It is obvious that keys are for doors or gates. But the keys and the gates we hear about in this Sunday’s liturgy are special. These are not ordinary keys; and the doorways and gates they close and open are not your everyday ones. The keys and gates today have to do with heaven and earth, with life and death and what is between them.
There is a feeling of a struggle over the key and the gates or doors. If the gate is open, this means there is only one world. But if the gate is closed, it means there are two worlds: heaven and earth or, in in another way of seeing reality, the world of death, the nether world, and the world of life. The key is important. Whoever holds the key has a power over these two worlds. Whoever has the key has an authority.
In the story from Isaiah, we hear of a transfer of power from Shebna to Eliakim. The incident takes place around 700 BC when Hezekiah was the king of Judah. He is the heir to David. The position of holder of the keys means he has authority over the king’s household. He holds access to the king in a very personal way. His position is like that of being a father to the city and the people. The authority in the handing over of the keys is not a raw power to do what he wants; it is an authority to be the king’s agent to the people. He is to carry out the king’s fatherhood by caring and providing for the people. He holds the keys to make the king’s concern for all really happen. Note that the story makes it clear that the Lord God is the one who transfers the power of the kingdom of David from one person to another. The authority vested in the keys that pass from Shebna to Eliakim comes from the Lord. A human being is given authority in the kingdom and house of David by the one who set up the kingdom in the first place.
Today Jesus also gives keys. He gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter. What moves Jesus to give keys to this disciple? We already know him as someone who is rather quick and rash in his judgements. We know him to be of little faith. And after this handover when Jesus calls him Peter, we will hear how Jesus will call Peter a ‘Satan,’ a tempter, “Get behind me Satan.” You do not understand what being Messiah, being the Christ, really means. But, Jesus gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus acknowledges Peter because Peter has acknowledged Jesus. Peter, the son of Jonah, has recognized that Jesus is Son of God. Peter has recognized and named that this Son of Man, Jesus, is from heaven. Peter is seeing in this man Jesus that the Kingdom of heaven has now entered human history in the best and clearest way possible. The one standing before Jesus as he asks “Who do you say I am?” is saying in turn that you are from the living God, you are his Christ, active and ruling in our world. Peter is coming to the realization that heaven and earth have met in this man Jesus. What looked like two separate worlds has now come to be joined in this Son of the living God. What heaven looks like and feels like is being talked about by this Jesus; heaven’s power is now on earth. A door has been opened and worlds have met. The world of heaven and the world of earth are no longer strangers. We know about these worlds meeting and interacting now as one world because we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray that what God has begun in Jesus will continue. We acknowledge that heaven and earth are not meant to be two separate worlds but rather one world, one kingdom, of God.
Jesus recognizes that what Peter has said about him, did not necessarily come from himself. Peter’s insight into Jesus and his origins is a gift from the Father in heaven. Peter has been touched in a deeply personal way by the Spirit from heaven. The Father in heaven has given Peter the gift to recognize Jesus as Son of the living God. Peter in himself has come to be a person where heaven and earth have come together. Jesus acknowledges this and calls Peter “blessed are you.” Peter is the only person in the gospels whom Jesus identifies as blessed. He is blessed because he has responded to the revelation of the Father in heaven. This recognition of Jesus and the blessing that flows from this is part of the mystery we remember and celebrate this day.
Peter has spoken what has happened in his heart. He heard the voice of the Father and he activated it, made it come out in words of recognition. Perhaps a little like ourselves when we have an insight and then we speak it out and a new reality is recognized as present. Because Peter heard the Father’s word and spoke it, he becomes rock. Peter has become the rock where the word of God in Jesus is being built up in the world of earth. Jesus goes on to acknowledge that in Peter. Jesus can now talk about building. Jesus speaks of Peter as one on whom Jesus can form a community. Peter has become a living stone, the beginnings of the kingdom.
Peter is given keys of the Kingdom of heaven. He has recognized in Jesus the image of the living God, his very son, the deepest possible relationship there can be with God. This opens up the whole storehouse, so to speak, of what the Kingdom is. In Peter, Jesus can be confident that his own message and work will continue. The community that gathers around the new world of heaven and earth together has a future in time.
It is not Jesus who picks someone to be the stone on which the community is built. No, it is the Father who reveals a mystery to Peter and Jesus acknowledges the Father’s choice. His acknowledgment takes the form of building a community. And thus begins the process of our adoption as sons and daughters of the living God. To acknowledge who Jesus is is to become a living stone in a new community where the Kingdom rules.
Somewhere, sometime, in each of our lives like Peter we answered Jesus’ question. But are we now allowing Jesus to build with us his community on earth?
Jesus is the Son of the living God. When this Son died, the netherworld did not hold him. That gate is closed; there is no power there. The keys to the Kingdom are keys to life. Is the life of Jesus flowing through us so that his church, his community, is truly a reflection of heaven on earth?
The keys Jesus gives are special keys. They are keys to open the gates of life. Life is the power and authority they serve. We stand in that authority each time we build up life in another, each time we offer hope, each time we say we are with you, each time we open our mouths and confess a word that lifts up another. When we do that, we are a rock in the community called Church.
Fr. Prior Joel Macul, OSB