Jesus Trusts the Church with the Keys

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 21
August 27, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter, and by extension to the church, Jesus entrusts the church with the ministry of participating in the redeeming work that God has done and is doing in all creation. This promise sustains us in rough times, and encourages us when we see the fruit of our ministry.

What are some of the high points of being part of this church? I hope the worship services fall under that category. Maybe you would say wrapping up a mission project. We look back at it and feel good about the people we helped. Would we count an experience with the children or youth as a high point of our involvement in this church? Vacation Bible School or some such thing? We see the spark in their eyes, and joy rushes over us. We pray that something we did took root in their souls and will grow to produce fruit. Let us think for a moment about the joyous, victorious parts of our time at this church.

Now, we can look at the flip side. What makes up the low points of our involvement in this church? Would the meetings every year to try to raise the budget for our ministry be one of those low points? Perhaps when we see an argument erupt, and someone leaves because of the argument -- this would be a drag on our spirits at the church.

I wonder if we ever look at the evil and suffering in the world and feel despair that we can't seem to do much about it. The evil and suffering seem so strong, so persistent. Maybe the flip side of that is that coming to church provides a respite from the evil of the world. The despair over the evil of the world is a low point, but the sense of sanctuary here at this church is a high point.

Spiritual low points

As our Bible passage opens, Jesus has faced some low points. The religious leaders have come to Jesus to test him, demanding a convincing sign from heaven.1 Jesus feels disappointed that the religious leaders can read the signs of the weather, but cannot discern spiritual things. They can watch the sky and know when the next day will be clear and, in the morning, know that a day will be stormy. But they can't read the spiritual forecast. They don't see the significance of Jesus, the Messiah, among them. They want a sign, like the red sky in the morning, but they don't see the Messiah right in front of them. Jesus tells them off and goes away. The ones who should have understood, didn't. For Jesus, it was a spiritual low point.

When Jesus and the disciples reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples miss the point of Jesus' teaching. The disciples realize that they have not brought any bread for the journey. Jesus uses the moment to warn them about the leaven of bad theology. They think he means simply the actual bread they need to eat. Jesus has warned them about bad spirituality, bad theology creeping into their souls, but they don't get it. Eventually, they get it, but at first they don't.

The religious leaders, who should have been the first to recognize Jesus's significance, don't see him for who he is. His own disciples, who have been with him all along, don't understand his warning and his teaching. We could not blame Jesus for feeling frustrated. He has just had two spiritual low points.

A theology quiz

As they enter Caesarea Philippi, Jesus decides to give them a theology quiz. If the religious leaders do not understand why Jesus has come, do other people? Jesus wants to know what the "word on the street" is about him. Jesus has seen the crowds. He knows that people pay attention to him. Apparently, he cannot mingle the way the disciples can. He does not have the opportunity to listen to what people have to say about him.

The answers that the disciples give about popular opinion are close to the right answer. The people confuse Jesus with John the Baptist or another prophet. If the people think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or another prophet, then they realize that God is at work. They think that God has brought someone back from the dead. The people know something is up, but don't really understand who Jesus is.

Peter gives the A+ answer. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." The term "Messiah" is a loaded word. To the Jews of Jesus's time, it meant "the Anointed One," a king from the line of David. To Christians today, it means Jesus is part of the Trinity, God in human flesh. Jesus is a prophet, but more than a prophet. God acted in Jesus, but more than just bringing a prophet back to life. In Jesus, God conquered the power of sin and death. Jesus went before us into resurrection. Jesus is the one who will come in glory as king and judge.2 Jesus is the bridegroom who will celebrate with us in God's new age.3

The key of the kingdom

In words that appear only in Matthew's version of this story, Jesus then showers authority and responsibility on Peter. Jesus will build the church on Peter, the one who saw Jesus with God-given sight. Because we have followed Jesus in the church, these promises come down to us as well. Jesus uses poetic language, symbolic language. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. If you want to go look that up somewhere to understand exactly, concretely what it means, I will save you the trouble. No one knows. However many books you read about exactly what the keys of the kingdom mean, that is how many answers you will find.

We can safely say this much: the ministry we do here makes an eternal difference. When we share the gospel, when a Sunday School lesson connects, when a choir anthem warms a heart, the impact goes all the way to life in the resurrection. We cannot nail down exactly what that means. We can say that our earthly ministry has heavenly consequences. If we fight for justice, if we combat poverty and hunger, if we do any ministry that confronts racism, that effort makes some difference all the way to the resurrection. These words do not mean that the church will always get it right. Peter misunderstood Jesus's crucifixion just after this scene. Jesus tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan."4 We will make mistakes, but nothing we do can thwart God's will for the redemption of creation.

Hearing these words from Matthew can keep us going in the tough times of being the church. When we have to scrape together the budget, when we face conflict, when we try a ministry but it doesn't succeed, we can draw strength from knowing that Jesus established the church and gave the "keys of the kingdom" to Peter.

Jesus promises Peter that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. Our difficulties and even our defeats are swallowed up in God's ultimate victory. However strong the evil of the world seems: racism that just won't go away, human trafficking, drug cartels, intractable poverty -- God has the ultimate triumph. God's power will crash through the gates of Hades.

In any ministry that does not go as we hoped, we claim that promise. Even when we divide ourselves into factions, God continues to work through us. The church has faced divisions since the days of the arguments with the Judaizers on one side and Paul's group that taught faith over circumcision on the other side. God has brought healing, hope, justice and salvation through the church despite the factions. We still have the keys to the kingdom.

High points

Jesus' words here cause us to celebrate with even more joy when our ministries go well. When a mission trip accomplishes its goals, when a visitor becomes a member and a contributor, when a child grows up to take its place in the congregation, when we see the fruit of our fundraising. We take heart that our ministry stretches up into the heavenly realm. The things that the church gets right have eternal significance. God allows us to participate, to open the doors to the work God does in creation.

We have the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What we bind on earth or loose on earth will be bound or loosened in heaven. We cannot define that precisely in a way that will satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, we rejoice that God works through us, that our words and our deeds matter, even into the realm of God itself. No setback is permanent; every victory lasts. No amount of effort is wasted. No ministry goes unnoticed. Everything we do makes a difference. Thanks be to God for the ministry God allows us to do.