The keys to the kingdom? Sermon for Adel Parish church 23rd August 2020.
Matthew 16: 13 – 22
A life-long Methodist turns up at the pearly gates. St Peter smiles and says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 10, but when you pass door number 2 be very quiet.’
Next a Baptist arrives. St Peter says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 17, but please be very quiet when you pass door number 2.’
Next in the queue is a Roman Catholic. St Peter says ‘You know the drill – door 6 but very quiet past door 2.’
This woman asks ‘Why the silence around door 2?’
‘Ah’, St Peter replies, ‘That’s where the Anglicans are, and they think they’re the only ones here.’
You could, of course, substitute any denomination…and no one really thinks like that do they?
In today’s gospel Jesus tells Peter that the church will be founded on him – and he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That phrase has given us the picture of St Peter, at the gates of heaven, controlling who gets in. But it’s also led to churches down the centuries, feeling it’s their task to say who is in and who is out…who’ll get to heaven and who won’t.
There are churches which trace their authority back through generations to St Peter himself…and feel this gives their leaders the ‘keys to the kingdom’.
There are churches that feel this is all wrong, that authority doesn’t lie with individuals, it comes from God…so they start a new church, replace people with creeds and confessions, and use these to decide who is in and who is out. The bewildering number of denominations shows just how many times that’s happened.
It happens because people take faith seriously, and want to defend it against the world around. But I think it also happens because we remember only that authority is given to the church – not what this authority is based on.
So, let’s go back to that conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After asking what society is saying about him, Jesus asks them directly – ‘Who do you say I am?’
Peter blurts out what he’s perhaps just realised, ‘You are the Messiah, Son of the living God’. It’s this confession that makes Jesus call Peter the rock on which he will build his church. And, Jesus makes clear Peter has received a revelation from God.
The church, then, is based not on a perfect authority figure, or a set of rules, but on a flawed human being who, with God’s help, realised true life comes from Jesus Christ.
Actually, I’m happy to belong to a church with recognized figures of authority. I’ve been very grateful for the leadership provided by our bishops during this pandemic. For me the problem comes when we and they, forget to look beyond them to Christ.
When, having come to an understanding of some aspect of faith, we begin to think that if we are right, everyone else must be wrong…and that means they can’t be part of the Kingdom of heaven. And the church starts to look like an exclusive club – where some are not welcome.
Our understanding of Christ is always flawed and incomplete…because we’re human and he is God. But sometimes we forget we’re followers of Christ, and become defenders of our idea of Christ. And this can too easily be a Christ we’ve created in our image, to reflect our understanding of Christianity.
I used to teach RE to year 6 classes. At 10 or 11, they’re starting to question things, trying to make sense of faith for themselves, and they say some revealing things. Once, one began a question, “Miss, you know how our God is white…”
“…you know how our God’s white…”, I’m sure none of us think like that, he was 10 years old after all. But he had perhaps picked up our tendency to assume God is like us…that God will hold similar opinions to us on contentious issues.
And sadly, once we think we know what God thinks, we seem unable to listen to others, to contemplate that we might’ve made a mistake. Then churches are torn apart over issues of gender and sexuality. Or become so convinced of their authority that crimes are covered up, or prejudices such as racism become embedded.
And rightly or wrongly, people outside the church see Christians as people mainly concerned with whether others conform to ‘right’ ways of thinking and behaving.
Yet the rock on which the church stands is the recognition that Christ is the son of the living God…that Christ is the way the truth and the life. The church should be a community of people recognizing that for ourselves. And then working out together – in all our diversity – what that might mean for how we live our lives.
And since Christ rarely talked about rules or doctrine, but about costly forgiveness and love; since he defies attempts to box him in and tie him down but constantly surprises us; we should perhaps be wary of putting our words into his mouth.
As Christians we are called to apply our faith to the way we live, the way we earn and spend, the way we vote. We should take our faith and how we practice it seriously. We have to make decisions about what we think Christ’s followers should do. But I think we should be very wary of thinking we know who is in and who is out – in the Kingdom of God.
Here’s another St Peter joke to finish with.
2 flat-earthers (people who insist the earth is flat) go to heaven. They’re allowed to ask God just one question. So, asks the first, ‘Was I right?’…’No’ says God. Turning to his friend the man says ‘This goes higher than I thought.’
Again – nonsense – but also perhaps a warning against making God in our image, and losing our ability to be surprised and changed by the one we confess as Christ, Son of the living God.