This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and in those five centuries we have made some progress. It took 450 years, but the Roman Catholics finally conceded that it makes sense for worship to be conducted in the language of the local people. And Protestants have conceded – most Protestants, at least – that the faith which God looks for in us is one that becomes visible through the good works that it provokes, so that it is not wrong to say that God looks to us to do the works of love and mercy. We all recognize that no one is baptized a Catholic or a Protestant, but that we are all baptized as a Christian. There are still things that separate us, though, and it’s only honest to admit that.
One of those points is how to interpret this passage from Matthew. The scene is set with Jesus’ question to his disciples about who people think he is; and they provide a whole range of answers. Then comes the direct question:
“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’” [Matthew 16:15-18]
The Catholic interpretation is that Jesus here identifies Peter (whose name means “Rock”) as the person upon whose labors and authority the institutional Church will be settled. From that, and from the tradition that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, it is extrapolated that his successors in that office carry forward his work and, with it, extraordinary powers delineated in this same place:
“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.” [Matthew 16:19]
So on the papal coat of arms you will see two crossed keys. One is golden and opens the gates of heaven. The other is lead and locks them. That’s why, in cartoons, someone who has just died is shown talking to Peter outside the pearly gates, not to John or Bartholomew or Andrew.
In the Protestant interpretation, the “rock” upon which the Church is founded is not Peter, but the faith which he is the first to express and to put into words:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16]
And thus it would apply not to Peter alone, but to all who confess Jesus as Lord, that they have the gift and the duty to make the way clear for others and along with that the fearful and heavy possibility of making it worse.
So Luther wrote what he saw, as many have seen:
“I believe that there is forgiveness of sin nowhere else than in this community and that beyond it nothing can help to gain it—no good deeds, no matter how many or how great they might be; and that within this community nothing can invalidate this forgiveness of sin—no matter how gravely and often one may sin; and that such forgiveness continues as long as this one community exists.”
One of the inherent purposes of the body of believers is to be those who together carry the keys of the kingdom, not with arrogance but with humility.
Even more, that power they represent is one that is impossible for us not to exercise. Just as someone presented with the good news of Christ either accepts it or sets it aside, leaving no true middle ground of “Well, I sort of trust him,” there is no way for the Church to say, “Well, we won’t get in the way if someone wants to find Christ, but we won’t go out of our way to open the door, either.” We either invite people or turn them away.
Let me read you a section of a story by Chinhua Achebe about the arrival of the gospel in West Africa, as told from the perspective of someone who remained part of the traditional, non-Christian clan but who saw what happened in his village and how it was handled by a missionary named Mr. Kiaga.
“… It all began with the question of admitting outcasts.
These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that is was possible that they would also be received. And so one Sunday two of them went into the church. There was an immediate stir; but so great was the work the new religion had done among the converts that they did not immediately leave the church when the outcasts came in. Those who found themselves nearest to them merely moved to another seat. It was a miracle. But it only lasted till the end of the service. The whole church raised a protest and was about to drive these people out, when Mr. Kiaga stopped them and began to explain.
‘Before God,’ he said, ‘there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and must receive these our brothers.’
‘You do not understand,’ said one of the converts. ‘What will the heathen say of us when they hear that we receive osu into our midst? They will laugh.
‘Let them laugh,’ said Mr. Kiaga. ‘God will laugh at them on the judgment day. Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing? He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh. The Lord shall have them in derision.’
‘You do not understand,’ the convert maintained. ‘You are our teacher, and you can teach us the things of the new faith. But this is a matter which we know.’ And he told him what an osu was.
He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled, and dirty hair. A razor was taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof. He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest. How could such a man be a follower of Christ?
‘He needs Christ more than you and I,’ said Mr. Kiaga.
‘Then I shall go back to the clan,’ said the convert. And he went.”
Although formal authority does come into play, and formal decisions do open and shut the door in people’s faces, it’s far more often the overall, general aspect of the community that tells people most clearly what we really believe. When we are truest, our very being calls out that there is a Savior, and that he has given his life to make an eternal difference for all, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. In large and small ways, both consciously and unconsciously, we go through our days like a watchman goes through his night, opening and closing, locking and unlocking doors. When we are aware of what we are doing, and who we really are, then by God’s grace we may open far more doors than we close.