Dear People of St. Peter’s,
Recently, a member of our congregation approached me about a portion of Scripture that has always vexed her. For years, she has pondered exactly what Jesus meant in the 16th Chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus says to the disciple Simon Peter, (after he has recognized Jesus to be the Messiah): “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.” Her question is this: What exactly are the keys to the kingdom of heaven? And, If Peter gets them, what about the rest of us?
To answer this question, we first have to identify what exactly the Kingdom of Heaven is. To be sure, we talk a lot about the Kingdom of God and Heaven, but we don’t spend a great deal of time together unpacking a cogent and consistent definition. In the Gospels, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, he is talking about something that has a dualistic nature; of being both already here and not yet arrived. The Kingdom of Heaven is the dominion of God’s creation and as such it is already here at hand and can be directly experienced by you and by me. But it is also not yet fully perfected, grown to the fullness of what God intended it to be. When Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven then, he is talking about a reality that we can get a taste of in this life, but will not fully know until we move into the nearer presence of God that is in the life that is to come. Our invitation into the Kingdom of Heaven comes through Jesus. His life, teachings, miracles and work are all part of God seeking to draw us into the Divine plan of the fullness of Creation. In short, Jesus seeks to usher in an awareness of God’s love for all that God has made, so that we are inspired to reciprocate relationship and to reflect that love in our own lives and into the lives of others.
Like the Kingdom of Heaven, the keys have, in my humble opinion, too often been myopically interpreted. For some Christians they are part of the elevation of Peter, giving him a primacy over all other Christians. This preeminence of Peter is appropriated by the Papacy for the authority of Peter as the first Pope and for all of his subsequent successors. The purpose of this note is not to debate the historicity of this understanding, but I do want to say that I think the Gospel state that there is much more here than the elevation of Popes.
The Key (pun intended) to understanding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, comes from the portion of Scripture in Matthew’s Gospel and it is amplified in other parts of the Gospel, such as John 20:23. First, let’s stick with Matthew’s Gospel cited above. Jesus response changes the name of the disciple: from Simon to Peter. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a name change indicates that an individual has been drawn closer to God and gained a new understanding and deeper relationship with God through a theophany or intimate experience with God, (i.e. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel or in the Christian Scriptures Saul to Paul). In this particular example Simon becomes Peter because his faith is foundational; the hard surface or literally, the rock on which God through Jesus can build his relationship with Peter (for Peter means rock). His faith is extolled because it is the foundational kind of faith we all need to begin to build a closer relationship with God; and it is deceptively simple: to be able to perceive that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. It does not mean that Peter has all the answers to understanding God, and indeed, he does stumble a few times just like the rest of us. But his willingness to profess that God is working through Jesus is enough for the journey to commence. It is the key to beginning a deep relationship with God. But it is also so much more.
Jesus also goes on to talk about things being bound and loose on heaven and earth. In effect, he is talking about the essential aspects of forgiveness for ourselves and for others in deepening our relationship with God. In other words, it is the next step in moving closer to God, for if we understand Jesus as the Messiah, the embodiment of love that is Emmanuel, (God with us), then to live in that love we have to accept it (forgive ourselves) and emulate it (forgive others). This is consistent throughout all four Gospels.
Which brings us to John 20:23 which we just read a few weeks ago, at the feast of Pentecost. Here, Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and tells them that with this gift, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Again, in my opinion, we limit the enormity of what Jesus is saying if we see this as only applying to Peter or the Disciples for it is so much more. The gift of the Holy Spirit belongs not just to a few, but for all who baptized into the Body of Christ, including you and me. This pronouncement about forgiving and retaining sins is not simply a power of an elect few, but rather the responsibility of all who would seek to serve God and Christ. WE, the forgiven, are called to FORGIVE. If we bind it up, if we fail to forgive, we are preventing the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven and constraining our relationship with God and Creation. The Keys are not then, about the gaining of power and authority over others, but rather the means of opening ourselves to a deeper awareness of the radical reality of God’s unconditional love and our acceptance to act in accordance with that love, lavishing it upon others. Forgiveness is essential to deepening all relationships. Without it, relationships will falter, atrophy and die. Without relationships we cannot grow in our own understanding and experience of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So then, the Keys are not just Simon Peter’s or the purview of Episcopal authority. They are the gift to all the baptized. How fitting it is that “the Keys” is also the name of this newsletter, for it relates our shared labor in furthering the Kingdom of Heaven here in our portion of Creation that is Lewes. I pray that you and I will always be guided by the Holy Spirit, working together to be harbingers of God’s love, grace and forgiveness as we live out our ministry as the baptized.
Here’s a final prayer to help us all along the way:
Gracious God, as the path emerges before us, whether we chose this direction or not, guide us dear Lord, one step at a time, that we may journey together in your way, for your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are daily in mine.