Jesus' sake explodes into view before God in heaven.

But I will show you something better. In the General Absolution on Sunday, forgiveness is really sent out and sins are sent away, but the General Absolution you hear as "you all" was originally a singular. It was only found in the rite of Private Confession. There it was, "I forgive thee." Read our Lutheran Confessions. See how dearly we wished to keep Private Confession. Why? Because it's a special key made only for you. Sometimes when people are bothered by a particular sin, they think the General Absolution doesn't apply to that sin. The Devil whispers in their ear, "If the pastor really knew what you did he'd never forgive that sin."

Shakespeare, I think, said, "You surely do bar the path to your own relief when you deny your griefs to your friend." You surely bar the path not to your forgiveness but to your relief when you deny the sins that bother you to your pastor. Catholicism not Lutheranism says you must go to private confession to be forgiven of a serious sin. Lutheranism teaches you should go for your sake. Haven't you ever had a jumble of keys and needed to find the one that fits the lock in front of you? You tried and tried; what a relief, what a joy when you found the one that fit. Private absolution is the special key your Lord provides on earth. The keys to heaven are yours without it, but there is more relief on earth when you have the key that fits your particular sin.

One last thing about the keys of heaven. You don't want to think they're locked up in my office or worse in me personally. Jesus gave the keys to the whole Church. You are to use the keys with each other. When someone confesses they sinned rather than saying, "That's okay; don't worry about it; forget it," you are privileged to say, "I forgive you." Your absolution unlocks heaven no less than mine. Saying less than that doesn't. Saying less is like telling a person to climb through a window when you have the keys to the house. In A Tale of Two Cities the rouge Sydney Carton insults Charles Darnay during a drinking spree. Years later Carton asks Darnay about it. Darnay says, "I forgot it long ago." Carton replies, "I have by no means forgotten it, and a light answer does not help me." No, light answers don't help a guilty conscience; the keys that unlock heaven do.

The key of heaven, God the Son, came down to earth in flesh and blood to win the keys of heaven for all and He gave them to Christians to use privately and to his pastors to use publicly. The keys of us Lutherans are to be shiny from being used so much. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20080817); Matthew 16: 13-20