Letting Jesus be Lord of our lives -- and of our own congregations -- means making sure that no thing and no one else is allowed to be. -- the Rev. Kelly Fryer, Reclaiming the "L" Word: Renewing the Church From Its Lutheran Core
Upon my first read-through of today's Gospel lesson, I have to admit that my first thought was an equivocal one: Here's a real good-news/bad news text.
First the good news: At Caesarea Philippi -- ironically, a place home to a popular Roman shrine and a center of imperial influence -- Jesus asks his friends as the song says, "What's the buzz" on the street regarding him and his ministry; he gets a variety of interesting answers -- the common perception seems to be that Jesus is the re-embodiment of John the Baptist, or one of the great prophets of yore. Then Jesus directs the same question toward them: "Who do you say I am?" At that moment the irrepressible Simon Peter blurts out the credo that has defined followers of Christ for two milennia: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Jesus seems happily astonished by this insight on Peter's part, and identifies it as nothing less than a revelation from God.
Whew! Glad we cleared that up.
But then -- Jesus gives Peter, and by extension everyone else in the Christian community to come, a job: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
I don't know about you, but my reaction to reading this verse was something along the lines of, Yeah -- and we can see how well that's worked out.
The Office of the Keys -- the "binding and loosing" -- was never my strong subject in catechism class. Our pastor's either -- I think we spent maybe 20 minutes talking about it, and I got the distinct impression that he was almost as much in the dark as the rest of us. And I suspect that's still true for many of us. When's the last time you attended an excommunication, or the last time that Rome issued an interdiction? Because the Office of the Keys is often presented in these medieval terms -- the institutional Church's power to offer or rescind forgiveness on a personal or collective level. And, frankly, looking at the historical record, it seems that throughout the ages the Church has used its self-serving interpretation of this office as a means of individual and collective intimidation, bullying and consolidation of power.
So I was glad to read an essay on "binding and loosing," by Mark Allan Powell of Trinity Seminary, that helped me understand what this part of the text is really all about. Powell notes that the same binding/loosing verbiage used in Matthew was used in the Jewish community to refer to community discernment of God's will in interpreting Torah to apply to specific situations.
I got a taste of this earlier this spring, when I took an online class in Torah, Talmud and Mishnah. The rabbinical commentaries on Torah provide a real insight into this group discernment process. Take the Sh'ma, the morning and evening prayer central to Jewish spirituality, to be said in the morning upon awakening and again just before going to sleep. For pious people "on fire for the Lord," as our evangelical friends might say, it was vitally important to understand the best way to pray this prayer. When do "morning" and "evening" begin and end? Must one get physically out of bed to pray the morning prayer, or into bed to pray the evening prayer? What if some unforeseen circumstance made it impossible to say the prayer at the correct time? What if someone said the prayers in a "going through the motions" way instead of from the heart -- did they count if they were't prayed sincerely? Rabbis argued passionately about issues like this, in a way that underscored the living, adaptive character of Torah.
In the Gospels we see Jesus involved in this same process of intepreting Torah, "binding" laws pertaining to things like divorce, and "loosing" laws that had developed around issues like performing various activities on the Sabbath. Jesus' pattern, as recorded in Scripture, is to make God's mercy paramount. When the moral laxity of contemporary religious practice -- granting divorces to men for trivialities like a wife burning one dinner too many -- hurt the disempowered and marginalized, Jesus gets tough; but when the standard of practice becomes a burden because of its stringency or lack of concern for those whom the rule affects negatively -- "no work" on the Sabbath being interpreted to mean any kind of activity, even life-saving/healing/redemptive/renewing actions -- then Jesus unbinds the rule. God's mercy, God's saving action, God's mending of the broken places in society, are Jesus' touchstones, it would seem, in his understanding of God's will expressed in Torah, and by extension of his own ministry.
So what Jesus is talking about in "binding and loosing" is about authority, within the Christian community, to interpret his teaching as situations arose, based upon his own words and example.
But -- and this is a big one -- the ultimate authority is vested not in the Church as an institution, nor even in the discourse going on in the marketplace of ideas within Christendom...it is invested in Christ: "I will give you..." As people of faith throughout the ages have pointed out, whenever we take our eyes off Christ, whenever we forget the answer to "Who do you say I am?" -- or, worse yet, even forget to ask that question -- whenever we try to write Christ out of our own individual and group discernment processes and try to figure things out ourselves...bad things happen. We see that dynamic even in Simon Peter's later experience in the early Church, when confronted by Gentile converts -- when he insists on interpreting God's will through the lens of his own cultural prejudices, he becomes exclusionary, something other than an agent of Christ's redeeming, renewing power, and ultimately needs a supernatural corrective to readjust his attitude. When we ignore Christ in our midst, Christ's will isn't done, and God's mercy, reconciliation and restorative justice are not made manifest in our thoughts, words and actions.
If we truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then we ipso facto dethrone ourselves -- the conceits of our own intellect, our feelings, our self-serving actions and attitudes, our enculturated preferences and prejudices -- and we dethrone the "powers and principalities" of the dominant culture as authorities in our lives. Our focus will be, not on these, but on the One Who Goes Ahead of Us, leading us into God's Reign, encouraging us to see ourselves and others, and discern God's will for ourselves and other, through the cruciform lens of his own life, death and resurrection.
Gracious God: There are many "lords" -- some internal, some external -- who vie for our loyalty in this world. May we always keep our gaze on the real Sovereign of us all, and may we as the Body of Christ always "bind" or "loose" with his measure of grace and mercy and justice. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Illustration for the booklet "The Ten Commandments" by Martin Luther, 1520