Sunday, June 29, 2008

Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles
Keys to the Kingdom

Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
Picture: CC jordiCORE

Sisters and brothers, it is a custom in some places for parents to present their child with a key to the front door when s/he reaches the age of 21. Even here, in Singapore, it is not uncommon to see key-shaped birthday cakes. The key symbolizes a significant turning point in the life of the young person. In making a present of it to their child, the parents acknowledge that s/he has come of age. S/he is now old enough to take full responsibility for his/her own life. As a young adult s/he can now come and go as s/he pleases.

The image of this 21st birthday key is what comes to mind today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of the two great apostles Peter and Paul. And the reason for this is quite obvious. In today’s gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But what is the true meaning of this gift? Who is it from? And what is it for? Is it meant only for Peter and the popes who come after him? Or is it not also meant for us? And if it is also for us, then how are meant to use it?

We begin our reflection with the opening prayer that we offered just now. Here we find an indication of what this key signifies. In that prayer, we said that it was through (Peter and Paul) that the Church first received the faith. And it is this same faith that we are celebrating today. More than just the feast day of two great saints, we are celebrating the precious gift of faith that comes down to us from the apostles. It is this faith that is the key that opens for us the gates of heaven. It is this same key of faith that Peter receives in the gospel today. Consider the circumstances in which Peter receives his gift.

Just as a 21st birthday is an important occasion in the life of a young adult, so too do we find a significant turning point in the gospel today. This turning point is to be found especially in the two questions that Jesus asks his disciples. First: Who do people say the Son of Man is? And then: But you, who do you say I am? It’s as though Jesus was saying to his disciples, When you were still children in the faith, you could be satisfied with what others told you about me. But now that you’re grown up, now that you’re adults, you need to take responsibility for you own faith. You need to tell me who I am for you. What I mean to you...

To come of age in the faith then is to move beyond what others have told us about Jesus and to enter into a loving personal relationship with him. It is to be able to say for ourselves who Jesus is for us. It is to acknowledge him as our Lord and Savior. And it is when Peter is able to give the accurate answer that Jesus rewards him with the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But haven’t we all received this same gift of the keys of faith through baptism? Whether we are lay people or priests or religious, aren’t we all called to be adult Christians? Aren’t we all called to enter and to remain in a loving personal relationship with Jesus our Lord and Savior? And, when we do this, isn’t the same power of binding and loosing that Jesus gives to Peter, also given to us (see Matthew 18:18)?

Notice also where this faith comes from. Notice how Jesus tells Peter that it was not flesh and blood that revealed it to him, but the Father in heaven. The key of faith is not something that we can produce for ourselves. It comes to us as a gift. Although we do receive it through the hands of others – through the apostles, the saints, our parents and grandparents and teachers – it comes ultimately from the hand of God. Just as it is the parents who present the key to the front door to their grownup child, so too does God the Father give the keys to the kingdom to those who are growing up in the faith.

And this is what the keys of faith are for. They enable us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Isn’t this what they do for Peter and Paul in our readings today? What does it mean to enter into the kingdom if not to be set free from all our terrors, as Peter was set free from Herod’s dungeon? What does it mean to enter into the kingdom, if not to receive the crown of righteousness that Paul speaks about in the second reading? Freedom and kingship, these are among the things we hope to receive in the Father’s kingdom. These are the treasures that the keys of faith open for us.

But having the keys doesn’t always mean that we know how to use them. These days especially, keys can be quite sophisticated. And the same can also be said for the keys of faith. Didn’t Peter and Paul also need time to learn how to use them? We know, for example, that shortly after being praised by his Master in the gospel passage that we heard just now, Peter also received a stinging rebuke: Get behind me, Satan! (Mt 16:23). We also know how, when he was still named Saul, Paul thought that the way to the kingdom was to persecute Christians. What both Peter and Paul, and the rest of the apostles, had to learn was that the power to use the keys of the kingdom, the power to bind and to loose, can only be exercised by someone who is willing first to be bound by the love of Christ. For Jesus himself became our Lord and Savior not so much by the powerful miracles that he worked, nor by the eloquent sermons that he preached, as much as it was by the painful Passion that he endured. One can bind and loose only if one is first willing to be bound.

And this is also true of Peter’s experience in the first reading, where we are told that he was fastened with double chains. We also find something similar in Paul’s experience too. In the second reading, Paul can lay claim to the crown of righteousness only because he has first poured away his life as a libation, only because he has kept the faith. And, of course, we know that both Peter and Paul died martyrs’ deaths. Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded. Their lives and their deaths demonstrate for us the only proper way in which to turn the keys of faith so as to gain access to the kingdom. Together they model for us what an effective grownup faith looks like.

And isn’t this faith something which our world still needs so desperately? Despite all our technological advances, we live in a world where millions remain bound by the chains of poverty and oppression. In some places so-called democratic elections are held with only one candidate running for office because the would-be challenger has been intimidated into backing down. In other places, people have no choice but to board overloaded ferries and are drowned when those same ferries sink in a typhoon. In yet other places, the poor are tempted to sell their kidneys and other organs to make a quick buck. Are the keys of faith not what is needed in such a world? But which of us is generous enough to do our part? Which of us is courageous enough to allow ourselves to be bound, first to Jesus our Lord, and then, through him, to the brothers and sisters who might need our help, whether near or far?

Sisters and brothers, earlier in the opening prayer, we asked God our Father to keep us true to the teaching of Peter and Paul. Through these words, we were really asking God to present us anew with the keys of faith, so that we might share them with others and together gain access to the kingdom of heaven.

How might we better prepare our hearts to receive and to use this precious gift?

How might we turn the keys of our faith today?


  1. "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." - Luke 12:48

    The keys to the Kingdom come with a great price indeed!

    The great majority of the first 25 Popes are believed to have been martyred. In later times, the popes (non-martyrs) murdered include Stephen VI (896-897), Stephen VIII/(IX) (939-942), John XII (955-964), Benedict VI (973-974), John XIV (983-984), Gregory V (996-999), and Boniface VIII (1294-1303). And popes alleged to have been murdered include: John VIII (872-882), Adrian III (884-885), Leo V (903), John X (914-928) and John Paul I (1978, just 33 days after papal election!)

    But I suppose, Fr. Chris, you're referring to a spiritual dying to self when bound to Christ? That kind of death could be much more painful than physical death.

  2. Emeritus Archbishop Gregory Yong, D.D. was born into eternal life in the afternoon of Saturday 28th June, the eve of the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. How poignant, I thought, coming from an unbroken line of apostolic pastors ...

    I do not know Bishop Yong well, not having had many occasions to interact with him. Yet, whenever he met me, his eyes lit up even as he racked his mind to figure out which apostolate I'm active in. I don't think he succeeded in that.

    As we all know, in his lifetime he went through a lot from those within and outside the Church, especially the civil authorities; first the 1986 conspiracy debacle and then the Fr Joachim Kang case. You can sense the burden on his shoulders as you speak to him. And yet, when you gaze on his strikingly serene, peaceful composure as you pray before his casket, you cannot help but know that the man has reconciled himself to his Creator and has, in his own words, finally gone home.

    "Come you blessed of my Father. Come and possess the Kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world" Matt 25: 34.

    Bishop Yong, pray for us whom you shepherded for more than 25 years!


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