21st Per Annum, 23rd Aug 2020
Keys are a powerful symbol of freedom and power. I remember the responsibility of having my own car key and the slight thrill of turning the key in the ignition for the first time. Somehow pressing a button to start a car and pressing a fob to unlock the door don’t have quite the same flare. In our Gospel we’ve just heard, Jesus gives to St Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and I want to spend a bit of time looking at this passage before then going on to look at authority within the Church.
First, Jesus is giving them to Peter not to make the doors of Heaven harder to open. Peter is not here seen as a bouncer who will keep the keys safe lest anyone should try to open the door. We know this wouldn’t be the case because the Lord has come to break down the barrier between us and God and between us and each other. Peter being given the keys is a further dignity and ennobling of the Church, the Body of Christ. It is in stark contrast to the criticism of Jesus makes of the Jewish leaders: “Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of Heaven,” (Matthew 23:13).
Second, presumably very few people had keys at the time our Lord walked the earth. There would have been no padlock on the boat of the disciples, needing a key to unlock it; no key to get the ignition going. Keys were reserved for special people holding high office, protecting significant treasure. This is what was happening in our first reading too when Eliakim is predicted to be appointed to be master of the palace to replace Shebna. Shebna is confronted with irrelevance and impotence; Eliakim delighted with the prospect of being able to grant favours to those who would have access to the King. You may recall the image of the key of the house of David from one of the hymns we sing in Advent each year: O come, O come Emmanuel. “O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home,” the verse goes.
Third, just to say something about the location, Caesarea Philippi. There are a couple of Caesareas in that part of the world and this part of the name links it to the Emperor. Herod the Great had been given this bit of land by the Emperor and, to thank him, he built a huge marble temple in his honour. Herod’s son, Philip, inherited it on his death and changed the name of the city, which is on the northern limits of Israel, near the pagan world of Syria. Maybe Jesus giving Peter the keys here has something of the symbolism of Westminster Abbey - the royal chapel - ought to have by being next to the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament sits. In the shadow of his vast display of the homage people would offer the Emperor to gain yet more favours, Jesus confers an authority of Peter and the Apostles to bind and loose, an authority from a completely different world.
Two weeks ago at Sunday Mass when we heard the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we noticed how the Apostles brought the needs of the people to the Lord. Here again, they bring not the concerns but the opinions of the people in response to Jesus’ question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?… Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah…” And we’ll hear people say all sorts of things about God. We’ll hear them say He causes suffering, to which we say God only causes that which is good. We’ll hear them say God doesn’t mind whether they go to Church or not, to which we say He deserves better than us just sitting at home and praying at our own convenience. We’ll hear them say God creating everything doesn’t fit well with modern science, to which we say that science has shown how everything was made but not who did it. It might also be that we need to check and see if what they’re saying is true or not.
The faith Peter professes underlines the importance of both words and inner conviction. He needs both. On the one hand, he uses the correct words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And we should be learning prayers from the Mass by heart, we should be learning hymns by heart, we should be learning bits of the Bible by heart. Not so that we can show off or look clever, but because it will help us to find phrases that articulate our faith and the identity of Jesus. Let’s look at this statement: ‘Christ’ means He has been anointed by the Father for a purpose; ‘Son’ that He shares in His Father’s divinity. But flesh and blood have not taught Peter this: it goes deeper within him. So it is with our faith; not just to be a bland statement of “Yeah, I’m a Christian … Yeah, I go to Church” but actually affecting our behaviour.
Our Lord’s reply to Peter has been something of a controversial statement in the history of the church because it touches on the tricky subject of authority. Authority is awkward when we discuss it because none of us really like being told what to do unless we decide who does the telling! So often Jesus’ messages lead the person receiving the word to squirm a bit. Remember the young man who goes away perplexed when Jesus says to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own,” (Matthew 19:21). Remember the Pharisees who have the Sabbath observances discredited by Jesus healing on that day (Mark 3:1-6). Well, Christ is the Head of His body, the Church, and somehow there needs to be a means for us to work out what is and is not faithful as we strive to be close to Christ and all those who are reborn in His Blood. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in their statements on what future reunion would look like, agree that there would be a universal primacy focused on the bishop of Rome, the Pope (ARCIC I, Authority in the Church, §9, Windsor, 1981).
When we consider the authority of the pope, one of the phrases that gets banded around sometimes is papal infallibility and I thought it might be worth just examining that briefly. It’s important for us to note that what this doesn’t mean is that the Pope can wake up one morning and decide to add another book to the Bible or that something is morally justified and that everyone has to just bow down and accept it. It rather enshrines an authority that the Church has, which is articulated only when the Pope explicitly says he is speaking ex cathedra, which popes have only done twice in the last hundred and forty years.
In our study group on Jeremiah on Tuesday evening via Zoom we’ve been noticing how often there are criticisms of the priests, the prophets, the shepherds. For example, the Lord says, “I raised up sentinels for you, ‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not give heed.” (Jeremiah 6:17) The criticisms are all based on the assumption that God gives the leaders of His people authority to act and in this instance they have failed to use that authority properly so as to build up God’s people and keep them close to Him. The criticism is of the misuse of authority, but it is not dispute that that they have authority. Jesus also says of the religious leaders of His own day: “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they preach” (Matthew 23:2). All those who lead the Church have sinned, including me. Pray then, my friends, that your bishops and priests, that those who have positions of leadership within our church will be holy and close to God that they might exercise their authority with God’s mercy.
Authority then is a gift God gives for the whole church. We must all hear the call to exercise our responsibilities within the family of faith which gathers here today: a responsibility to ensure Mass is celebrated well in this Church; a responsibility that our sisters and brothers we see around us are supported; a responsibility to draw many more souls into a lively relationship with Jesus Christ who came to open the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, thrown open wide. Amen.