Sunday, August 21, 2005

Proper 16

Matthew 16

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

14They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

15"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

16Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ,[b] the Son of the living God."

17Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter,[c] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[d] will not overcome it.[e] 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[f] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[g] loosed in heaven." 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

"I don't know how I knew, I just knew."

"Somehow I was at the right place at the right time."

"It was as if the car knew where it wanted to go."

"I dialed your number by mistake, but I guess it wasn't a mistake."

Have you ever had such an experience? What happened? Do you have any sense of how it happened?

Fate, coincidence, serendipity: there are many ways to express what seems to be a common (yet uncommon) human experience. Sometimes we simply feel led. There is a sense that there are larger forces at work in the world, forces that draw us to each other or place us into situations where we can be of help. Some would call it "the work of the Spirit," but that would be jumping ahead.


And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

It has often been said that one of the strengths of the Christian faith is that so much authority was given to so many broken people. Imagine Peter, getting ready to deny any knowledge of Jesus for the first, second or third time, and remembering the words of Jesus: "on you Peter, I will build my church." There was no effort to "clean up" the Gospel narrative, or make the disciples seem better than they were. Jesus needed followers, and he chose the best he could find.

So what are the "keys of the Kingdom"? The answer is, it depends who you ask. The Bishop of Rome claimed the "power of the keys" early in the history of the church. Peter's bones were in Rome (along with Paul's) and this fact seems to have given the Bishop of Rome the abiding sense that he was somehow the successor of Peter. Ignore that fact that Peter was never called a bishop, and that whatever role he had in local leadership was in Antioch and not Rome, but the figure that claimed leadership over all other church leaders still saw unbroken continuity from this scripture passage to them.

The "keys," according to Matthew's account, came with the power to compel the heavenly realm through human action: "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." The exact meaning remains vague. Does this give Peter the power to condemn some and save others? Is it even limited to the spiritual realm? Again, by the Middle Ages, the Bishop of Rome used the power of the keys to suggest that only he could determine who was fit to be an earthly king. Needless to say, more than a few kings disagreed.

What those who seek "the power of the keys" most often ignore is the modification to his blessing that Jesus made a few verses later. In chapter 18 he uses the same formulation of binding and loosing, giving the power this time to the elders of the church.

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

It is the church, in this version, that has the power to bind and loose. This seems much more comfortable than giving it to an individual, even if the individual is Peter. Or perhaps it only seems so based on the history of Christian church.


When St. Jerome wrote his Latin translation of the Bible in the fourth century, he chose to draw on legal terminology to translate "binding" and "loosing." He understood these to be the same as condemning or acquitting, creating a strong sense that these terms had to do with personal salvation. The fate of an individual's soul became the issue, and not the relationship between church and the world.

But what if we tried to reimagine binding and loosing and put it back in the context of the church. What if our collective action had import in heaven? What if we saw each decision we made as part of the unfolding of the heavenly realm, and not simply the church making decisions. Would we act differently? Would we alter the way in which we make decisions?

All of this leads to the conclusion that God trusts us to act on his behalf. In other words, when we wait around for God to do something, we are actually waiting someone or some group of people to do something. In other, other words, we have agency: "the power of one in such a relationship to act on behalf of another." For the lawyers in the crowd: "a consensual fiduciary relationship in which one party acts on behalf of and under the control of another in dealing with third parties." (

There, you have something to ponder over lunch: I have a consensual fiduciary relationship with God. But wait, there are clauses to this agreement. First, we have this relationship through the church. We don't operate alone. This, of course, is for our own protection, knowing that there must be limits placed on our ability to claim divine sanction for our actions. We decide in community what God wants us to do. Done alone, we end up with situations like Waco and Jonestown.

Second, and most important, the relationship is consensual. We must decide if we are going to undertake this work. We are not compelled. For a rational person, having agency and being entrusted to act on God's behalf is downright scary. What if we screw up? We are deeply flawed people, given to sin and delusion. How can we be trusted to act for God? Jesus has the answer:

"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14)


"I don't know how I knew, I just knew."

"Somehow I was at the right place at the right time."

We have agency, but we are not alone. The Holy Spirit is our companion and guide. We have the power to bind and loose, but this power is informed by the Spirit's work in our midst. When we feel "led" it is precisely because the Spirit is at work: prompting our action, clearing our mind, and opening doors to greater opportunities for service.

John Calvin put this another way. He wrote:

It is a very important consideration that we are dedicated and consecrated to God. It means that we will think, speak, meditate, and do all things with a view to God’s glory. (Foster, p. 167)

The Holy Spirit informs that view, sets it in our hearts, makes it known. It is when we are caught up in a vision of God's glory that we can act on God's behalf. We have a view to glory and then we live that glory in the world.

Take my life, and let it
be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move
at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be
swift and beautiful for Thee.

(Frances Havergal)


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