21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Picture: cc Lubs Mary
My dear friends, how would you feel if I were to ask you whether you know what a key looks like, and how to use it? … Now there was a time in the past, when you might have been expected to take offence. To feel irritated, or even insulted. To think that this is a silly question. For, back then, one key looked pretty much the same as any other. A simple piece of metal with grooves cut into it at one end. And everyone knew what keys looked like and how to use them. But things have since changed, haven’t they? These days, keys come in many different forms. And we may not always know how to use them. Without being told. Well, at least I don’t.
For example, in addition to the old metal keys that we insert into a keyhole, we now also have plastic cards that we tap on or slide across a special electronic surface. Or alphanumeric codes that we type on a keypad. Or our own fingerprints, which some of us use to open our phones. These days, keys come in so many different forms that it’s difficult to say, in advance, what any key might look like. Let alone how it works.
And, if this is true of keys in the literal sense, isn’t it even more true of metaphorical ones? Isn’t it even more difficult to predict what the key to good health looks like? Or the key to a successful career? Or a happy marriage? Here too, keys can come in many different forms. Such as the right diet… or hard work… or good luck… or deep communication… Both literal and metaphorical keys can look very different. Which is why, when a particular type of key is being described, we need to pay close attention. We cannot simply assume that we know what it looks like and how to use it. And this is especially true if the key in question can gain us access to something precious. Something that may well be the deepest desire of our hearts.
Which is precisely what we find in our Mass readings today. As you’ve probably already noticed, both in the first reading and the gospel, keys are being given to certain people. In the first reading, God appoints Eliakim as master of the palace. The gate-keeper for the king. To Eliakim is entrusted the key to the House of David. The authority over the whole palace. The power to decide whom to admit into the presence of the king. In a similar fashion, in the gospel, Jesus entrusts to the apostle Peter a set of keys. Keys that open the gates of not just any earthly palace. But the gates of the kingdom of heaven itself. To Peter is granted the authority to grant access into the very presence of God.
Now, it is possible to interpret this gospel passage to mean simply what it says. That Peter is the appointed gate-keeper of heaven. He’s the one who greets all new arrivals at the pearly gates. With a flowing beard on his face, and an ancient bunch of keys in his hands. Holding the power to decide whether or not to let people in. I’m sure many of us have heard our share of jokes that evoke such an image, haven’t we?
And yet, isn’t it also true that, in this gospel passage, Peter speaks not just for himself, but also as a representative of the other disciples. And the keys that he receives, are meant to be used not just by Peter alone. But also by the others. Not just by the Pope in Rome. But also by every follower of Christ. Even by you and me. To us, collectively, members of the Body of Christ, citizens of the City of God, to us too are entrusted the keys to the kingdom. The awesome power to enter and to admit others into the presence of God. But do we know how to use these keys? Do we even recognise what they look like?
These, I believe, are the crucially important questions that our readings help us to ponder today. In particular, the readings describe at least three important characteristics of Peter’s keys. The first is relationship. The keys to the kingdom are entrusted to Peter as a direct result of his response to Jesus’ question, But you, who do you say I am? A question that is actually an invitation to a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Lord. Entrance to the kingdom depends upon being in right relationship with Jesus. Upon recognising and accepting him, following and imitating him, loving and serving him, as the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Lord and master of my whole life. And just as relationships are built not just on flowery words, but on sincere and consistent actions. So too does entry to the kingdom depend not just on what I say here in church. But also on how I live my life out there in the world.
And yet this kind of intimate relationship, this kind of heartfelt knowledge, this kind of humble acknowledgement of Christ as the centre of my life, does not come to me only through sheer force of will. Not just by tireless effort. Neither by clenched fists, nor gritted teeth. For, as the second reading reminds us, it is impossible to penetrate God’s motives or understand his methods! On our own we cannot know the mind of the Lord. No one can. No one, that is, except the privileged person to whom God chooses to reveal God’s self.
This is the second characteristic of the keys of the Kingdom: revelation. For isn’t this what Jesus tells Peter? It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. The knowledge of how to relate with God comes to us in the same way it came to Peter. As a revelation. A precious gift. Something for which we hunger and thirst. Often without even realising it. A gift that God has bestowed on us, and continually offers to us, in Christ Jesus our Lord. A gift that we receive anew every time we gather, as we do now, to celebrate the holy Eucharist.
And when we realise this, when we begin to appreciate how precious a gift we have received in Christ, we experience the third characteristic of the keys of the kingdom. The same thing that Jesus observes when he tells Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man… Rejoicing. Resulting from revelation. Leading to right relationship. These are among the characteristics of the keys to the kingdom. This is what it looks and feels like to enter and to help others enter the presence of God. Rejoicing, revelation, and relationship. Are these not also the very things for which so many people are searching, and often not finding, today? Needing someone to guide them? To help them gain access to the presence of God?
My dear friends, to us have been entrusted the precious keys to the kingdom of heaven. Yes, to you and to me. But how well are we using them to benefit others as well as ourselves? Do we even know what these keys look like in our lives today?