by Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Ezekiel 34: 11-16
2 Timothy 4: 6-8
Matthew 16: 13-22
Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;
Love repulsed -but it returneth.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 –1822), Prometheus Unbound
I discovered through our interim organist choir director that this Sunday is traditionally held to be “Saints Peter and Paul” Sunday, a day of celebration of the the founding of the church. It’s the day the church remembers the words that Jesus pronounces to Peter today, that he is the rock on which the church will be founded. Protestants tend not to celebrate it, because, I guess, of the fact that we aren’t Roman Catholic, and the RCs refer to this blessing of St. Peter as the beginning of the papacy. Since last week I preached positively about Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, you all may be wondering if I’m changing teams and secretly saying “Hail Mary’s” in my office. I’m not, but I’d like to refer you to something I heard Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ say once that “we should all become Roman Catholics, just as soon as they start ordaining women.” He meant by this that we need to stop viewing the church as splintered and work towards reconciliation—we need to look at our traditions, though disparate, as part of a whole church, what we call in the creeds “The Holy Catholic Church.” When we say that in the Apostles’ Creed, what we mean is that the church of Jesus Christ is united; and Hauerwas meant that his hope is that one day our differences will all be resolved and we will be united again under the banner of the one church.
It is that one church, the Church Universal, that Jesus is referring to in this passage when he hands Peter the keys to the Kingdom of God. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It might be good to view this as much like a parent handing her child the keys to the family car and saying, “Whatsoever good driving thou doest on earth affects positively thy parents’ insurance, and whatsoever accidents thou havest on earth affect negatively thy parents’ insurance.”
Jesus has given incredible responsibility to Peter, just as we do when we hand our kids the keys to the car; and just as whatever good or bad they do driving affects the whole family, so whatever good or bad we as the church do affects God’s Kingdom in heaven.
Jesus gives this responsibility to Peter because Peter is the first disciple to pass the driving test. He’s the one who finally gets it right: Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God. This pronouncement makes Peter the Keeper of the Keys, the Rock upon whom the church is founded and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.
All this incredible responsibility given to the spiritual equivalent of a sixteen year old driver. One hopes for the best, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Peter has a fender-bender as soon as he drives away from the DPS parking lot.
Because Peter, reveling in the good news that Jesus has acknowledged him as the leader of the church, then immediately gets it wrong. Jesus tells the disciples that as the Son of God, He must suffer and die, and on the third day rise. This isn’t how Peter understands the Son of God. He thinks the Son of God is leading them to victory, not potential disaster. So he tries, shockingly, to shut Jesus up; which leads to Jesus humiliating the man he just elevated by telling him that he, Peter the Rock of the church, is wrong and acting like Satan.
This story is a parable of the church. On the one hand, we are given great power in the name of Jesus. On the other hand, by giving us that power Jesus has taken the enormous risk that we might get it wrong; and if we get it wrong, it affects heaven itself. It affects the human perception of God. It affects people’s understanding or misunderstanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus. How we act affects whether people view God as a benign or a malignant force in human life. We can, like Peter, be satanic.
Powerful stuff, when you hand the keys of heaven over to human beings.
One of the most mysterious parts of this passage is the meaning of Jesus’ words, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” As always, Biblical words can be misinterpreted when lifted out of their Biblical context, as these often are. One commentator observes that “Peter’s emphatic refusal to accept Jesus’ impending death…demonstrates that his thinking, however heavenly revealed, is still humanly bound… There is a binding necessity to Jesus’ road to the cross.” Jesus’ destiny binds him to the cross, and Peter’s attempt to “unbind” Jesus’ from that destiny is actually an attempt to unbind us as a church from the necessity of risk, sacrifice, and even death for the sake of the Gospel.
The church has often, and at great cost, borne witness to Christ by identifying with those in need–supporting the poor and the needy, standing up against unjust laws, speaking out for the gospel in places like Guatemala and South Sudan where oppressors don’t want to hear it’s message of love, mercy, and justice, and will find ways to silence any opposition. When the church has done that, it’s bound us to the humble Christ and shone a light to the world.
But the church has also been guilty, over the years, of attempting to “unbind” ourselves from humility and service and bind ourselves to arrogance, victory and success—in other words, to bind ourselves to worldly values, rather than those of God’s Kingdom. And it’s had disastrous consequences, putting the church on the wrong side of history because we’ve wanted to be identified with the victors, the winners, instead of the quote losers, like our Lord Jesus. “If we want the transformational bonding with Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, we also can’t avoid bonding with Jesus the Crucified One,” writes David Ewart.
This perspective lends deep significance to the site in which Peter’s confession takes place. Jesus and His disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, north of the Galilee in Syria, the city that is the seat of Roman power in the Middle East. They are surrounded by buildings, statues and symbols that celebrate Roman imperial power. By announcing that He is the Son of God in this city, Jesus is challenging earthly power itself. But as another commentator says, “It can be more difficult to believe in the power of the living God when we are surrounded by indications of contrary powers and authorities.” This may be why it is so hard for Peter to grasp the model of self-sacrificial service Jesus is teaching. Peter is bound, as we all are, to human assumptions of how power, victory, and success work. We tend to assume that God is associated with human models of success—winning a war or an election, making a lot of money, success at goals even if the success is won by immoral means—a “Winner take all” God. But that’s not Jesus’ style. From the world’s perspective, Jesus is a loser. It takes a whole lot to unbind us from the notion that God’s main currency is victory.
Another way to view how to understand Jesus’ teaching about the binding and unbinding power of the church is to look at how another book of the Bible interprets the same concept—in this case, the Gospel of John. After His resurrection in John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on His disciples and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20: 23).
In John, Jesus associates our binding and unbinding power with forgiveness. And these days that’s a particularly powerful notion. The church has often found it easy to point the finger at enemies. This, by the way, is not a point of view limited to one particular perspective; both so-called liberals and so-called conservatives have their “enemies of God” list. Have we ever considered the devastating effect of our refusal to forgive? We mark God and Jesus with the stamp of our hatred, arrogance, and judgmentalism.
So let’s contrast that to the power of forgiveness. Throughout the past few weeks, we’ve watched what one might think would be the tragic aftermath of the racist church shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. With racial tensions already as high as they have been the last few months, it would have been reasonable to expect more rioting, perhaps more racial violence.
But instead, the story has played out differently. The people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina, the nation itself has come together, grieving and mourning with our Christian brothers and sisters, but also, it seems, seeking a different solution to the racial problems that have plagued us. And it all started with the Christians of Emanuel AME practicing forgiveness. In the closed circuit arraignment of church shooter Dylann Roof, church members and family members of the slain told him “I forgive you.”
It’s hard to understand such forgiveness. But it is essential. To forgive means to unbind yourself from hatred and vengeance and a never-ending sense of being wronged. To forgive means that you acknowledge that even though you may not entirely understand it, and Dylann Roof may never accept it, God’s love and grace are available to him just as they are available to us all.
And to forgive means you free others from a need to be angry for your sake. They can move on from blame and finger-pointing. They can move on from anger, frustration, and the need for vengeance, to work constructively toward building bridges of understanding and reconciliation.
Sure it’s not perfect—it’s never perfect on this world. But let’s not bind ourselves to notions of perfection, either. Let’s bind ourselves instead, to the example of love, service, sacrifice and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ—and be the church Jesus has called us to be.