‘And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ St Matthew 16:19
When Rev. Rebecca Craven introduced her sermon last week by saying that an indication of absentmindedness was losing one’s keys, she didn’t develop the theme as I anticipated. She has given me the opportunity to do it today. I will discuss Peter who Jesus named the Rock and who, in St Matthew 16:19, is also entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Before I begin the sermon, I just like to emphasise an important point. Those of you who paint in water colours with me know how important it is to make contrasts. If you don’t paint contrasts strongly enough, the painting becomes bland and its parts indistinguishable. The writers of the Gospels use contrasts so that one incident stands out from another.
In this morning’s Gospel readings, we have Peter declaring Jesus to be the Messiah and Jesus calling him the rock – the rock of faith on which the church will be built. Jesus then handed Peter the keys of the kingdom, the keys opening the Church to the Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, the Church that is built on faith is contrasted with its mission. That demonstrates how God, our heavenly Father, is active in our world. As we say every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, His Will is ‘to be done euen in Earth as it is in heauen’.
Jesus then went to the crux of the matter by saying that the rock of our faith, and the key to our faith is his death and resurrection. By being killed and raised from the dead, Jesus would save his people (us) and God would reclaim them (us) for his own. Jesus’ sacrifice was in God’s plan, which was made clear to Jesus at his baptism when God put his trust in him. Likewise, Jesus placed his trust in Peter, whom he named and blessed as the rock. As Jesus was tested by different temptations, so Peter is tested by being entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet Peter does not want the keys. He rebukes Jesus for talking of his death. The contrast now is that only a moment ago Peter was the Rock, now Jesus condemns him as the tempter, ‘Get thee behind me Satan: thou art an offence unto me’ (St Matthew 16:23).
So Jesus implied that the Christian faith, based on his Cross, required sacrifice. It is a matter of losing one’s life based on secular thoughts, values and belongings to embrace a spiritual life of love, joy and peace. We must deny our narcissistic needs by putting others first; and we all know how difficult that is. We also know how difficult it is to build up the Church based on faith in Jesus, how difficult it is to make an impression on the world as we turn the key of the church to open the door on our community. It is significant to me that last week a poll was published asking what folk thought was the root cause behind the recent riots. Lack of parental control came top, followed by lack of discipline in schools. It was clear to me that folk were looking for scapegoats. What was not mentioned was the fact that the Christian religion has ceased to play a part in how people behave. But how we regard others and their needs assumes more importance if we regard them and ourselves, as those for whom Christ died. We must move away from concerns about the maintenance of the Church and turn the key to open the Church door to seek equality and justice for all. That requires sacrifice.
St. Peter understood the message of the Rock and the Keys and the Cross. In contrast to Jesus’ crucifixion, he died crucified upside down so he could look towards Heaven and towards the Messiah, his saviour.
Closer to our own day is a modern day Saint, Oscar Romero (1917-1980) who was said to be ‘an example of life in faith for all Christians throughout the world’ (Lacalle 150). He had been a timid, retiring, conservative priest for thirty-five years, seven as a bishop. When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador he witnessed the oppression of his people and he changed. He had found his base, his rock, his life in the Church with traditional prayer, worship and theology, but he turned the key to go into the world to speak for the oppressed and the poor and against corruption and injustices in society. Does that ring any bells? The day after Romero had made an appeal to the Army and the police to listen to their consciences and stop obeying immoral commands to torture and kill, he paid the ultimate price. He was shot dead whilst celebrating the Eucharist, a brutal act that connects the Eucharist with the Cross of Jesus in a very vivid way. It is the cross which stands at the centre of the Gospel, at the cross of world history, world religions, at the crossroad of all our lives, as the Rock and key in which we believe as Christians.
Lacalle, Saenz. ‘Oscar Romero’ in Spiritual Stars of the Millennium. Eds. Selina O’Grady and John Wilkins. London & New York: Continuum, in association with The Tablet, 2001.
All quotes from St Matthew are from the Geneva Bible (1602).
Oscar Romero, http://www.victorshepherd.on.ca/Heritage/Oscar%20Romero.htm, date accessed 03/09/11.
First preached on Sunday 28th August, 2011 at St. Philip’s with St. Stephen’s Church, Salford, Manchester.