Keys to the Kingdom
Whenever my family has a get together and some of my siblings begin giving me a hard time and bring up some crazy youthful antics of the past I remind them that as a pastor I have been empowered with the office of the keys which always leads to the question “What is the office of the keys?” I explain that I have the power to forgive or retain sins and like Peter I hold the keys to the Kingdom of God. In other words, “Don’t mess with the woman who holds the keys.” Usually they laugh in my face and say they’ll take their chances with God. By the way, that is a horrible example of what the office of the keys really is, but it is a great example of how really bad theology can be used in abusive ways and how Christianity can put on a cloak of self-righteousness that isn’t very appealing to those both inside and outside of the faith.
When you look at today’s lessons it appears to present people of faith as seeking both righteousness and perfection. Now don’t get me wrong we are to strive for spiritual path righteousness and arrive at the destination of perfection in the faith, but sometimes in our seeking righteousness and perfection veer off of God’s course and take our own road which leads to self-righteousness and arrogance. So, why would God have us seek righteousness and perfection if God knows that our human tendency is to turn prideful and obnoxious? How does God work with us to keep us humble?
God has been working with humans for a very long time and just like we know how our own children are going to make really poor decisions over and over, God knows that we are going to trip over the same sins over and over. In Isaiah today it looks like God is using Abraham and Sarah as perfect examples of righteousness and faith. Personally, I love the Isaiah uses both Abraham and Sarah as examples of the rock of faith through which the Hebrew faith was hewn. On the surface it appears that God is holding Abraham and Sarah up as being examples of perfect faithfulness and righteousness especially when the prophet says, “for he was one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” It appears that God blessed Abraham and Sarah for their perfect faith. It is for this reason that we need to know our bible! Because Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith was not perfect! Quite the opposite is true. Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith was full of doubt, misgivings, and questions and sometimes down right unfaithful actions. Sarah had Abraham sleep with her slave girl Hagar because she didn’t believe that God make her conceive a child in her old age. Abraham, when he took his family to Egypt, told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister and Pharaoh took Sarah for a wife, which could have been a real disaster if Sarah would have had Pharaoh’s child. Plus, when God told Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bare a son, they both laughed. Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith wasn’t perfect by a long shot and Isaiah and God knew the Abraham and Sarah saga when they wrote this passage.
In our Gospel lesson it appears that Peter has achieved spiritual perfection when he answers Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.” Yep, Peter hits the nail on the head and if it had been the final jeopardy question he would have been the winner and just like in our Isaiah reading it appears as if Jesus is quite impressed with Peter’s response. However, take a close look at how Jesus responds to Peter’s answer. Jesus says, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah. . .” “Son of Jonah?” Elsewhere in the Gospels Simon Peter is referred to as the son of John, but here he is the Son of Jonah? Why? I think that Jesus is very well aware of Peter’s short comings and is forecasting the three dark days that Peter is going to spend in the belly of Jesus’ death. Like Jonah, who denied God’s call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh and spent three days in the belly of a big fish in order to get his priorities right Peter will have his three dark days of denial in order to get his priorities right. So, yes Peter understands that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, but Peter doesn’t understand what that means for the world. And, just think how special Peter must have felt about the power to retain and forgive sins. I bet he had a list of just whose sins needed to be retained. However, after the resurrection his understanding of the office of the keys would have changed radically. Peter probably went from keeping a list of people whose sins needed to be retained to understanding that real power lays in forgiving the sins of others. When Jesus forgave him for his denial after the resurrection you can bet that Peter’s view of forgiving the sins of others changed greatly.
Or, how about Paul in Romans 12 where he appeals to the people of Rome to present their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. Paul goes on to tell Christians to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Beautiful words, but in the wrong hands can quickly become words of judgment and condemnation. Phrases such as discerning the will of God alongside words like acceptable and perfect have lead people to believe that they know what the will of God is and they know what is acceptable and perfect. Soon God’s will looks a lot like my will and good looks like me and perfect is me, which is why it is so important to read the second half of our lesson.
Listen to these words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” These are words written by a man who used to think pretty highly of himself and experienced God’s grace in the most humbling of ways. Paul had been Saul a leader of the Jews, as to righteousness a Pharisee as for zeal a persecutor of the faith. Saul had it all, but in the blink of an eye and the flash of a blinding light he saw that what he had built his life on was sand and that the true rock was God the Father of Jesus. Saul was humbly transformed to Paul and his life is a testimony to what happens when self-righteousness runs riot.
So, what do we do with all these imperfect saints and how do we faithfully follow in their path? First, we acknowledge that there is no perfect faith and righteousness is only achieved through Jesus. Second, we take a good hard honest look at ourselves and thank God for the faith we have been given. Third, we look at what amazing and wonderful things God has achieved through such messed up imperfect people and if God can bring about a whole faith through two old doubting barren people, and build a church on the faith of a denier, and spread the gospel on the faith of a persecutor; then what wonderful things does God have in-store for us.
If we can just get out of our own way and quit holding on to this idea of perfection and righteousness then maybe we can celebrate in the forgiveness of our sins, and share the joy of being loosed from the bonds of this world to seek out the will of God. What is God’s will for us in our lives, in our congregation, in our community? What is God calling us to in our imperfect faith? Wonderful and amazing adventures together if we will just have eyes to see and ears to hear that we are wonderful, forgiven children of God.