Text: Matthew 16:13-20
If you want to start a debate, read this story from Matthew 16. For years, Roman Catholics have argued that this is a story that explains apostolic succession. Meanwhile, Protestants have argued that this story is all about the power of testimony, of proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
I read this story less from a theological angle and more from the angle of a parent. As a parent, I cannot help but wonder: “Jesus, what were you thinking?!” The one reliable thing about Peter from the day Jesus invites him to leave his stinking fishing nets and follow him is that Peter is unreliable. He is impetuous. He speaks often before he formulates his thoughts. Yes, he gets the right answer in this story, but mostly, thanks to a lot of advance help from God. So, “Jesus, help me understand why you are giving keys to someone who has failed driver’s ed—multiple times!”
When I read this story, I also wonder if Peter ever thought about returning the keys to Jesus, tossing them back to the Fisher King and saying, “Thanks but no thanks.” On the one hand, Jesus’ vote of confidence in him must have been nice, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom.” Everybody loves affirmation, to feel that proud slap on the back, to get that firm handshake and have a superior say, “Okay, now, you’re in charge.”
Everybody loves it until they ARE in charge and they cannot figure out which key opens which door and everybody needs them to open every door RIGHT NOW or to lock every window RIGHT AWAY. No one cares that there are fifty different keys and they are not color coded. Everyone knows that you have been given the keys. You are in charge. You do something!
I wonder, then, if Peter ever considered returning the keys. More than that, though, I wonder if Jesus ever regretted promising the keys to Peter in the first place. I wonder if Jesus ever spent some sleepless nights like parents of the teen who hand over the car keys for the first time.
Maybe Jesus never did make good on his promise, never did give Peter the keys. After all, Jesus here is speaking in the future tense. Maybe Jesus is like that parent who holds out a carrot, all the while knowing that the young person will never be able to grasp it. Maybe Jesus is just making Peter think that he will one day be the keeper of the keys.
Maybe, but it sure seems that Jesus is absolutely serious here and not playing any parent-child games. Jesus really intends to give keys to what will be the church not to someone like Peter in some distant future, but to Peter himself, flaws and all. No wonder Mark, Luke, and John keep giving the keys to Peter totally out of this story.
As confusing as this decision by Jesus is, I am glad that Matthew includes the giving of the keys as he tells the story. Clearly, I am not Peter. I am not standing in line hoping to be handed the pontifical keys to the entire Church of Rome one day. In fact, as a Protestant Christian I happen to believe that I, like Peter, have already been given the keys to the church and that is really the major challenge of this story.
To the extent that you and I are key holders to the church of the risen Christ, with those keys come no small amount of responsibility. We are somehow supposed to guide others into the glorious realm of God. That leaves us with a key problem and it is a much more serious one than how to haul all of them around in our pockets or purses. As keepers of the keys, we have to figure out what do with them, what closed doors need to be opened, what windows need to be unlocked for us to be the church that Jesus imagines.
Holding a clump of keys to the church can give us the notion that it is more important to guard those keys than to use them to open doors or unlock windows. Throughout most of my ministry ordination keys have been kept under careful guard lest we use them to open the door to gay and lesbian sisters and brothers to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons.
The keys Jesus promises Peter were never intended to lock-out undesirables from the church, to somehow rid God’s realm of the unworthy. If that were the case, Jesus would never have promised them to someone like Peter and they would have never landed in pockets like ours.
No, Jesus promises keys to Peter as a call to action. You see, the keys Jesus promises are more mystical than mundane. They are cut to holy precision to open up the grace-filled-doors and mercy-wide-open windows into the realm of God; huge keys to unlock windows that have been stuck for years, strong keys to open doors with hinges that are rusted from top to bottom.
Some keys open the mysterious door to God’s Command Center for peace and justice. They open a door into a room where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In this room, the sirens of war are silenced, violence gets no applause, and ignorance is not a virtue.
Some keys open a window into God’s Anteroom of mercy and grace. Look inside that room and see that God’s mercy is never in short supply, as if it is the church’s job to dish out grace meagerly, only to the deserving few, while hoarding the very limited supply of God’s mercy under ecclesial lock-down. If God extends grace and mercy to the likes of Peter, there is plenty to go around.
Some keys open the badly jammed door of forgiveness, a door that we are we happy to open for ourselves, but are slow to open to others. German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had no patience with forgiveness just for us. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, about that lame kind of forgiveness, he writes: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." No, says Bonhoeffer, once you use the key to open the door into forgiveness, you can no longer hold onto the old hurts no matter how justified they were. To live as forgiven children of God is to forgive the deepest hurts, to forgive freely is “the cost of discipleship.”
Actually, the more I think about it, Jesus behaves exactly like a loving and trusting parent when he promises the keys to Peter. Jesus knows that Peter has not always fared the best in training and probably senses that Peter will fall down as often as he stands tall. Yet, knowing all of this, Jesus still promises Peter the keys and said, “They’re yours. Use them wisely.” And, from Jesus through Peter, you and I are keepers of those holy keys.
I know too many people who have been badly wounded by the church, by what the church has said or failed to say, by what church members have done or failed to do. I know many others who have been excluded by the church, because they did not look like everyone else in the congregation or held opinions far different from most in the congregation or who could never figure out church code, what to say and how to say it. I know even more people who never give a second thought to spending one minute in a church and have never known that anyone else cared that they did.
Maybe this pandemic gives us a chance to get those keys out of storage, ready to use to open wide every church door and to unlock every church window until not one person doubts that God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and love, welcome and hope await them inside.
My God, I cannot wait to use those keys.