Juneteenth (its history and celebration) is a good illustration of the office of the keys. On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in all states, to be effective Jan. 1, 1863. But it was not until June 19, 1865, that Union officers were able to bring this declaration to Texas. African-Americans had been freed, but were living in slavery up until that moment because they had not heard the declaration, or the good news had been kept from them.
So too Christ has purchased and won us – ransomed and redeemed us – with His shed blood, freeing us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He did that 2,000+ years ago. What we need, like those slaves freed by Lincoln’s pen and the blood shed by Union soldiers on the battlefield, is to have the good news brought to us. It becomes ours by faith. The words of Isaiah 61 about the Christ, which Jesus declares in Luke 4 are fulfilled in Him, don’t just say that He will bring “liberty to the captives,” but that He will *proclaim* liberty to the captives. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” As sainted Rev. Kenneth Korby adds: “but He is not finished with you.” Jesus’ ongoing ministry is sending pastors to be His instrument for Christ Himself to preach this freedom from sin, whose word powerfully frees people from the devil’s grasp.
We Lutherans confess: “That we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.” Romans 10 says: “How shall they hear without a preacher? … So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
We still can be brought back into “thralldom” to the devil, as Luther’s Easter hymn says. The devil’s accusations in the conscience bring people freed by the Gospel back into a kind of slavery, as we are held in a prison of guilt and shame. Often these days we’re living in slavery to fears of all kinds, including the fear and torment of death, or unrelieved grief. We live enslaved to the memories of our sins. We need to hear the absolution!
General Order No. 3, the proclamation read to the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, is beautiful. It says: “All slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property …” Obviously, we’re still working to apply that to all people as it should. There’s a long sad history, starting with Reconstruction in the South, continuing to our present troubles, that shows how even in subtle ways we don’t treat all people with “absolute equality.” God bless the efforts to have everyone understand that there’s absolute equality among all people in our nation, regardless of race, ethnicity or status. In essence, this is in a way learning to walk by faith, to live as if you believe what the proclamation says. The quest for justice in our land, and on earth, is like God’s work of sanctification (and indeed, it’s part of the sanctified life): hopefully it shows progress, but it’s a constant struggle, we have never “arrived,” and we need help to do better – always “with the help of God.”
The absolution is also beautiful. One version of it that I love is in the rite of private absolution, what I as pastor am privileged to say to a repenting person: “I absolve and *free you* from all your sins. They are forgiven as abundantly and completely as Jesus Christ has merited by His suffering and death … Take as your own the assurance that I give to you, and believe without a doubt that your sins are forgiven …”
In this area too, we must learn to walk by faith, to live as if you believe what *this* declaration – the most important one – says to you: that you are freed from all your sins. Live as if you are actually freed from all sin, condemnation, and punishment. That’s the struggle, isn’t it? This is the secret to having joy in life. It also affects how we treat one another. If you live with a bad conscience, you’ll treat others poorly, judge self-righteously, and taste bitterness. But if you live as a person who’s actually freed from all sin, it frees you to live generously, with a full heart, and to view every person as the ransomed of the Lord, someone whose sins are died for, who is as free from sin as you by Christ’s death, and who is (we pray) walking with you to heaven. God grant it!
Rev. Jerry Gernander