Jesus, keys, and “loosening” power: beyond a theology of “no”!

Once upon a time, near a wide spot in a Tennessee road, lived Mrs. Grace. For forty three years Anna Grace taught algebra and calculus at the high school and played the piano every Sunday at a her little Methodist church. One afternoon Mrs. Grace dropped by church to get ready for choir rehearsal and noticed an unfamiliar purple bicycle abandoned near the door. She entered the sanctuary to hear ChopSticks rattling the stained glass.  She hastened  to the altar humming “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war”!  As she prepared “to lift high the royal banner,”  Mrs. Grace noticed the child-like joy dancing in the young pianist’s eyes. His pure delight arrested Mrs. Grace’s charge. Seeing Mrs. Grace, the immigrant child wanted to bolt. Only  her thirty years of classroom mastery kept the child at the piano bench. She slid next to him on the bench, fixed her eyes, pointed at the keys, and commanded “play”.  He sheepishly plinked out Chop-Sticks as Mrs Grace improvised a sonata that somehow ended with “Softly and tendering Jesus is calling”.  That afternoon Carlos fell in love with the piano.


Within a year, Carlos played special music at church.  At twelve, Carlos filled in when Mrs. Grace visited her sister.  At sixteen, Mrs. Grace took a sabbatical so Carlos could  get his first job. At college  Carlos eagerly opened Mrs. Grace’s letters  which often contained her  “dollar descant”: a series of crisp one hundred, fifty, twenty, ten, five and one dollar bills.


Carlos’ conservatory obligations prevented his attending Mrs. Grace’s’ funeral.  A massive arrangement of ruby roses rested atop the piano they shared. Within a year a substantial check and detailed instructions for a new piano arrived.  On All Saint’s Sunday, the local paper proclaimed “Piano Professor to honor his childhood Mentor”. The tiny church would be packed.   


The preacher leaked Carlos’ Saturday rehearsal time, so half the church milled around the sanctuary helping dust.  With a wave of hugs Carlos greeted old friends and sat down at the marvelous brown grand piano.  Carlos read the brass plaque aloud: “Given to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Mrs. Anna Grace by her beloved students. We thank God for her gracious lessons in music, math, hope and hospitality.”  Carlos beamed as he adjusted the bench and reached down to flip open the keyboard.  It was locked. ”Very funny, who has the key?” the Maestro chortled!   After some embarrassing fumbling and a few anxious calls, the regular pianist’s husband agreed to run by the beauty shop and fish the key from his wife’s purse.  While waiting Carlos’ inquired, “why is the keyboard locked?”  Someone nervously  spoke up, “Well Carlos, neighborhood kids keep coming in our sanctuary, and to tell you the truth, this instrument is too fine a piano to let just anybody play it!”   


Key’s matter.  A locked piano can’t make a joyful noise.   


In our passage, Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ.”  Jesus proclaims “you are Peter (giving him an unusual nick-name “Rock”).  And I’ll build my church on this rock… (and) I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.”  Jesus has given us the keys.


What doors do the Kingdom of Heaven unlock?  In “Feasting on the Word”. Mitchell T Reddish writes “The power “to bind and loose” (is) rabbinic terminology for doctrinal and disciplinary authority”.  Reddish continues “ the church has been given a daunting task- to declare the will of God to the world… Scripture is not static; it must be reapplied to new situations.”   Keys allow people to unlock barred doors and enter in the Kingdom of God! The keys open the church on earth and in heaven.


Who did Jesus give the  keys to?  Who does Jesus trust to Bind and Loosen?


In 1984, I was shoveling a heavy snow off our Kentucky driveway, when my dad barked, “Your mother wants us to go to the store to get milk”. Happy to lay aside my shovel and knowing dad was an easy mark for all manner of adolescent junk food, I hustled in behind him. As we walked to his truck, dad pirouetted, paused, tossed me his keys and said, “You drive”.  I was sixteen and with icy roads and falling snow, I said, “Dad, are you sure?”  Dad did not flinch, “Are you planning on never driving in the snow?”


Who did Jesus toss the  keys to?   People like Peter. who will deny Jesus. Peter who will walk on the water for a  few glorious seconds. People like Peter, who sleep in on Easter. People like Peter  we don’t believe Easter’s first preachers, Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary who proclaimed,”Christ is risen!”  Who has God given heaven’s keys to? Sinful folks like you and me.


The Lord does not toss the loosing and binding keys to any one person but to the church.   “I will build my church on this rock… (and) give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus does not hand the keys to every disciple, to every small group, to every band of dissenters, to every caucus and movement.  Jesus never mentions the pope, the bishop, or even General Conference.  As we hold the church keys, let us remember that Jesus was crucified by religious experts.


Now we are pretty good at binding the Scripture, locking and protecting the text.  It is easy to be literalist. It is fairly safe and secure to preach a theology of “no”, “thou shalt nots”, and “it is not permitted”.  However, Jesus speaks of “loosening”.  Sometimes we need to risk a theological crash or innovative note. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing the rise of national socialism and the church’s too-measured response, wrote: “it is no good waiting indefinitely for a sign from heaven that will solve the problem… to procrastinate and prevaricate simply because you’re afraid of erring… seems to me almost to run counter to love. To delay or fail to make a decision may be more sinful than to make wrong decisions out of faith and love.” (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy)   It is easy to posit a negating theology that binds people to the letter and fills the church with “no”,  but loosening, opening the doors, and saying “yes” holds far greater risk.


So when do we loosen?  Jesus gives us guidance. Jesus warns:  “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits…Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. ” Matthew 7:14-21.  Who is worthy to hold the keys to heaven?   None of us, but perhaps the best test is the fruit test. How does unlocking a closed church door, relate to larger ideals found in Jesus’ great commandment?   How does any current turning of Heaven’s keys replicate Jesus’s actions recorded in the Gospels?  Jesus broke restrictive rules on earth, declaring all foods clean (Mark 7:19), healing on the sabbath (Matthew 12,Mark2), welcoming those named as “unclean” (Luke 7) and speaking of God as his father. (John 8).


In Mark 12:38 Jesus warns  “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets, while they cheat widows out of their homes, and to make a show of it with long prayers.”  Who is worthy  to unlock or lock Heaven’s door?  No one who believes they deserve to hold the keys and yet Jesus has handed us the keys.


In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus warns: “The scribes and the separatists … tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but these religious experts do themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to carry them.”    In contrast to preachers who always say “no”, Jesus lifted the cross embracing the sin, ugliness, defilements, woe, suffering, and alienation of our broken world.  Carrying the weight of our sinful world, Jesus prays, “Father forgive them”! (Luke 23:34) How do we wield heaven’s keys? Do we bar Heaven’s doors?  Will we risk locking down the doors of forgiveness, grace, and hope?  Perhaps, inspired by Jesus’ cross, we might understand our theological task as lifting oppressive burdens and unlocking unnecessary restrictions!  Could we risk deferring final judgement to God, and unlock church doors allowing more people to come to the Gospel Feast?  


What might guide us as we seek to loosen and to bind, to lock and unlock?  “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”  (John 13:34) Who is worthy to hold of Heaven’s keys?  Only those with a deep love for God, for each other, and for neighbor.  


Jesus warns us to practise our faith,  watch out for religious experts,  and not burden people with heavy loads. However, Jesus has given the church Heaven’s keys and the power to loosen and constrict!    


I know some of you, even with the plain words of Jesus, will not feel the church has the power to unlock and loosen restrictions, but have you noticed that the no book in the Bible contains an official list of all the books that belong in the Bible?   Who bound together our Bible?  Who set the Canon?  The church.   If the Church once set the Bible’s table of contents, why are we now unable to interrupt the Bible we bound together?  


The church once argued about the Biblical Canon and the direction of Christian theology.  In Acts 15, the church decided to include uncircumcised gentiles loosening the Levitical Law.  They sent an official letter welcoming proponents of non-scriptural ideas like non-kosher potlucks, uncircumcision, unwashed hands, blended fabrics, sideburn trimming, interracial marriage, and Sunday worshipping,   Luke’s account of that early church debate became part of our Scripture.  The church opened the Canon and included not just the words of Jesus but the Acts of the Apostles.   The church set aside Old Testament teachings, welcoming uncircumcised gentiles citing what some today might call flimsy evidence saying, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than the essentials.” (Acts 15:28) If Jesus empowered people like us to bind the Canon, disregard the Covenant Commandment to circumcise, and end Kosher laws, then don’t we have power to loosen, unlock, and interpret today? Have we not rejected slavery binding what the Bible permits?  Do we not eat shrimp, crab, and catfish which the Bible calls an abomination? 

After adding the Acts of the Apostles , the  church recognized that Paul’s letters made an impact on the church, so the church unlocked the Canon and added letters to churches like Corinth, Rome, Colossae and Thessalonica.  Listen for the beginning  of this canonical process in Colossians 4, “Luke, the dearly loved physician, …says hello. Say hello to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, along with Nympha and the church that meets in her house. After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea.” ( Col 4:14)  


I grew up thinking about the Bible like a magic book- every line perfect.  Later when I asked questions about words and texts, my preachers posited that “The Bible in original autographs, signed off on by Peter and Paul, is inerrant and infallible”.  That does not comfort me.  Why not just remember that Jesus has given us the keys and that the Holy Spirit still comes “to guide us into all truth” ? (John 16:13)  


So many Christians take deep comfort in remembering Jesus words in Matthew 18:20,  “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”   But friends, listen to the verse in context, “ I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”   Oh friends, it seems so strange that Jesus might toss us the keys to Heaven and yet this is what Jesus did.  So as we debate how to use our Christ-given keys for inclusion and  interpretation, let do so with deepest love, prayer and humility.  Let us resist believing we are religious experts or the Final Judge. Let us remember Christians eat catfish (a Levitical abomination Chpt. 11).  Let us remember the church loosened the rules allowing in uncircumcised gentiles, who were once counted as outside God’s Covenant.  Let us remember Paul’s encouragement in 2 Corinthians 11, “That the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life…   (so let us) act with great boldness… for where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom”  Let us not be defined by our “no.”  for Jesus has tossed us the keys and entrusted us to open the door.  

Let us remember we do not worship the Bible.  We worship Jesus. (EUB Confession of Faith: “Article IV—The Holy Bible”: We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”)   The Bible points us to Jesus. And Jesus is still with us each time two or three of us get together to do the things that Jesus did.  So let us open the Word of God together.  Let us live it. Let us not be afraid to interpret the Bible for our age: because Jesus has given us the Keys to Heaven. Let usb take some risks for Jesus always was inviting unexpected people to the Gospel Feast! Let us not be afraid to take risks and unlock Heaven’s doors, so that others might come in and experience the hope, love, forgiveness, freedom and change that Jesus has brought to us. Amen.  

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