August 23, 2020, We Hold the Keys, Matthew 16:13-20 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
On the day that Peter, speaking on behalf of his fellow disciples as he often did, made his confession of faith to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus had a revelation of his own to make to Peter and the others. “You, Peter – and he was speaking to the others as well – you are the first stone of the church that I am going to build. My church is going to be so strong that the very gates of hell will be powerless against it. And I am putting into your hands the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Everybody – especially all of us ex-Catholics – knows that St. Peter holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven. That’s why there are so many jokes about St. Peter at heaven’s gates, like “Three men died on Christmas Eve and were met by St. Peter at the pearly gates…” And the general idea you get from all of these jokes is that Peter is like the bouncer at an exclusive nightclub – he’s the scary muscleman in the black suit who guards the door and only lets in the people on the list. And the only hope for the other poor schmucks out on the sidewalk is to either bribe their way in or charm their way in. Sadly, that is kind of an accurate description of the way people think about “going to heaven.” They think that God has a list of his favorites that get a pass, and if plain old people like them are going to have any chance to get in, they need to either bribe God with some impressive good works like donations to his favorite charity, or they need to prove to him what good people they are – maybe by comparing themselves to somebody a lot worse.
Fortunately for everyone everywhere, that whole image of the keys of the kingdom fits as badly as it could possibly fit. There is no keyhole for that. It is entirely useless.
Because when Jesus told his disciples that he was in the process of building a church, he wasn’t talking about founding some kind of club that only good guys get into. He was talking about building something that has power to change the way things work in this world. First of all, Jesus says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The word for hell isn’t what we often think of as “the bad place” we end up if we don’t make it into heaven. The word in Greek is “Hades” which is the place of the dead – all the dead. So Jesus is saying, “The power that death wields over mankind will be utterly broken, its gates will be smashed to pieces.” And we, his church, proclaim that that is true. Our Lord defied the power of death itself and became the first of many to enter Hades and walk back out again full of life. The gates are down. The power of death is broken forever.
And then there are those keys Jesus gave to us. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The power that Jesus was bestowing on his church was such that when they used those keys, however they used those keys, it was a done deal in heaven. That sounds very much like the prayer we pray almost every day – Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever the keys do, it is about doing the work of heaven here and now. And more than that, the one that holds the keys has power that resonates all the way to heaven.
Jesus gave a clue to what the keys were for at the very beginning of his ministry, when he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”When Jesus declared the job description of his own Incarnation, it was all about opening doors. It was all about setting people free. And setting people free is definitely a job that calls for keys.
So what does it mean that Jesus has handed those keys, keys to liberate the captives and the oppressed, over to his church, starting from that first “rock”, Peter, and down through the centuries, to us, the church of the 21st century, and specifically the members of St. Philip’s Church in Norwood? What is it that our Lord Jesus has given us the power to bind and loose? It becomes even more clear later in the gospel of Matthew, in chapter 18, when Jesus uses these very same words, that he is talking about forgiveness. Peter responds with this question, “Lord how many times do I have to forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says, “No, Peter, not seven times – how about seventy times seven times!” The keys of the kingdom have power to bind the condemnation that would separate us from God and from each other, and to loose the powers of shame and guilt and regret and punishment and fear.
The last ministry of Jesus on earth was to offer forgiveness – to those who had betrayed him, to those who had tortured and mocked him, to friends who had turned their backs on him, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the first gift the resurrected Jesus gave to his people was the power to forgive. When he appeared to his disciples on that first Easter evening, Jesus said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
Forgiveness is THE superpower of the Church of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness doesn’t minimize the extent of our guilt or the seriousness of sin itself; forgiveness just declares that the love of God is bigger and more powerful than all of it. The keys of the kingdom of heaven loose the chains of yesterday’s guilt and shame and open the door into a new and hopeful tomorrow. Forgiveness is the power that the Church holds to change people’s lives today.
The question is whether we are using the keys of the kingdom to set people free or to chain them up. That’s the very thing Jesus held against the Jewish lawyers of his time. “Woe to you lawyers!” he cried. “For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves don’t lift a finger to help them.”
When the Church preaches only rules and regulations and fails to offer the life-giving mercy of God we fail to be the Church of the one who offered forgiveness with his dying breath. We fail to be the church of the Jesus who stood the law of Moses on its head – instead of shunning those who were “unclean”: lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and the demon possessed, he embraced them and ate with them and loved them. And instead of Jesus becoming unclean by coming into contact with them, the very opposite happened – they were made clean by coming into contact with Jesus! People were healed of illness and guilt and shame and given the hope of a fresh tomorrow, because God’s grace re-creates us. That is the power that Jesus put into Peter’s hands at the birth of his Church. That is still the power we have today, if we choose to wield it, a power so great the gates of death and hell are powerless against us.
There is a very famous shrine in Southwestern France called Lourdes, where in 1858 a young girl claimed to see the Blessed Virgin Mary. The spring that flows in that place is said to have healing properties, so that something like 6 million people visit there every year hoping to be healed. And indeed, thousands of people have left their crutches and canes there as proof of their healing. What would it look like if the Church used its power of forgiveness on a much grander scale than we do now – what cast-off relics of shame and fear and bitterness and despair would be left on our doorstep as people went back into the world freed from their bonds! We could do so much more, as a Church, and as its individual members, in using the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to set people free in the here and now.
But more than that: if we fail to offer forgiveness, Jesus told us plainly, we will find ourselves unable to receive it as well. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he added this, “for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We put ourselves in a place of un-grace when we choose to withhold grace from those who have offended us.
We have seen shining examples of the power of forgiveness, when the Amish forgave the man who murdered their schoolchildren at Nickel Mines, and when the friends and family of the victims of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston went to the prison to offer forgiveness and grace to Dylan Rooff. Those two examples sent shock waves into the world; people were so astonished. And there have been more famous examples, too, like Corrie ten Boom who wrote about her sister Betsy when they were in a Nazi concentration camp, that Betsy offered forgiveness even to the soldiers who were tormenting them. Sometime we, like the world, tend to look at these people as super-spiritual, heroes of the faith. But we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we have the key to that power every day, if only we have the faith and the courage to use it.
Just like Jesus asked the disciples, we need to ask ourselves, every day, as the Church of Jesus Christ, “Who do people say that we are?” Because some people think we are the new Pharisees, keeping our distance from the world in our self-righteousness, and some people think we are a kind of Evangelical lobbying group trying to keep America Christian. But the real question is: who does Jesus say that we are? And what Jesus says is that we are the power of God against which the gates of Death and Hell will definitely fall flat. And he says that we hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven in our hands, to free the oppressed of this world from the burdens of guilt and shame and despair and bitterness and hatred – all those burdens that are crushing them. We have been given the keys of the kingdom – if only we remember to use them.