Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. The handing over of the keys is an extremely significant moment no matter when it takes place. It could be a 16-year-old whose parents hand over the keys for the first time. There is a sense of freedom that comes with these keys, but more than that, there is a sense of responsibility. The same is true for a family member or friend. When you hand over the keys to you house, there is a sense of respect and responsibility that comes with it. Whenever keys are handed over, there is responsibility which accompanies them.
2. The same sort of thing is true in our Gospel Reading for today. When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples on this Easter evening, he hands over the keys to them and gives them a great responsibility. Now, the language of Jesus “handing over the keys” to his disciples is not language which comes from our Gospel text. This language originates from Matthew 16:19, when Jesus says: “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” (Matthew 16:19). Now, if you were paying careful attention when I read that verse, you’ll notice that Matthew 16:19 is not a parallel passage to our text for today. In fact, this moment from Matthew’s Gospel occurs quite a while before the Resurrection—in fact, it occurs before Jesus’ Transfiguration. The context of this particular verse is that Peter has just made his great confession of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In response to this confession, Jesus blesses Peter and says that he will build his church on this confession. And then, Jesus makes a promise to Peter and the other disciples. When the time is right for the church to be established, Jesus will hand over the keys of the kingdom. When the promised day comes, the disciples will literally have the authority to open the kingdom of heaven to those who believe and to shut the kingdom of heaven to those who don’t believe. This is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16.
3. But as our text comes into view, we see that Jesus’ promise is being fulfilled through the events spoken of in John 20. It was evening on that first Easter. The disciples had heard the reports of Jesus being risen, which might have been exactly why they were hiding. They were afraid that if the rumor of Jesus being alive spread to the Jewish authorities, the disciples would very quickly be their first target. In some ways, it didn’t matter all that much if the disciples believed that Jesus was alive—they still feared the Jews above all things.
4. But Jesus enters into the disciples’ fear. Shut and locked doors are no problem for the resurrected Jesus. We’re told simply: Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19b-20). It is truly Jesus. There could be no mistakes about it. Jesus is alive and he still bears the marks of the crucifixion. He died, but has been raised to life. And it is this Jesus who comes to the disciples in peace. His peace casts out their fear. They are glad to see the Lord. He is risen from the dead and has come to bring them peace. There is no longer any need to fear the Jewish leaders because Jesus has come in peace. That doesn’t mean the disciples won’t continue fearing the Jewish leaders—they will for a while. The fact that they’re all locked in the room together a week later suggests as much. But the point is, they don’t need to fear any longer. Jesus has come to grant his disciples a peace that passes all understanding. This peace isn’t an earthly peace which will ensure their safety from the Jewish leaders. It’s a peace which comes from heaven. It’s a peace which would transform these fearful men into some of the most courageous men you could ever meet.
5. But before that could happen, Jesus had one more thing that he must do. And so we read: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21-23). This is the moment. Jesus breaths his Spirit upon his disciples and hands over the keys. They now have been given the keys of the kingdom. If they forgive a repentant person their sins, they are forgiven. If they withhold forgiveness from an unrepentant person, they are not forgiven. And Jesus’ words here make it clear: This is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself. The disciples are given the keys to literally open and close the gates of heaven to people. There is an incredible responsibility that comes with these keys—one that can’t be managed properly alone. That’s why the keys are given to all of the disciples.
6. And by extension, this is why the keys are given to the entire Church, not specific individuals. Because of this, it’s difficult to understate the significance of this Gospel text. The peace and forgiveness of the resurrected Jesus, and the very keys to the kingdom of heaven are given by Jesus to his Church. These keys were given to the Apostles here in John 20, and the keys are passed down to the whole Church as the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the expanding Church throughout the story of Acts and in the centuries leading up until now. The keys to the kingdom of heaven are given to the Church, and this plays itself out in two ways in our lives.
7. The first way in which this plays itself out in our lives is through the formal “Office of the Holy Ministry” in the Church. Our Lutheran Confessions state in Augsburg Confession Article 28: The authority of the Keys [Matthew 16:19], or the authority of the bishops—according to the Gospel—is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the Sacraments. Christ sends out His apostles with this command, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” [John 20:21-22] (AC XXVIII, 5-6). What our Lutheran Confessions recognize is that our Lord has instituted a specific office in the Church to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, and forgive sins. This is the office of pastor or bishop. When we gather together corporately in church, God has a divine order that he works through. He delivers us forgiveness of sins through Word and Sacrament from the mouth of the pastor. And when the pastor speaks on behalf of Christ, we can have absolute certainty that his words are just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself. This working of our Lord through the office of the pastor is what is referred to as “the Office of the Keys.”
8. But the keys to the kingdom of heaven aren’t given only to the pastors, they are given to the whole church. And so, the second way in which this plays itself out in our lives is through our every day interactions with one another. When we are at home, when we are at work, when we are wherever we find ourselves through out the week, we are Christ’s representatives. We have the authority of the keys to preach the Gospel and forgive sins (even to perform the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in an emergency). We see an example of this in the Scriptures in the deacon Philip in Acts 8. Philip was not one of the Apostles. He was not one of the ordained clergy. He had a support role within the church where his job was to wait on tables. When the assembly of believers came together, it was not his place to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. Yet when Philip was on his own and found himself having an interaction with an Ethiopian Eunuch, he did not hesitate to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, and, yes, even administer a baptism. Philip was not out of line, and he certainly was not undermining the roles of the apostles or pastors. He was simply preaching the Gospel and exercising the keys in his everyday interactions.
9. This is exactly what you are called to do. When we come together, there is a set order that we follow. There is one man, the pastor, who leads services, preaches the Gospel, forgives sins, and administers the Sacraments. This is the structure that our Lord has put in place for when we gather together as we are now. But when we go our separate ways and interact with our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone else, we bear the keys of the kingdom of heaven. It is our responsibility to use those keys for the benefit of those around us. This is the order God has established. When you’re talking with your neighbor and a question about the faith comes up, don’t say, “Let me go grab my pastor.” You answer his question because that’s what Christ has put you there to do. When a friend sins against you and asks for forgiveness, you don’t say, “Let me go grab pastor.” You forgive the sin because that’s what Christ has put you there to do. This is how you use the keys of the kingdom of heaven in your everyday interactions. And as you use these keys, speaking Christ’s words, forgiving sins, be assured, the same Spirit that rests upon the pastor in the Divine Service, the same Spirit that was breathed by Jesus upon his disciples is with you. You have Christ’s peace. You have the keys to the kingdom. It’s your responsibility to use them for the benefit of those around you. And when you do, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.