The Gospel reading for today is not about power. It is not about authority… at least not as the world understands them. I believe that the Word of God for this day is inviting us into a deep and liberating understanding of a different kind of power, the power that comes not from holding on but from letting go.
Jesus offers practical advice to his disciples about confronting friends in a loving manner, an approach so ingrained that when J.A.O. Preus wished to oust John Tietjen as the president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Dr. Tietjen’s repeated response was that Preuss had not followed “a Matthew 18 approach” regarding his concerns. And today’s Gospel lesson concludes with a reassurance about which we heard a few weeks ago: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
And he reiterates wisdom that he has given to Peter and his other disciples just two chapters earlier, after Peter has named him: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
That’s when Jesus says that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom. And the power to bind and loose, which Jesus now repeats to all of his disciples, all of his students.
That certainly sounds like authority, and it sounds like authority gathered up and given to one individual or a select few. The “office of the keys” referred to within ordained ministry in some denominations is described as “the special authority which Christ has given to his church on earth to forgive sins.” When I was ordained, I was granted the “office of the keys.” Although as I remember it, that’s when I was ceremonially handed over the keys to the paper-goods closet in the church kitchen.
The message I am hearing for us today is not really about the authority of the office of the keys, and the authority being vested in one person or even a select few. It’s about all of us – and the actions that we take once we, with Peter, identify Jesus: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”
When Je says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” he uses y’all. The plural you. And this is important. It means that what comes next applies not just to Peter, or even all the disciples, but to all of us who say, with Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God.”
Jesus is inviting all of us into forgiveness, into a deep, radical, unlimited kind of forgiveness that we can fully appreciate only when we’ve been on the receiving end of it. What does that kind of forgiveness look like? And is it even possible that we, as imperfect as we are, can practice the sort of deep, radical, unlimited forgiveness that Jesus shows us by example in the sacrifice of his own life?
Any of us, all of us, each of us, can experience the extraordinary peace and healing that comes from letting go of anger, letting go of resentment, letting go of even justifiable hatred and disgust. Because when we let go, when we loose those burdens, the peace of God that passes all understanding flows into our hearts and minds through Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God.
In the spring of 2012, I had been an associate pastor at a church in Hickory for just six months. It was my first call. The youth group and their parents and I had been planning a formal dinner to serve to the members. The youth had gotten together their white shirts and dark pants. One of the youth had opted to be the snooty maître d’ and had worked on her poshest accent. We had lined up a church member to play mood music in the background.
We were less than an hour away from dinnertime. We were measuring the salad dressing into little cups and heating huge pots of water on the ancient stove in the kitchen … when we noticed the flames.
The griddle stovetop had grease catches at the back and side. Many groups made use of the stove to hold dinners and breakfasts, and the church didn’t really have a policy that anyone who used the stove had to clean out the grease traps. So there was a lot of grease in the traps, and, well… we ended up standing in the parking lot flagging down folks arriving for the dinner and having to tell them that there would be no dinner.
Not one person requested a refund. And that was a marvelous show of grace and abundance. But that’s not really the point of the story.
This dinner was scheduled for a Saturday during Lent. The next evening, I was scheduled to preach and to lead worship at another local Lutheran church as part of a seasonal pulpit rotation. I was completely shaken up by the fire and by the collapse of the dinner, which had represented a lot of time, talent, and treasure by the church members. Well, you can guess what happened. I completely forgot about leading worship at that other church. And of course, their pastor was off in yet another pulpit.
The service had been scheduled for 6:30 in the evening. About 8:00 I bolted up from my chair and said, “Oh my God!” In tears, and shaking with guilt and regret, I phoned my own church’s senior pastor. His calm demeanor and words of grace gave me the courage to phone the pastor of the church I had forgotten about.
I can only imagine what she might have been thinking. “What kind of idiot do you have to be to forget a church service? How did you manage to get ordained in the first place?” But there was not a hint of reproach in her voice as she said, warmly and kindly, that it was all right. As I stammered out my apologies, she forgave me on the spot, and said that we all make mistakes. She said that most pastors made similar goofs once in their ministries and then never again, and I had gotten mine over with. And then she never mentioned it again. For two more years, we would work together in confirmation classes, we would converse together at monthly pastoral association meetings, and she even trusted me enough to arrange another pulpit swap.
Let me repeat: The message that Jesus has for us is that any of us, all of us, each of us, can experience the extraordinary peace and healing that comes from letting go of anger, letting go of resentment, letting go of even justifiable hatred and disgust. Because when we let go, when we loose those burdens, the peace of God that passes all understanding flows into our hearts and minds through Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God.
The power of forgiveness is given to each of us … and it is meant to flow into our hearts and minds so that we may send it out to others.
This extraordinary power, this unlimited authority, is given freely to all of us, in Jesus’ name. In exchange, He asks only that we let go… of anger, of resentment, of hate. When we empty our hands and our hearts of those burdens, God fills them to overflowing with forgiveness.