The Symbol to the left is one that you used to find in both Roman Catholic and what were called the Magisterial Protestant churches, which is everybody but the Baptists. But depending upon your Pastor, you might not have been taught this in catechism. It is the symbol of the office of the keys. It is the fifth part of the Small Catechism. Sometimes called confession. And the one most often skipped. Why skipped? It makes an audacious claim. It claims that ministers can forgive sins. But probably even more scandalous is the claim that the office has the authority to withhold forgiveness. Hence the two crossed keys. One of them to loose and one of them to bind.
How are sins forgiven? Why do we believe any of them are? The first biblical story to deal with such forgiveness is the crippled man lowered through the roof by his friends to Jesus (Matthew 9:1ff/Mark 2:1ff). When Jesus first sees the man, he tells him “your sins are forgiven.” Nice, but probably something of a letdown from expectation of the miracle worker. But Jesus has his point. He strikes up the question with the Pharisees watching who were saying he was blaspheming. “Only God can forgive sins.” He tells the man to pick up his mat and walk as proof that the Son of Man also has authority to forgive sins. And this is roughly where the Baptists like to stop the story. Forgiveness is between me and my personal Jesus. And they are not completely wrong. Jesus sinners doth receive. There is nothing that you can’t take to Jesus. But the story doesn’t stop there.
In three places (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18: 18 and John 20:22) Jesus gives this authority to different groups. If you are Roman Catholic you love our Gospel text for today, the first one, because in that passage the words are said to Peter. Ta-da, the first pope is the owner of the keys. Hence the papal seal to the right. If you are most flavors of protestant you love the Matthew 18 version a couple chapters later in which the same words are given in general to “brothers and sisters”. The Eastern Orthodox and our Catechism like the John passage because the recipients of the saying appear to be the apostles as a group. The interpretive leap in each is the preferred sources of forgiving sins: The pope and those in communion, members of the church, and those called and ordained.
I can’t remember if I’ve referenced it before but this is where I love Luther in a largely forgotten part of the confessions, the Smalcald Articles Part 3, article 4 on The Gospel. “God is superabundant in his grace: first , through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world…second through Baptism. Third through the Sacrament of the Altar. Forth through the power of the keys. Also through the mutual consolation of the brethren.” Luther’s answer is “Why not all?”
But that doesn’t address why these keys have a tendency to disappear. Which goes back to the catechism questions. What is confession? Confession has two parts, first that we confess our sins and second that we receive absolution. It is never the use of the loosing key that causes trouble. I’ve never run across a Christian who complains about forgiving a repentant sinner. Yes, I know the parable of the prodigal and the older brother. Yes, I do recognize that people can have trouble with forgiveness. But at least in my experience that eventually thaws. What all kinds of people do have problems with is the necessity of confession for absolution. The binding key is not really a power of the office but a duty – to call sinners to repentance. And sinners who don’t think they have can often respond, “just who do you think you are?”
It is much easier to say your sins are forgiven. But if you are only using one key, you might be like the prophets declaring “peace, peace.” We will see if what they say happens. But the called office has both keys for reason. So that we might be confident in the grace of God through all of his means of grace.