Matthew 16: 13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
I hope its okay to tell jokes about pastors, because I shall. And I’m taking my permission from Jesus, who told in today’s Gospel passage, a joke about a soon-to-be pastor, Simon Peter.
So, a man dies and appears before St. Peter, who’s staffing his booth in front of the Pearly Gates. Peter says, “Welcome to heaven. Here’s the keys to your shiny new Lincoln Town Car car. Its parked right over there, waiting for you. Or didn’t you know that everyone here gets a car that reflects their state of grace and godliness before they died?”
“Wow,” said the new entrant to heaven. “Mother Teresa must be riding around in a stretch limo.”
“She gets a shiny spankin’ new one every day,” said Peter.
“And what about our pastor, who died a few years back?
“You’ll see him in a stretch limo, too,” Peter replied.
“He always struck me as a very godly man,” the new arrival observed.
“Actually,” St. Peter said, “the church janitor lets him chauffeur him around, whenever he gets tired of pedaling his tricycle.”
If you’ve ever wondered why so many such jokes and stories and even songs put St. Peter at a booth before the Pearly Gates with a checklist, letting people into heaven, or not, look to today’s Gospel passage and to Jesus’ words, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” Much of church tradition has taken that to mean that Peter would be responsible to let people into heaven or not upon their deaths. Or at least to tell people whether or not they were being let into heaven. In many stained glass windows in many churches you’ll even see Peter depicted as carrying keys, the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
But such responsibility or authority to decide our eternal fate goes beyond the scope of these words, and has no other biblical support. Christ Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s living temple, the church. What’s more, I would think that Peter now has more interesting things to do than to interview people at the Pearly Gates. Like worship that is truly out of this world.
My intention today is not to bash and trash the world’s largest Christian denomination, my Roman Catholic friends, who base their hierarchy and the pope’s office on the keys given to St. Peter. With them, we agree on the importance of the church. Jesus says he has come to establish “the church.” This is even the very first Bible passage in which we encounter the word, “church.” That’s very important. Therefore, so are we.
But what’s at stake in today’s passage is whether or not disciples of Jesus understand and embrace the amazing thing that Jesus has promised all of his disciples with these “keys of the kingdom,” and whether we take responsibility for them, or whether we leave the joy of discipleship up to hierarchies and institutions. Protestants and Mennonites have ways of doing that.
You may have noticed that I carry in my pocket a gonzo big key ring with lots of keys. All these keys make me look important. But sometimes I run across keys on this ring that I don’t know what they’re for. Yet I hesitate to throw them out because I’m afraid that I’ll find out what they’re for after I throw them away.
Spiritually speaking, a lot of Christians are walking around today with keys in their pockets that they either don’t know are there, or they have forgotten what they are for. Yet, as I hope to show, these keys unlock the door to heaven’s true riches: salvation, security, dignity,unity, authority, power and responsibility for ministry for all disciples of Jesus. That means that what we are doing, when we renew our membership covenant vows this morning, is not only right, it is revolutionary.
So, what are the keys to the kingdom and what do they open for us? To understand that, we have to go back a step and understand what Jesus meant when he also said to Simon Peter, “You are Peter”—that is, Rocky, or The Rock–”and upon this rock I shall build my church.”
Again, medieval Roman church tradition understood that to mean that Jesus would build the hierarchy and the institutional structure of the church upon one man alone: Peter, as though Peter were the rock on which Jesus would build his church. After all, he was the first person to make this confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” You have to admit, that’s a pretty bold and gutsy thing to say, especially in view of all the Romans and other Gentiles in Caesarea Phillippi, and their idols and temples. That confession makes Simon Peter the first Christian, the first building block of Jesus’ new human temple.
But our Anabaptist ancestors understood the rock upon which Jesus would build his church in a way that was less about institutions and more about relationships. So they saw the keys that Jesus would confer to the kingdom, as gifts to all disciples. Because they caught the joke that Jesus told. For Jesus replied to Peter’s confession of faith with a joke, a pun: “You are Peter- The Rock-and on this rock I will build my church.”
Now, the whole point of a pun is to use one word to hit two meanings, like the one about the lion whose pride did him in….(pause). Or a pun may use two words back-to-back that sound alike, to get at two very different meanings. That’s what Jesus did with Peter, the rock, and with the rock on which he would build his church. Those actual words sound alike, but they are not identical. Without giving us a lengthy, pointless grammar lesson, suffice it to say that the Rock on which Jesus will build his church is a slightly different word from Simon’s new name. So that second rock, not Peter but the rock on which Jesus will build his church, must be something else in this passage that Jesus has just mentioned. One might be the revelation that could only have come from God, that the long-awaited Messiah is Jesus. “Blessed are you,” Jesus says, “For only my Father in heaven could have revealed this to you.” The other is the confession that Peter has made, that the long-awaited, long-promised Messiah is Jesus. Either the rock on which Jesus will build his church is the divine revelation of who Jesus is, or it is Peter’s confession of that revelation.
Or its both, because the revelation and the confession are two sides of the same coin. Or rock. Peter could not have confessed Jesus as Messiah had God the Father not revealed it to him. And God the Father would not have revealed it to him had he not intended for Peter to confess it before Christ and mortals, friends and foes some day.
And it had to be a divine revelation. Because such a Messiah, such a Son of God as Jesus, was not on many people’s mental radar screens. One could tell that just by all the shrines, temples and idols around them in Cesarea Philippi.
“This is your Christ? the religious leadership of First Century Jerusalem wondered. “The ‘son of Mary‘, born under questionable circumstances in Nazareth? Of Galilee? The friend of sinners, who touches the unclean, or who lets them touch him, who violates our interpretation of the Sabbath and who treads all over the distinctions between ourselves and the Gentiles? And who won’t lift a hand against our enemies, let alone defend himself? Is that your Messiah?” To them, such a Christ was not only foolishness, he was dangerous to the survival of the nation.
“This is your Son of God?” the Roman overlords marveled. “The One who rides into Jerusalem unarmed, on…. a donkey? Whose army is but a mob of poor people among whom we could find only two weapons when he was arrested, and who all fled like cowards? This is your Son of God? We’ll stick with Tiberias Caesar as our “Son of God,” thank you.
Whatever way you cut it, Peter’s confession had to come from God’s revelation. That revelation, and Peter’s confession, are two sides of the same stone, the one on which Jesus is building his church.
And that’s the way that Protestants and Anabaptists have long interpreted Jesus’ words, to say: “You– flighty, impulsive, shaky, well-intentioned but unreliable Simon–I now call The Rock, because of my Father’s revelation to you, and because of your courageous confession of it. Upon the rock of God’s revelation to you, and upon the rock of your confession before friends and foes, I shall build my new living temple of flesh and blood that I shall call “the church.”
As a result of that revelation and that confession, Simon the Rock gets not a booth at the Pearly Gates, nor the keys to a stretch limo, but the keys to the kingdom of God. Historic Anabaptist faith says that anyone who shares the faith of Peter, and can confess it with Peter, should be able to hear those keys jingling in his or her pockets, too. But that still leaves the question begging: What are the keys to the kingdom? In other words, what do they open?
As observant, Bible-knowing Jews, the disciples would have understood “keys” in the Bible to be symbols of authority, power and responsibility. Same with the world. Legally speaking, no keys to any treasure within his dominion could be withheld from Tiberias Caesar, should he demand them. But an even more awesome authority, power and responsibility Jesus is giving to the likes of some ordinary fishermen, a former tax collector, and by extension, to us! Jesus says to these twelve ordinary people: “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” “Will have been bound” and “will have been loosed” are the best translation of those words. In other words, we have power and authority to represent and to carry out the counsels and the actions of God in heaven. Whatever heaven has bound or loosed, that we bind and loose too.
Sometimes we read this passage the other way around, to mean that we have power to make decisions in ways that heaven is obligated to recognize and enforce. So, if we all discern that this church needs purple pew cushions, heaven has to cough up the money for it. But that’s putting it backwards. This passage does not give us license to dictate policy to heaven; Jesus empowers and commands us to announce to the world the actions and policies of heaven.
We, then, the church of Jesus Christ, are founded upon the divine revelation and the good confession of who Jesus is, so that we might discern, recognize, announce and enact before the world what heaven has bound and loosed through Jesus and the Gospel. Jesus has engaged us as heaven’s representatives, as heaven’s spokespersons. And the primary way that we bind and loose people and things is by confessing that Jesus is the Christ, whether by word or by deed, as did Peter, the Rock. That very revelation, and that very confession, are the foundation of all else that the gospel and the church offer to the world. Again: the primary way we act as spokespersons for heaven, and therefore bind and loose what heaven has bound and loosed, is by confessing the revelation that Jesus is the Christ; that the Christ is Jesus, whether through word or deed.
As someone pointed out last Tuesday at our sermon roundtable breakfast, Peter used his keys to bind and loose when he confessed Jesus before thousands of people on that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, and three thousand people were released from their sins, when they too embraced the same revelation, and made that same confession, as did Peter.
So what difference does that make? I can only ask that question because, unfortunately, today, because of centuries of civil religion, because of the ways in which the church has acted as chaplains and cheerleaders for empires and inquisitions, the confession that Jesus is the Christ does not always strike us as the amazing, astounding, earth-shaking, game-changing, counter-intuitive revelation that is nothing less than a binding and loosing of cosmic significance, the First Century version of the Big Bang. Either that, or it is sheer foolishness to be ignored or even rejected and repressed.
Let’s not fool ourselves. The confession of Peter, that the Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth, can be just as odd and striking and costly today as it was in First Century Cesarea Philippi. We too must confess Christ in the midst of many shrines and temples to many different idols and ideologies. That makes us, the church, a revelation-based, confession-driven counter-culture. Everything we do must tie back in with this striking and strange revelation. And it must further our courageous and costly confession of it.
Remember that, because we so easily succumb to mission drift. There are so many crying needs and wants that we can address, our own and those of the world, that it is easy and tempting to become a market-focused, desire-driven church, running after all the things that would make us popular, appreciated and understood. Addressing some of the crying needs would showcase our confession, that the Messiah is Jesus. Like loving and serving the poor, immigrants and refugees. Like standing up against war, like our members who did alternative service during the years of the draft. But don’t expect such things to make us popular and appreciated. And we must beware of any other activities that would distract us from God’s revelation and Peter’s confession.
Our keys to the kingdom of heaven are our power and authority to say and display our confession of the revelation, that Jesus is God’s Messiah. When we use these keys, they unlock treasures for witness and work that include the fruits of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5, like “love, joy, peace, patience, mercy, gentleness, humility,” and more. And the gifts of the Spirit, like faith, administration, service, prophecy, among others. As Paul told the Roman church, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).”
In a world tired of words, swamped with slogans that people increasingly distrust, there are still ways that we can confess the amazing revelation, that the Messiah is Jesus, and to do so with power to bind and to loose. In our membership covenant we commit ourselves to ways of living and loving each other that also amount to a testimony as bold, gutsy and costly as the one Peter made with his mouth. The kinds of things that we promise to God and to each other today, like mutual aid, mutual counsel and mutual accountability, those are also among the treasures that our keys to the kingdom of heaven unlock.