This is what I preached on Sunday. This is a very different sermon for me; comparing this sermon with those I preached during my first year of seminary reveals significant changes in my faith and theology. Hilda, a 95-year-old woman at church, told me after the service that I "preached the Gospel." In the past I tip-toed around the Gospel. I would not say that I'm more conservative now. More Christ-centered, yes, and definitely more Trinitarian. At any rate, here it is. Oh, and Hilda also told me that the secret to longevity is eating a lot of broccoli and cooking with heavy pans, and that she never lies.
1 John 3:11-17
The weekend before my junior year of college, I moved into an apartment with a friend. I signed the lease and was given two keys: one to unlock the door to our apartment, and one to open our mailbox. When I tried to open the mailbox, it wouldn’t budge. The key and lock were mismatched. I told the overworked maintenance guy about the problem, and handed him the small brass key. As we walked to the office to deal with the situation (and let me tell you, I love mail, so not being able to access my mailbox was, in my mind, a MAJOR situation), the maintenance guy tossed the key over a brick wall into the green metal dumpster. It landed with a tinny clank. I have to admit, I was shocked. Even though that key didn’t open my lock, it surely opened some lock, somewhere. This sort of thinking is probably what causes me to have multiple junk drawers full of things like orphaned keys.
Keys are important little trinkets. You can’t open a safe without the proper combination, and you can’t turn the lock of a car door without the right key. Keys allow us entry into our safe spaces: from our houses to our hope chests. They help us guard ourselves and our possessions from perceived and real dangers. They keep out what doesn’t belong within secure chambers. To have a key is to have the power to protect, the power to maintain boundaries.
And Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, the Rock upon whom the church would be built.
Oh, how we’re tempted to turn Peter and the church into a caricature of judgment and exclusivity. Remember all those jokes about Peter at the Pearly Gates, standing guard at the entrance of heaven? More often than not, Peter keeps the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven in his pocket, turning the butt of the joke away, presumably down to the gates of hell.
The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are not like the keys of the world. These keys are a holy responsibility to share God’s endless grace with the whole of creation. The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven invite us not to lock our doors against the world, but to open wide the doors to the way of Christ Jesus.
To hold the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven is to be bearers of the gospel message. We are called to share God’s grace with each and every person we meet. We are to open the doors of our hearts to the stranger, open our cupboards to the hungry, open our borders to the refugees. We are invited into God’s mansion of many rooms so that we can invite others to experience the grace of forgiveness.
We have the keys of the Kingdom, friends, as the Body of Christ on earth. Whatever we bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. This means we have vital work to do! We must bind up the sins of hatred, violence, and greed. We must bind prejudice. We must bind racism! We must bind homophobia! These are evils that cannot be allowed to flourish. Not in the church, and not in the world. There is binding to be done so that doors of grace might be opened on earth as it is in heaven.
For injuries to heal, they must be bound with care. In this month’s issue of Disciples World, Michael Kinnamon writes about the ravages of AIDS in African nations. He quotes a Zambian pastor who said, “The Body of Christ is HIV positive.” We must contribute our tears, our prayers, our sweat, and our dollars to help bind the wounds of our brothers and sisters in Africa who suffer from a lack of preventative education, from a lack of medicine, from a lack of the world’s attention. What is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven—these wounds must be bound! The devastation of the tsunami—through Church World Service, our Week of Compassion funds are being transformed into bandages for calamity. The wounds of war must also be bound through the power of witness, through the muscle of prayer, and through the making of peace.
Just as whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. What shall our legacy be? With our gospel keys, do we have the courage to let loose with a great swell of love? Can we release a love that extends to both our gracious Creator and our many and diverse neighbors?
You will also find an article about the tragedy in Darfur, Sudan, in the March edition of Disciples World. The survivors of the genocide continue to suffer in refugee camps, where one resident describes the experience as like living as hens in a cage. But our own church, again through Week of Compassion and Church World Service, has been involved in a process of letting loose a shower of necessities. These humanitarian organizations that represent our own denomination have been letting loose with a quarter of a million blankets and a million bars of soap. They have been letting loose over a thousand wells and one hundred times as many mosquito nets. Sometimes love takes the form of a mosquito net! Through our financial and spiritual support of Week of Compassion, we have let loose the power of solidarity when much of the world continues to ignore the Sudanese refugees.
In the First letter of John, we are reminded that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. The same force of love that enfolded Jesus on the first Easter, the same force of love that transformed pain and crucifixion into joy and resurrection—this is the love we have been entrusted to reveal. We have the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the keys to life lived in the light of faith and hope. The gospel keys unlock healing. The gospel keys unlock justice. The gospel keys unlock voices that have been silenced. The gospel keys unlock forgiveness. The gospel keys cannot be tossed in a trash can or relegated to a junk drawer!
I truly believe that there is no door that the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot open. That is not to say that the gospel is a cure for all our ills. The gospel does not numb our bodies and spirits to the pains of living. But faith in the gospel means trusting that the world is infused with the spirit of a loving and merciful Creator who is as near to us as our own breath.
In the scriptures, Jesus revealed that God does not want us to lock our faith in a safe place. Rather, God gives the church—God gives US—the call to be servants, bringing tidings of God’s peace, God’s abundance, and God’s incredible goodness to a world that is locked in pain.
This is what the church is about. This work of binding wounds and loosing love is the vocation of Christian people, and it has been ever since Peter confessed his faith in Jesus. Our business is to take a look at the Kingdom of Heaven preached and demonstrated by Jesus, take a look at the world, and figure out what needs to be done to make the world look more like the peaceable Kingdom. And yet the church’s ministry is fulfilled not by our own efforts, but by the grace of God. We are simply stewards of this grace, called forth to humbly and joyfully dismantle any obstructions to God’s grace.
As individuals and as the church, we often fail at this vocation. Peter himself bound his faith and let loose with fear on the night that he betrayed Jesus. The church has failed time and time again, losing touch with the Kingdom of Heaven. At times the church has even participated in the corruption of the gospel. But God’s grace never falters. When we drop the keys and fall into dishonest interpretations of scriptures, God still unlocks forgiveness and washes us in the living waters of grace. God’s Holy Spirit still remains in the church, guiding us toward love.
In these Lenten days, we are invited to reconsider our journey as Christians. We move through time more intentionally, more carefully. This is a time to repent and inhale God’s spirit of forgiveness. This Lenten walk prepares us with a quiet intensity for the extraordinary celebration of Easter, when we shall be witnesses to the very core of the Kingdom of Heaven: the binding of death itself. On that day of resurrection, life will emerge from the grave, let loose by God our Creator and Friend. As witnesses, as church, we have a message to proclaim, a love to deliver. May we let loose the gospel of Christ’s love in our homes, on our streets, in our cities, in our nation, and in our world— on earth as it is in the Kingdom of heaven. Amen!