In today’s gospel we have the story in which Jesus famously confers the keys of the kingdom on Peter. If you know the Pope’s flag, the flag both of Vatican City and of the Catholic Church, the Papal coat of arms on the flag features these keys crossed beneath the triple tiara, or crown, of the popes (they don’t wear the crown anymore). So, many will take this story to be the moment when papal authority is given to Peter and his successors.
Interestingly enough, the ancient church didn’t see it that way, and that includes our own patron, St. Augustine; and in the terms of the totality of Catholic thinking, it’s not this moment that is the clincher for the establishment of the papacy, but that famous moment just prior when Jesus turns to Peter, who at that point still goes by the name Simon, and says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
So, the sequence is Peter’s put in charge, and then the Church, in utero so to speak as it is seen in the twelve apostles before Pentecost, then the Church got the keys. Peter’s job, and that of his successors, and that of bishops and priests, and ultimately of us all, is to keep those keys safe and available.
What are those keys? What is it that opens the kingdom of Heaven up for believers? These keys have been given to all of us.
You know we hide a set of keys in the sacristy. The kids who serve at the altar know where they are, so do those adults who help in the sacristy, and a few others. We don’t advertise where they are to the world. I don’t mention where we keep them on the website. One of the keys unlocks the tabernacle in which the blessed sacrament is kept between masses for the benefit of the sick and the dying should I get a call from a hospital, get called to the bedside of a faithful catholic… that’s an important key that gives access to the most precious thing in this whole building, more precious than this building. The keys are important. So, it’s analogous to the keys to the kingdom—we as a parish hold the keys of the sacristy and tabernacle, they aren’t on my key ring; but make no mistake, I need those keys.
What is it the opens the gates of the heavenly kingdom? Jesus tells us: it’s forgiveness. You possess that key, as do I, as does the Church as a whole.
The key of forgiveness releases us from resentment, hate, bitterness, just as it releases those who are forgiven. Forgiveness is the key to reconciliation, peacemaking, and the renewal of community.
Now you might be thinking, “hold on, Father… isn’t the power to bind and to loose that Jesus speaks of about the sacrament of reconciliation, that is confession, and the power to forgive sins? Doesn’t that have more to do with our offending God and so obtaining God’s forgiveness through a sacrament administered by a priest?”
Well, if you thought that, you’d be correct. But remember, Jesus didn’t give a key, he gave us keys, in the plural.
Now how many did he give? Again, he’s speaking metaphorically, but you know there is no end of speculation as to whether or not he had a specific number in mind.
For a lot of Protestants, the keys represent the Bible, Gospel and the Hebrew Scriptures, the Good News and the prophets; and for us Catholics, we can readily say yes to the idea that scripture is at least one of the keys.
However, within our tradition, our tradition of 2000 years we’ve had some ideas about those keys.
I mentioned the Vatican City flag, and that it features two crossed keys. The keys aren’t the same, one a duplicate of the other. If the flag has been done properly, one should be shown to be gold, and the other silver.
And in heraldic language, the gold key represents the Church’s spiritual power; and the silver, Her earthly power. That is historically understood as the Pope’s spiritual authority over the faithful, his power to excommunicate; the earthly power was the armies of the old papal states, the fact that the Pope for centuries ruled an earthly state in the centre of Italy.
Today the interpretation is less literal, and less about punitive power, as if these keys were those of a jailer. Rather, we see in the symbolism of the keys that the Church, when she acts, she acts in both the spiritual and worldly realms. That in the spiritual, she is reconciling the world to God, doing so through the sacraments, through prayer, penance, and so on. In the earthly realm she also acts, but here she is effecting reconciliation among the nations, among peoples, among individuals. She does this as an institution in the diplomacy of the Holy See, but also more locally through her bishops who intercede with local civil authorities to effect justice, spread charity, advocate for mercy.
These worldly acts of intervention aren’t to be restricted to the clergy, to the office holders of the Church; we are all to be doing that, the key of forgiveness on earth, that one is hanging on the hook for you to take whenever you need it; and when you use it, there you open the door to the kingdom of heaven, and you let a little bit of grace enter into the world.
I’ve mentioned the horrible violence and riotous destruction in some American cities of late. I don’t want any of us to think ourselves superior to our American cousins, that Canadian smugness is most unbecoming and smacks of sinful pride. We should be praying for our neighbours. And what we should be praying for is that they remember this key, this key to unlock the door to reconciliation and peace, to unbind themselves from their prejudices and resentments, to loose their enemies from these situations of confrontation and continuing violence.
So too, we should celebrate every time that key is used to unlock the gates of heaven. The historic peace accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, too little mentioned in the mainstream media, is historic, but more importantly, it is a demonstration of the power of the keys of the kingdom to open us to the real possibility of a better world.
We also need to remember the golden key, it hangs quite unhidden, in plain sight. It is the spiritual key of the sacraments, of prayer and scripture. It is confession and the forgiveness of God for our sins, the absolving of which puts us back in communion with our Lord, from which flows the grace to use the keys he has given us in the world. We need to take that golden key down from its hook, and open the door of the confessional, swing open the gate and let grace flow over us as we put sin behind us, and Christ before all things.
We need to remember and use both. Sin is sin. The sin against our brother and sister is a sin against God. Our sin against God is a sin against our family of faith.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” writes Saint Paul.
How wonderful our God has shared this wealth with us, given us the keys to the treasury of grace, and said, “use them.”