Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 24, 2008

2008.08.24 “Keys of the Kingdom”

Central United Methodist Church

“Keys of the Kingdom”

Matthew 16: 13 – 20

August 24th, 2008

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, 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 of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. ”  – Matthew 16: 13 – 20, from The New Revised Standard Version

            Of all the things significant in this morning’s Gospel, the thing that stands out the most for me is Jesus’ handing over of the keys to the kingdom.

        In modern life, what would we be without keys? (A lot lighter!) And now, of course, not just metal keys, but electronic keys: passwords and pin codes, for example.

        There are some who say that in our society, the only ritual of initiation from adolescence into adulthood that we have is the handing over of the car keys.  There are others of us who believe that our last words well may be, “Now where did I put those keys?”

        For a pastor – or anyone in authority, for that matter – often the position of authority comes with a large key ring.  And thus the “passing of the keys” is always a sobering moment, a little worrisome, and a little heady, with a lot of symbolism in it. 

For example, in my previous church in West Chicago, after we sold our old church building and before the new one was built, we had our programs spread out over four churches. At one point, I had on my key ring the keys to five church buildings: a leftover key from the old building; Trinity Lutheran, where we had our church office; First Congregational, where we were worshiping; Faith Community, where our PADS homeless shelter was housed; and the new building, as it neared completion.

Then, when our new building was finished, I reached key heaven: I had ONE master key which fit every door in the building.

And then I came here.  Former Pastor Bob Burkhart gave me the “walkaround” with keys in hand.  We went from building to building, with Bob rattling off which key was which.  Of course, as soon as he handed them to me, I didn’t know which was which, and had to quickly resort to color coding to remain functional. In the past year, I’ve become overly familiar with the main ones, but I still have a lot of keys I don’t know what to do with.  Will I ever know key heaven again?

The easiest thing would be to just leave all the doors open all the time, especially since every other person in town has a key anyway. But as the former Pastor of Moody Church, Warren Wiersbe, once said, “If we were the Church of the Open Door, we’d soon be the Church of No Doors,” because thieves would take them along with everything else.

        Anyhow, for those reasons and others, I resonated to the reference to the “keys of the kingdom” in today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel is a much-loved text, and an important text, in both the Protestant and the Catholic Church, if for different reasons.  There’s really too much to deal with in one sermon; choices must be made. So today I would like to deal with the “Keys of the Kingdom.  It’s important to us because in Jesus Christ God has throw wide open the doors of God’s kingdom, and handed the keys over to us.

The text builds up to this moment, in a succession of moments we might applaud.

        There is, for example, Peter’s confession of the Christ.  In a precursor of modern polling, Jesus surveys his disciples:  “Who do they say that I am?” Well, say the disciples, 40% say John the Baptist, 40% say Elijah, and another 20% say Jeremiah or one of the prophets. 

        Redefining the scope of the poll, Jesus then says, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, jumping around with his hand in the air, like a student who finally knows an answer, says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  (Next week we’ll see that he really didn’t understand what he was saying, but he said it anyway.)

        And Jesus responded: “Wow! Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are (Petros) Rock, and on this (petra) 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 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 believe – at that point – that Jesus gave Peter a big wad of keys, or even one, and certainly not the keys to the Roman Catholic Church specifically. Roman Catholic teaching has taken this literally, that Peter becomes the foundation of the Church and the Church’s first Pope, which all others have succeeded.  Protestants have contended that the rock upon which the Church is built is not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession of the Christ, and that is the foundation of the Church. Our confession of Jesus as the Christ is what makes us individually Christian and collectively the Church; apart from that we would be another sect of Judaism.

        And what does that metaphor about the “gates of hell” mean?  Is the church a static institution, with the hosts of hell beating at the door (as we often envision it), or is the church a dynamic institution, a movement, an army (as in Onward Christian Soldiers) beating up against the gates of hell?

        In Paul Nixon’s book, “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church,” Nixon elaborates upon these images. Nixon asks, “Do you see your church as a fortress or a frontier?”

Some churches adapt a FORTRESS mentality, and see themselves as the lonely faithful, with everybody out to get what’s theirs.  So let’s change the locks, add more security lights, cover up the stained glass windows, and maybe put up a fence. But what message then are we giving the community?  Just drive around, you can see churches like that all over the city. Unfortunately, most of them will soon be gone, if not closed already. So that’s where that leads.

        On the other hand, says Nixon, churches can adapt a FRONTIER image, as Methodism has had in its earliest (and best) times. Here we are in an outpost on the frontier of the kingdom, daringly reaching out to interact with and invite the community.  Such churches will not look like a fortress, but well-cared-for and inviting: surrounded by flower gardens and fountains, with plenty of signs (not “Trespassers Beware” but “Visitors Welcome”), constantly thinking up ways to get the community into the building, and conversely, get the congregation out of the building into the community.  Such congregations tend to be not closing, but thriving. The very gates of hell are no match for them.

        But maybe the very best part of this story is when Jesus (symbolically) hands over the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter.  And not just to Peter, but to all of us who – along with him – confess Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. 

The Rev. Gary Charles, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, preached a similar sermon as mine on this text (Day 1, “Keys”, 2005), and in that sermon he suggested:

“Actually, the more I’ve thought about it, maybe Jesus is much like that loving parent who hands over the keys to someone she loves dearly and whom she knows has not always fared well in training and has yet to be tested by the hurdles of real life. Knowing all this, Jesus still promises Peter the keys and says, “Use them wisely.”

        In Jesus Christ, the doors to God’s Kingdom have been opened to all.  Then why do we need keys?  Because there’s a lot of people out there – maybe even people in here – who don’t know it yet. And they’re just waiting for someone with the keys to come along and unlock the door for them.

In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast there is a scene in which a member of a congregation is begging the pastor to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed woman in their church.  The pastor replies that the woman already knows that he, the pastor, has forgiven her, to which this other member replies:

“But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have, pastor: to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for her poor adultery. Tell her that God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at now. Tell her that God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy every day in a household full of children. Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, that what she wants more than anything else — what we all want — is true. Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?”

In truth, nobody has to be ordained for this. Thanks to Jesus the Christ, who has unlocked the kingdom and given the keys to us, everyone of us and anyone of us can not only enter the kingdom ourselves, but open the door for others, as someone opened the door for us.

Yes, as unbelievable, as irresponsible as it seems, like a teenager with keys to the car, the Keys to the Kingdom are in our hands. What are we going to do with them?  What are we waiting for?

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