Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Keys of the Kingdom - Homily for Proper 21, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 21
Sunday, August 21st, 2011
Trinity Church, Bradford & St. Paul’s Coulson’s Hill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 16:13-20

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”
--Matthew 16:18

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They ventured all sorts of suggestions, but he pressed them further, “Who do YOU say I am?” Did Jesus cast he gaze around at all of them and then rest his eyes upon Peter? Whether Peter answered impetuously or under pressure, we shall never know, for we have only his response, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Perhaps following a moment of silence, a smiled crossed the face of Jesus and he proclaimed, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Did Peter heave sigh of relief that he had answered correctly? Did Simon Peter feel like the school-child who has a tentative knowledge of the answer but a fear of putting up his hand? Whatever the feelings in that moment, Peter’s response was taken to be a profound one. Jesus claimed that Simon Peter had spoken not from some information that he had learned from a friend or teacher, but that his knowledge came from a much deeper place, indeed, that Peter’s knowledge was the result of divine revelation. Did Peter know this? Did Peter think this? Did Peter believe this? One suspects that Jesus’ proclamation that this knowledge was as much a revelation to Peter as the message itself.

What happens next, though, must surely have come as more of a surprise. Jesus gave Peter a new name and a set of keys. The name seems to have stuck and Simon son of John was henceforth known to his friends as Kephas (usually anglicized as Cephas), in Latin, Petros, Peter, or more colloquially, Rocky. The keys, though, were not literal keys, but figurative keys, and the church through the centuries has reflected on what the name change meant, and what these keys signify. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters understand the name change and the keys to represent a certain Petrine primacy and authority that has reached its apex in their bedrock dogma of papal infallibility. Other varieties of episcopally led churches, such as Anglicans, have generally reckoned that the keys and Petrine office represent a certain kind of apostolic authority that is diffused across the fraternity of the episcopacy and shared by all bishops alike, collegially. Protestants have envisioned Petrine authority and the power of these keys as further diffused across the leadership of the church, ordained and lay, gathered together, and that the “rock” was referring to the rock that was Peter’s faith.

But do we focus too much on trying to wed these symbols to our ecclesiological traditions at the expense of allowing them to speak to the story of our lives? What if we were to ask ourselves what it means to consider what this revelation that Peter had means to us, who believe that we receive revelation again and again (as much as Peter did) as we open the pages of Scripture and read these sacred words? What if in this story Peter himself is to be understood and read as stand-in for all Christians who in a moment of revelation recognize the Christ in their midst and seek to understand what it is he offers each of us as he calls us by name and hands us a set of keys?

Let me ask you a question, have you ever locked yourself out of your house? Well, I have done it, more times than I care to admit. When we lock ourselves out, we find ourselves relying on the generosity and indeed, the mercy, of others. The most recent time this has happened to me was when we were hosting the Bishop of Kingston, Jamaica. I had recently placed a mousetrap under the sink to trap a little creature I had suspected of infiltrating our green bin on successive evenings whilst the house, and the cats, slept. This particular Sunday morning, I got up and checked to see if I had caught anything, and sure enough I had snared a mouse. While the house still slept, I took the trap outside to dispose of the mouse and upon returning to the house realized that I had locked myself out. So there I stood, due to my own foolishness, at 6:30 am on a Sunday morning, in my bathrobe outside my front door, with a mousetrap in hand realizing that the only way to get back in was to ring the doorbell. I had hoped that Athena, who sleeps with earplugs, might have heard me, or perhaps one of the children, but no. Instead, I was greeted by our houseguest, a rather tired looking Jamaican bishop, in his housecoat, who had been roused by the doorbell. We stood there facing each other with telling smiles, I held up the trap, he gave a bit of deep chuckle, and without a further word exchanged, he let me back in. I made sure when I was dressed that I had the house keys in my pocket.

The power of the keys, we are told in Matthew 16, is that they have the power to loose and to bind, in both heaven and earth. We have traditionally thought that this is about the Church’s power to admit into the fellowship and to exclude from fellowship in the community. This may indeed be true, but this sort of thinking allows us to absolve ourselves from the responsibility of being bearers of the keys and locates that responsibility on others, be it papal authority, episcopal collegiality, or presbyterian or synodical collegiality. What if we were to think that holding the keys we have the power to lock ourselves out or let ourselves in? What if simply, we were to understand that Jesus has given us the keys to the house, the keys to the kingdom? It’s not that we earned them through some theology of works and that our power is to earn our way into heaven or hell through good or bad works; no, it is simply that we have recognized him as master of the house, the Lord, the messiah, the Christ, and in our recognition of him the master of the house has shared with us his keys. I can use those keys to go in, or I can throw them away, lose them, forget about them, abandon them, and find myself locked outside the house. The choice is mine.

But they keys aren’t the whole story here. As a member of the household we are given a name; we are counted as family. Jesus gave Simon a new name, he called him Peter. But oh, we know that Peter was not quite the rock he was supposed to be when crisis struck. At the passion of the one he had proclaimed as Christ, son of the Living God, he denied not once, but thrice that he knew the man. Good old Rocky seemed to have thrown away the keys and locked himself out. This seems to me to tell most clearly against the traditional Protestant reading of the name “Rock” signifying Peter’s faith. What then does it mean for Jesus to have called Simon son of Jonah the Rock? Of what possible significance is this name if it is applied to one whose faith sunk like quicksand at the moment of truth?

Perhaps the Rock is the truth of Peter’s acclamation, that Jesus is the Christ. Perhaps the Rock is the not so much our faith, but the faith of God in Christ. Perhaps the Rock is God’s commitment to his people; God’s commitment to go even unto death so that his people might have a place in the house. Remember that this acclamation directly precedes Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, of his death on the cross. Perhaps the Rock is Jesus and our relationship with him.

He trusts us with the keys to house, and we may lock ourselves out. We may do this intentionally, or foolishly. But the rock of faith upon which we stand is the reality of a faithful God, a steadfast master of the house, who goes to every length to open the door for us, even when we have lost the keys. The Rock of faith is the relationship that our Lord and master seeks to have with us, even when we forget him, turn from him, and believe that we have lost him; that naming us as his own, he will not leave us standing at the door, even when we have lost the keys. The rock of faith is that even when we lose the keys, abuse the keys, forget the keys, he is there to open the door for us again. And when we recognize that we are standing before the Christ, the son of the Living God, he smiles and once again hands us they keys to the kingdom and welcomes us home, as he did Peter.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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