Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 18)
September 4, 2011
Text: Matt. 18:1-20
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 20:18; ESV). Here, from the life-bestowing lips of our Savior, is the holy purpose of the Christian Church and the sacred charge of her ministers, the Office of the Keys, that “special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” When the called minister of Christ deals with a person by our Lord’s divine command, the command given here in our text, which is to say, when the pastor excludes openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolves those who repent of their sins and want to do better, “this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.” Because when the pastor proclaims the Word of Christ, it IS Christ dealing with you Himself. Through the mouth of a weak and sinful man, to be sure, namely, your pastor, but make no mistake. It is Christ Himself who speaks when the pastor speaks His Word faithfully. And that means that when your sins are bound because you do NOT repent of them, you are NOT sorry for them, you do NOT want to do better or amend your sinful life, then heaven is locked to you. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But when you repent of your sins, when your sins cause you grief and sorrow for having offended your gracious God, when you desire to amend your sinful life, to flee from sin, and when your desire is to do that which pleases God, then you have a sure and certain refuge. Confess your sins to God. Confess before the man He has called to be His mouthpiece, your pastor. “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). Confess, and hear the Holy Absolution, the declaration that all your sins are forgiven, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. And believe that this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ your dear Lord dealt with you Himself. Because He HAS dealt with you Himself. He IS DEALING with you Himself. Heaven is unlocked and open to you. It is for this reason alone that our Lord Jesus has given His Church the Office of the Keys.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is lengthy and many-facetted, but the golden thread that ties it all together is the Office of the Keys, which is to say, the binding and loosing of sin. First, the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 20:1). Jesus calls over a child. Unless you turn (repent) and become humble like this child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who turns (repents) recognizes his utter helplessness and complete dependence on Jesus… in other words, the one who confesses that he is a poor, miserable sinner, by nature sinful and unclean, who has sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, and who clings to the powerful Word of forgiveness that Jesus speaks in Absolution, that one, is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Because by faith, he is united to Christ, who is THE greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s what it means to be like a child before God. It is to utterly and completely depend upon Christ in all things for help and for eternal salvation, and to recognize that you have no resources within yourself to help yourself or save yourself, that all is by grace, not by works. There is no room for boasting. You are a child, and can do nothing for yourself. You cannot earn forgiveness. It must be given to you, by God, in Christ.
And woe to the one who tempts you to forsake that childlike faith in Jesus. It would be better for such a one that a great millstone be fastened around his neck and that he be drowned in the depths of the sea. And for God’s sake, don’t be the one who causes a child of God to stumble! Better to mutilate yourself. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, better to cut them off and throw them away and still be saved. If your eye causes you to sin, better to gouge it out than to go to hell. But of course, the problem is not your hands or your feet or your eyes, but your heart. So no, don’t mutilate yourself, because it won’t work. You’ll only be a handless, footless, eyeless sinner, but a sinner you will still be. But understand this, you need heart surgery. A heart transplant, in fact. Your heart needs to be cut out and thrown away, because it’s a heart of stone, and from that heart proceed evil thoughts: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt. 15:19). You need a new heart, beating with the life of the Holy Spirit. That heart transplant happens as your confess your sins to God and the death and resurrection of Christ are applied to you for your forgiveness in the Word of Absolution.
This is simply the business of the Church and the ministry, this binding and loosing of sin, and it has been from the beginning, even in the Old Testament, as the LORD says to the Prophet Ezekiel: “if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul” (Ez. 33:9). The Law must be preached, that sinners may know their sins and come to repentance, and when there is no repentance, the sinner must be bound in his sin, not out of meanness, but in hope that such binding will become such a great burden that the sinner will return to the LORD. Yet the prophet and the Christian preacher is also to proclaim the way out: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). The Gospel must be proclaimed to repentant sinners who have been crushed by their sin and guilt. The Gospel is the Word of life, that Jesus Christ died for your sins and has been raised for your justification, that in Christ all your sins are forgiven and you are reconciled to God. Confession and Absolution is simply Law and Gospel in practice. For “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”
The Church and her pastors, you and I, are to go and seek sinners, the lost sheep, with the preaching of Law and Gospel, calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming to them the forgiveness that Jesus has won for them on the cross, applying that forgiveness to them in Absolution. When a Christian falls, we must restore him gently. So Jesus tells us how we are to do church discipline, which is always done only for the sake of restoring the sinner. When a Christian falls, the pastor (or you, if you are the one who knows about it) is to go to that sinner privately and urge him to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. The sin is not to be divulged to others. You are not to gossip about it. The matter is to remain private. If this does not work, then one or two others are brought into the conversation, mature Christians, probably the elders in our context, and the person is urged to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. And if this does not work, then the Church is to be informed, and the Church is to plead with the person to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. And if the person still does not repent, he must be bound in his sin. He cannot come to the Lord’s Supper anymore. He must be excommunicated for the sake of love, in hope that this measure will bring him out of his sin and to repentance, so that he may be absolved and restored. And we must not doubt… That which is bound by the Church is bound by our Lord in heaven.
But, beloved, there is this great promise, and we must all cling to this promise for our very eternal lives. Whenever a sinner repents, confesses his sin and is absolved, he is loosed from his sins, and heaven is opened. Whenever you repent and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, your sins are forgiven. You heard it this morning in the general Confession and Absolution, where you confessed your sins and I, in the stead and by the command of Christ, forgave you your sins. You are hearing it now in the sermon, which is always to be an Absolution, a proclamation of the Gospel. And you have a glorious opportunity as a Christian to come to your pastor privately and confess your sins to Christ, and receive individually, personally, and intimately, the forgiveness of all your sins, knowing that your sins are forever taken away, that the pastor can never divulge your sins, that your sins won’t even be brought up on Judgment Day, because they’ve been buried in the grave forever. Beloved in the Lord, private confession is by no means commanded. But I urge you to consider availing yourself of this gift. Because the Lord Jesus promises that when His ministers loose you from your sins on earth, your sins are loosed in heaven. The very sins you name can never haunt you again. They are removed from you as far as the east is from the west.
And beloved, even this day, as you hear the Gospel, you are forgiven and restored. You have been absolved. Your sins have been washed away in Baptism. You have heard the Word of Life from the Lord Jesus. And now your Lord Jesus comes to you with His true body and blood to place His forgiveness in your mouths. Thanks be to God, in Christ you are no longer bound in your sins, but loosed, forgiven, set free. And now gathered together in His Name, here He is in our midst, really and substantially, to distribute His gifts. Heaven is opened, for the Lord Jesus has bestowed the Office of the Keys to His Church for this very purpose. For you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Catechism quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).