The Keys of the Kingdom

Lesson: Matthew 16:13-20

During a criminal trial, the district attorney called an eminent psychologist to testify. She sat down in the witness chair, unaware that the rear legs of the chair were set precariously on the back of the raised platform. “Will you state your name?” asked the district attorney. Tilting back in her chair, she opened her mouth to answer, but instead catapulted head-over-heels backward and landed in a stack of exhibits and recording equipment. Everyone watched in stunned silence as she untangled herself, rearranged her disheveled clothing and hair and sat back down on the witness stand. “Well, doctor,” continued the district attorney without changing expression, “we could start with an easier question.”

A question about identity can, at times, be a very hard question. When Jesus comes into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he starts with an easier question. “What do other people say about me?” It isn’t a personal question. It’s just, “What have you heard? What’s the gossip?” So the disciples all answer, sharing the handful of opinions they’ve heard, probably here in Caesarea Philippi and elsewhere. They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”[1]

Then Jesus asks the hard question. “But who do you say that I am?” This time it is personal, and this time only one disciple answers. Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Our NRSV pew bibles translate the Greek word christos as “messiah;” both messiah and christos mean “the anointed one.”

Now, this is a hard question because there is no amount of research that will help you answer it. There is no talent or aptitude that makes it any easier – not analytical skills or logic or clear thinking. It doesn’t make any difference if you have a great memory or if you’ve done all your homework or if you’ve stayed up all night studying. None of this will help you. William Sloane Coffin writes, “To answer, as did Peter, ‘You are the Christ,’ takes something more. It takes a leap of faith, a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to plunge in, to go beyond what the mind can reveal ….” But, says Coffin, “It’s also the easiest question, because you don’t so much find the answer as the answer finds you.”[2] And that is what Jesus is saying when he responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”[3]

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, all the disciples acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God.[4] So what’s new and different is the declaration that he is the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the one they all have been waiting for. It’s so different, such a leap that Jesus says it’s on this kind of faith and on Peter himself, that he will build his church – not in the sense of an institutional church as we know it but the fellowship of faith. Jesus says to Peter, “Your name means ‘rock,’” which it does – in Greek the word for rock is petra – “and your destiny, Peter, as the first person to recognize who I am is to be the first stone in the edifice of those who will call themselves Christians.”

And then Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven – and I know I sound like a broken record here but it bears repeating that “the kingdom of heaven” is the phrase that Matthew uses in place of “the kingdom of God.” When we think of keys we automatically think of letting some people in and shutting others out, but Jesus has made it very clear by now throughout Matthew’s gospel that the kingdom of God is that alternative kingdom, that alternative reality in which peacemakers are blessed and the meek inherit the earth and people give and receive mercy[5] and in which everyone is invited to participate: the sick and unclean,[6] sinners and tax collectors,[7] and even people of other ethnic groups.[8] The kingdom of God is both a present reality, to the extent that we live as though it is real here and now, and a hoped-for future – the world around us does not look like the kingdom of God much of the time. But no one is shut out. Do any of you remember the key that opens a can of Spam? You can only use it to open the can. You can’t use it to close the can. These keys of the kingdom are about opening it, making it more real, more accessible to more people, and Jesus explains what he expects Peter to do with these keys when he says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[9] Peter is given the authority to decide which practices and behaviors will further God’s kingdom, support God’s kingdom, be consistent with God’s kingdom.[10] So, for example, in the book of Acts, we see Peter deciding that Gentile Christians don’t have to keep kosher, don’t have to follow the traditional Jewish dietary laws, in order to become Christians.[11] Using the keys, Peter opened up the kingdom of God to people that were traditionally considered unclean.

What does this story mean for the twenty-first century church? For us? I think it’s significant that this conversation takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a seat of government in an empire that in many ways represented the opposite of the kingdom of God, an empire in which power was used to dominate and oppress to gain more power and wealth. Peter makes his life-changing confession surrounded by a dominant culture that does not think Jesus is anything exceptional. Those of us who wrestle with what it means to be a person of faith today always do so in the context of a culture that does not recognize Christ, that does not see God at work in the world, that does not hope for the kingdom of God.

And yet surrounded by that culture, if we are a part of the church, if we call ourselves Christians, we are asked the same hard question as Peter. Who do you say that I am?

I have several thoughts about this question. First, it isn’t a test, a test you either pass or fail. Just a couple of verses after today’s passage, Peter shows himself to have such a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be God’s anointed – the messiah or the Christ – that Jesus calls him “Satan.”[12] In first-century Judaism, there was no single understanding of “messiah.”[13] A messiah could be a prophet or a king, perhaps a warrior, or perhaps not. So although Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, the meaning of that role isn’t yet clear – which is probably why Jesus tells the disciples to keep quiet about it. And not only is Peter’s understanding muddled, his faith is not perfect. His faith evolves; it comes and goes. The night Jesus is arrested, Peter denies Jesus three times.[14] Jesus doesn’t bless Peter because he gets it perfectly, or even at all, all the time.

Second, this isn’t about mouthing the right words. It’s not about reciting creeds. It’s about aligning our lives with what it means to confess Jesus is the Christ, which is really hard to do when we don’t really even understand what that means. I’m not sure most of us really do – myself included. And so people come up with titles and formulations and creeds and doctrines and all the rest, trying to get at the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus, and that’s understandable – we’re just trying to understand. But as Luther Seminary professor David Lose puts it, “all too often I fear that those words only keep the wild and unpredictable God of love and grace at arm’s distance from us, and Jesus remains inspiring and exemplary, but ultimately rather tame and eminently safe, kind of like the prophets of old seem to us.”[15] Jesus’ identity is not about memorizing creeds or doctrines.

And third, and probably most importantly, I don’t think that it’s Jesus who needs this confession. It’s Peter. It’s us. Jesus doesn’t asks us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, but rather for ours, that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life.[16]

What do I mean by this? Maybe I can explain it better by sharing a conversation I had with a seminary student this summer. He asked something along the lines of, “What difference does it make what we believe, as long as we’re doing good, as long as we’re helping people in need and doing justice?” And I said, “What difference does it make to whom?” After he’d made a joke about the evasive tactic of responding to a question with another question, I clarified. Does it make any difference what I believe to the people I’m helping? Probably not, unless something of the spark or passion of my faith happens to light a flame in them, as well. Does it make any difference to God? This may surprise you, but, again, I suspect it makes no difference to God what I believe, although as I told the student, I try to exercise the utmost humility when it comes to claims about reading the mind of God.

But does it make any difference to me? It makes all the difference in the world. If I were to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” I might answer something like this: I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. God isn’t confined to Christ but Christ is the way I best understand God. It’s less important to me that Christ is God-like than that God is Christ-like.[17] For me, it’s Jesus who reveals God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us, for every single creature and for all of creation, but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love.[18]

And I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. For human beings. And so rather than give in to the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Rather than judge, Jesus showed mercy and compassion. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, invites us to act, to live the love he showed, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.[19]

And that answer – that belief – makes all the difference to me, because it is the wind beneath my wings. It is the source of my courage. It is my inspiration, my motivation, my fuel and my sustenance. My North Star. It is not logical or rational or analytical and it feels like a gift from God – a mysterious gift that I could not study for or earn or achieve. And that answer shapes my answer to all the other questions I face in life.

Jesus asks the question not for him, but for us, that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life. And that, I believe, is what the keys of the kingdom really are, the keys Jesus offers not only to Peter but to us. The keys to the kingdom are a power that helps to root us in the love and possibility that Jesus offers, that shapes us over a lifetime of answering, “Who do you say that I am?” We don’t answer perfectly, we don’t always answer the same way, we don’t understand all the mysteries implied in our answers, but as with Peter, it is a place to start.

It is a place to start. Who do you say that Jesus is? This is not a test. You don’t have to have a great answer this morning. The church, the community of Jesus, gathers this morning, and off and on all week, and every year, and every century, so that we can help each other answer that question, and figure out together how it will shape our lives and even our world. The church doesn’t look the same now as it did in first century Judea and it will not look the same in 10 or 50 or 100 years. But our answer to that question will continue to be the rock on which the community of Christ is built, now and always.

May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.

The featured image is a portion of “Peter and the Keys” by Sadao Watanabe, 1973.

[1] Matthew 16:13-14.

[2] William Sloane Coffin, “Whiners or Fighters,” March 20, 1983, in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 21.

[3] Matthew 16:17.

[4] Matthew 14:33.

[5] Matthew 5:1-11.

[6] Matthew 10:8.

[7] Matthew 9:10.

[8] Matthew 15:21-28.

[9] Matthew 16:19.

[10] Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), p. 173.

[11] Acts 10:9-16.

[12] Matthew 16:22-23.

[13] Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20,” August 24, 2008,

[14] Matthew 26:69-75.

[15] David Lose,

[16] Lose.

[17] William Sloane Coffin, “Who Do You Say that I Am?” November 7, 1982, in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 586.

[18] Lose.

[19] Lose.

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