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The keys of the kingdom

(Matthew 16:18-19) 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. {19} 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.

When you look at an ancient stained glass window showing the disciples of Jesus or at medieval statues of the apostles you can tell which one is Peter because he will be the one holding keys. People who could not read and write would link this figure with the disciple to whom Jesus said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven," which they would have heard in church, and they would know that it implied something about the authority of church leaders. Since the Reformation especially, these words of scripture have been used polemically in many generations of controversy about questions of authority in the church, touching on such basic questions as who is in and who is out, and what is right and what is wrong, who can say, and how decisions are to be made for the church and for individual members.

Why would anyone choose to preach on these contentious words? If you did, would you have to choose between making a traditional Catholic defence of the powers of the Pope and taking the opposite view in offering a traditional Protestant alterative interpretation which is critical of papal or even of priestly claims? Why run the risk of stirring up ancient prejudice and hostility? Is it possible to approach the interpretation of this passage of scripture without weighing in on one side or the other in that often self-justifying debate? Even if it is possible without taking side in that way can we say something worthwhile without opening old wounds? Or do you think that all that talk about authority is "old talk" or "boys talk" or just not relevant any more because people will decide for themselves? Is there anything in it of value to ordinary Christians who are not concerned with controversies about church government? And if there is, should it still be brought to bear on the vexed questions which still divide the body of Christ?

First a little humility might be in order. It is a genuinely difficult problem. There is no quick and easy solution. The old disputes in the West have been going on for about five hundred years, and the East-West differences concerning the pastoral authority of the Bishop of Rome have continued for a thousand years. I have a friend who has been a member of the dialogue group at the world communion level in which representatives of the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church have been meeting for over twenty years. They have improved understanding amongst themselves and have produced reports which gained some official approval, but they are still very far from agreement on many basic questions which divide us. That is only one of many such consultations at the world, national and local levels, and in the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies, in which capable, faithful and well meaning people have been trying to give reality to the ecumenical hope. It may be that you think that the ecumenical cause is hopeless and that we should rather concentrate on faith commitment and on discovering the truth without being restricted by any concern for unity, for after all the Word of God is a sharp two-edged sword. For most of us, however, mindful of the prayer of our Lord "that they all may be one" (John 17), it is impossible to avoid the call to seek both truth and unity. But however you see the prospect of unity, it is not likely that any of us making a minor foray into such a confused and treacherous field would be likely to bring off a decisive coup or suddenly to show the way of sweetness and light. That is not to say that we should not seek to increase understanding of the big questions in all branches of the church universal; it is only that we would be better advised to pray for the Spirit to guide us than we would to imagine that we are likely by our own efforts to overcome the great obstacles that lie in the way.

Whatever we do about the big questions which have divided people for centuries, I believe there are in addition some lesser but still vital issues at the present time concerning the authority and the strength of the church, and the way we understand pastoral leadership, which affect how believers live and what they believe. In what follows I am concerned with the general attitudes that people have to authority and pastoral leadership whatever form it takes in our different traditions and circumstances. We live in a time, especially in the West, when individual liberty is so highly valued that any authoritative guidance tends to be resented and distrusted, particularly in what were traditionally been called matters of faith and morals. Apart from the law of the land and what you are required to do in paid employment, who dares tell anyone what they should do! We not only resent the implication that we are not able to decide for ourselves, we doubt the motives of a person who would persuade us of the wisdom of a particular course of action. In a consumer society we often assume that whatever another person might say they must be acting in their own interests, or that any advice they give or opinion they hold or even help that they offer must be an expression of their own needs and wishes. Any attempt to make an objective and disinterested study of what is true or false, or what is right or wrong, tends to be regarded with suspicion, both because it is thought that no one is capable of being objective and because even the existence of objective truth is doubted. So we tend to come back to saying in effect, "It is your opinion versus my opinion, and I will decide what suits me". Against this, the words of Jesus to Peter do stand in some contrast.

When Jesus said, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, he was using a common way of speaking about the traditional teaching authority of the rabbis or the scribes in "binding" (that is, forbidding) and "loosing" (that is, permitting), and he was combining it with his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. "Heaven" was an indirect way of referring to God which was also common among the Jews. So Jesus was saying that God forbids or permits what Peter forbids or permits. That is a very heavy endorsement. We will see that it does not convey arbitrary power and that it depends upon putting into effect the teaching of Jesus, but there is no escaping the fact that it is a very strong statement, whatever we might think in general about whether anyone can or should accept the authority of any person to forbid or permit us to do anything. The plain meaning of the words is difficult to escape.

As in much of what Matthew wrote, his way of telling the gospel story evokes the language of the Hebrew Scriptures. It helps our understanding to see where some of his images came from, to find parallels which convey the meaning which Jews of the time when he was writing would have been likely to understand. So we see in Isaiah, a popular book at the time, clear reference to the use of the keys as a symbol of authority:

In that passage, the man chosen by God had legitimate power passed to him to control entry to the king's house and to act as the head of the household. The obvious intention in using the same kind of language is to give a pastoral leader in the church the same kind of authority, which is spelled out further in the power of binding and loosing. As we will see from other passages in the New Testament that power of forbidding and permitting, like the power which the scribes had to interpret the law (cf. Matthew 13:52; 23:2-3,13 [do what the scribes teach not what they do]), was dependent upon the application of the teaching of Jesus and it was shared with the other disciples. In his response to the question that Jesus had asked the disciples about who they said that he ("the Son of Man") is, Peter was acting as their representative leader rather than merely expressing his personal opinion. Nevertheless, coming as it does after Jesus was saying that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom, it is obvious that the teaching of authority of Peter belongs to his role as a founding leader in the church.

It is easy to get into a distracting dispute here. People in Protestant traditions might say that it was not Peter the man or his office in the church which was the rock on which the church was to be built, but that the rock was the faith that Peter held in common with all believers. In one sense it is important to see that what Jesus said to him was a response to Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, but making faith appear to be the rock will not do. As we have seen recently, in Chapter 14 Matthew reports how Peter doubted and how Jesus spoke to them all as "you of little faith". As later events were to demonstrate, Peter's faith, like the rest, was unreliable even after his confession of belief in Jesus. You might say he now had the faith that was previously lacking, and certainly it was important that he now recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but that recognition by the disciples was not new in Matthew's account for they had already worshipped him as the Son of God (Matthew 14: 34.) In any case Peter was soon shown to have the wrong idea of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah:

We need to come back to the misunderstanding Peter and the others had of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, because that has a big affect on the type of leadership and authority that would be vested in the apostles. But note now that the confession of faith was quickly followed by a rebuke for lack of understanding, so that the faith they then had was hardly a rock in the sense of something that could be relied upon. And we all remember how Peter denied later that he even knew Jesus. The threefold denial at the time of his trial (Matthew 26:69-75) might be seen to have been overcome by the action of Jesus after he rose from the dead three times giving him the opportunity to affirm his love, each time saying "Feed my sheep", thus renewing his pastoral commission (John 21:15-17). This balancing comes in different traditions of the gospel, but I am sure that in the early church it would have been seen to make the pastoral leadership of Peter effective in spite of his lapses of faith and courage. The interpretation then would be that renewal of faith was necessary for the pastor to lead the flock, but that his authority to lead did not come from his faith but from the commission that Jesus gave him. We can suppose that Jesus saw in him qualities of great value, but his subsequent standing in the church depended more upon Jesus having chosen him to lead than on his intrinsic qualities of leadership which others might accept or reject according to their own assessment. That does not mean that his leadership was unquestioned. (Paul questioned his opinion with great passion at certain points. Galatians 2:11.) Rather, the point for us is that he had a role that was given to him whatever others might think of his leadership. (Even though Paul disagreed with him he recognized Peter as "one of the pillars', Galatians 2:9). The problem today is that the given character of authority in the church is difficult for modern people to accept.

In our democratic traditions we believe in being ruled by people we choose and according to laws we have helped to formulate. It is hard for "free people" to accept authority that is given from the "outside" as it were. But "outside" what? Is Jesus a foreign power? Jesus was so closely identified with humanity that any authority he gave could not be said to have come from "outside". (It was his high priestly work to represent humanity in all its weakness before God. Hebrews 4:14-15, etc.) On the other hand if we believe that he was God then he certainly had authority that did not come from his humanity; but let's be careful here, the humanity and divinity of Jesus cannot be separated. He had power to command while he acted as the perfect representative of humanity (the new Adam, 1 Corinthians 15:45), but not only because he was the representative of all people, for he also represented God. (That was the other side of his high priestly work.) There are certainly some democratic elements in the representative character of Jesus and in the representative leadership of Peter with others within the councils of the church as exemplified in the "council of Jerusalem" (Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10), but you cannot do away with the fact that the source of their authority was from God. It is very different from the liberal democratic idea that sovereignty belongs to the people. The disciples recognized Jesus as one who had come from God, one who had "come down from heaven", and that he could therefore speak with authority of the things of God and of the right relationship between God and his people. When Jesus gave authority to Peter he put what Peter could do in terms of what God would do; that was not quite the same as the authority of Jesus himself, but it was not so far removed from it for it to be assessed in purely human terms.

It follows that those who accepted the Lordship of Christ were not free to decide for themselves what authority they would allow Peter to have. That is a basic principle which Christians of different outlooks, modern liberal Catholics, traditional Protestants, charismatics, evangelicals, orthodox or whatever, all need to recognize. On the other hand it is clear from the New Testament and from history that the authority of Peter and other pastoral leaders was not intended to be exercised alone, apart from the fellowship of the church, or arbitrarily as if authority in the church could be exercised in the manner of a despotic ruler. Consultation was important and joint action was taken, most importantly not even alone as a group but in submission to the leading of God, as when they said, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (Acts 15:28). It was joint action. They discussed what should be done. Peter shared leadership in Jerusalem with James the brother of Jesus, John and others, and the gathered fellowship decided important matters, together in agreement with the leaders.

There is much elsewhere in scripture to show that the pastoral authority of Peter and his position as a founding leader was shared with others. Matthew makes a point of it a little later:

So do Paul and other authors:

The way authority is exercised varies according to culture and tradition, from place to place and time to time, but in the sources which guide us the personal leadership of the apostles, authoritative though it was, was always exercised within the bonds of fellowship. Within Matthew's witness to the teaching of Jesus the same applied. Jesus addressed Peter personally as a representative leader on one occasion, but later the power of binding and loosing was given the disciples as a whole and it was linked with the importance of their agreeing together on what should be done. So if there is too great a readiness amongst us today to reject personal moral authority and we need to correct that by recognizing personal pastoral leadership with genuine authority, let us also remember that there is no basis in Christian teaching for us to go the other extreme and welcome personal authority apart from sharing in the gathered community; and that is a word that needs to be heard also in all branches of the Christian church.

The rock on which Jesus would build his church was not then simply the man Peter or his faith, whether Jesus was referring to Peter the individual, or as a representative of the group. One should not expect scripture to read like a scientific textbook or an act of Parliament with their patterns of logic, nor should we expect analogies or symbols to be perfectly consistent in every respect. Jesus made different emphases at different times depending upon the kind of question he was addressing and the people who needed to hear what was being said. Some have made much of the fact that when Jesus said you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, the word Petros for Peter is a masculine word meaning a particular detached rock, while the word petra for rock on which he would build is a feminine word meaning bedrock. So a parallel is drawn with that meaning of the saying in the Sermon on the Mount (also Matthew) encouraging people to build upon the rock of what Jesus taught:

We have here again the image of a house being built, and thus the easy link with the household of God, the church, a partial embodiment in Matthew's understanding of the kingdom of God. In that passage it is clear that it is the teaching of Jesus that is called the rock on which to build: not everyone how calls him Lord will be saved, but those who obey his words will be like a man who builds with a solid foundation on the rock. We could even extend this to that other image of the church as a building in which Christ is the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20) and even to Christ being described as the rock from the Israelites drank in the desert (1 Corinthians 10:4). All of these images point to Jesus, the Word made flesh, as the founding source of power. It was well acknowledged in the early church that the authority of the apostles depended upon their being witnesses to him, to what he taught, and especially to his death and resurrection. So whatever was meant by the play upon the meaning of the word "rock", what Christ himself taught was what mattered: they had no authority apart from him and his words.

There is another basic principle of pastoral leadership in the church without which the ministry of Christ cannot be exercised. Not only is it shared within the fellowship so that it is both personal and collegial, and not only does authority depend on a church leader building on the foundation of the teaching of Jesus, there is another dimension in what Jesus chose for himself and taught his disciples about being a servant of those over whom they had authority. The peculiar character of servant leadership was demonstrated by Jesus most clearly in his death and resurrection, which was prefigured at important points in his ministry such as the Last Supper (John 13:3-15) and the occasion we are considering today when Peter confessed him to be the Messiah. Look at what comes immediately before our text for today:

In John's gospel (also in other ancient documents) Simon Peter's physical father is said to have been named John (John 1:42; 21:15-17). Jonah is a similar name and in its original form it is close to a form of the name John: so we have a play in the two names to make a point just as in the following verse there is a play on the meaning of Peter's own name. It is suggested that Peter is a spiritual son of the prophet Jonah. To what purpose? First a minor meaning: Jonah was a reluctant prophet but he turned out to be a man of faith, and so did Peter. Second, Jesus had said that the only sign that would be given to a sinful generation was the sign of Jonah which Matthew had repeated in verse 4 of this chapter, and that sign was the sign of death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-40) in which the truth of what Peter declared about Jesus would be revealed, not by human wisdom but by God. Thirdly, the name Jonah literally means "dove" and that could be taken to indicate the gift of the Holy Spirit, through which Peter was enabled to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, for as Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 12:3):

That fits what Jesus said when he called Peter, son of Jonah For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. That is important for the humility of a servant leader because even having faith was a gift and not earned by human effort, and we seen that Peter was not rewarded with authority because of his great faith. Most people, however, see more significance in the sign of Jonah as a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the calling to Peter and the others to take up their cross and follow him. Jesus had to disabuse them of the idea that he would be an earthly king and began to tell them that he would suffer and die:

The endorsement of Peter as a pastoral leader with power to forbid and permit was quickly tied into the role of a servant leader. Such authority as he had went with humility and willingness to suffer. That it was clearly part of Matthew's understanding of what Jesus taught is brought out by him elsewhere:

It could hardly be clearer. The pastoral leader is a servant leader. It comes from his sharing in the death of Christ with which we all his followers are joined through baptism, but as Paul makes clear there we are also by the same action joined with his resurrection:

This brings us to the final point, which is truly an end point and goal, the fulfilment of which is promised, for death cannot prevail.

The gates of Hades, meaning the entrance to the underworld believed to be the place of the dead, was a traditional way of referring to death in general (eg Isaiah 38:10), which we believe cannot withstand the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord in which all servant leaders and followers may share through faith.

The keys of the kingdom then represent genuine authority in the church, exercised personally in a shared manner within the bonds of fellowship, it depends upon the teaching of Jesus and doing what Jesus taught, and above all it comes to us in the form of servant leadership in which disciples are called to take up their cross and follow Jesus, confident in his power to defeat all our enemies, even death. All glory and praise to him! In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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