Your Keys To The Kingdom
It's getting on to the end of summer. In the Old Testament calendar that our Jewish brothers use still this is the end of the year with New Year’s coming in less than a month. So this is a good time to look fresh at what our readings say to us about birth and rebirth. We first get hints in Exodus.
After four hundred years of life in Egypt the sons of Israel had multiplied. Pharaoh worried all these immigrant Israelis could become a problem in a future war. So Pharaoh instituted social control and made all the Israelis slaves. But they continued to grow in numbers. So Pharaoh added population control to social control. Pharaoh issued an executive order calling for the death of every male baby born to an Israeli woman. As an aside, what goes around comes around: This same executive order death curse came back to hit the Egyptians later — the 10th plague.
Anyway, one Israeli mother hid her baby boy for three months, but couldn't hide him any longer. So she symbolically buried the baby in a papyrus basket waterproofed with tar and placed the basket in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh's own daughter rescued the boy and named him Moshe, which means "drawn from the water." We, of course, know him as Moses. Moses being drawn from the water was a symbolic rebirth from slavery and death to a new life in the mansions of Egypt. After this water rebirth Moses went on to became the first agent of God, delivering the people of Israel from slavery and death.
In our New Testament, Jesus teaches about spiritual rebirth both in this life and in the life to come. It took time and the wisdom and experience of the Holy Spirit before even the disciples were able to fully understand it. Jesus teaches by parables—stories, hints and glimpses - because that is what people are able to understand at first. But teaching just lays the groundwork for rebirth.
In our reading today from Matthew, after the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus heads up north of Galilee. He is speaking with his disciples. Let's listen in:
"Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Jesus asks his disciples. The disciples gave him a variety of answers. "Some say John the Baptist. Others, Elijah. And still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." It sounds like all the disciples spoke up, each reporting what he had heard and learned from the crowds. The people had seen the miracles Jesus was doing, and they all had their own ideas about who or what Jesus was. Not very different from today.
Even today there is a variety of opinions on who Jesus is or was. Some think Jesus was human, but inspired by God. Others that he was a genuine old-fashioned prophet. Some conflate Jesus with God the Father and imagine that Jesus alone is God, in effect worshiping something they can see, something visible, something you can make a statue of. We humans like to use our reasoning ability, our intellect to figure out the details of who God the Father really is, who Jesus is, how the Holy Spirit fits into the picture. For example, does the Holy Spirit "proceed" from the Father and the Son? Or is the Holy Spirit equally present at the beginning? Whatever that means. Our intellect leads us to invent creeds that rank the persons of the Trinity for precedence or power as if we were talking about White House staff.
But Jesus also taught the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of logic and words. The kingdom is a matter of rebirth and of power. Jesus taught the kingdom is a matter of direct personal experience. When he asked the disciples his next question: "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" What was there? Silence. Then, the irrepressible, impulsive disciple spoke up. Simon Peter spoke for all the disciples and answered Jesus; " You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."
And Jesus’ answer was, "Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven." Simon was a fisherman, not a lawyer. He was short on education, but long on passion and perseverance. In the presence of Jesus daily, hearing the Master, Peter was prepared for the truth revealed to him by the Father. He was prepared to experience a rebirth.
Jesus went on to tell Simon, “And I tell you that you are Peter, Cephas, the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell 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." Jesus finishes this instruction with the startling statement, "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Peter answered not in logic, but in faith - "You are the Son of God." Jesus acknowledged this revelation by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What a thing to do! To place in the hands of an individual the fate of the world. Some understand this statement to literally mean Peter now becomes the head of the church. He now has the power to make rules and judgments about what one has to do to get into heaven - who gets in, who is shut out. What behavior is acceptable and moral, qualifying one for the kingdom; and what behavior is unacceptable, grounds for locking the sinner out of heaven.
Maybe so. Maybe it is about setting rules of behavior. I don’t argue with those who look at handing Peter the keys to the kingdom as the institution of the moral authority of the Church. BUT—I also believe that the power to make rules for others is not all that Jesus meant by the keys to the kingdom. I look at today’s reading from Romans and see another perspective. I am a Jew, a child of Israel. Growing up, I tried to live under the code of rules we know as The Law of Moses. I tried and I agree with Paul. It is impossible to live by the Law.
I walked away from religious life in my teens. Enough with rules, enough with teachings. In my twenties as a young father I enrolled my son in Sunday School so he’d be part of the community. I sat in the back of the Congregational church hoping not to be noticed, near the door where I could make a quick escape if necessary. That Sunday the minister proclaimed Romans 12:2, a verse we read this morning. Be conformed no longer to the pattern of the present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will see and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
When I heard those words - No longer conform to the pattern of this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, something happened.When I heard those words I experienced something new. The idea that Christianity could be true had never dawned on me until that moment. I immediately bought a New Testament, and beginning at Matthew, read to the end. And I believed. I wasn't convinced by reasoning or persuasive argument. I experienced those particular words from Paul's Letter to the Church at Rome as they were proclaimed by that dignified Congregational preacher in White Plains, New York. And they were spoken to me. For me.
They planted the seeds of a turning away from the patterns of this world, a transformation of my mind. An experience.
Our heavenly Father chose that moment to reveal the POSSIBILITY of this great truth to me. Then I got to know Jesus. I read his story, his unusual birth, his symbolic baptism and rebirth in the Jordan by his cousin John. I read his teachings, following along as the disciples followed him. I was then able to answer, "Who do I say Jesus is?" I became a Christian. The Word of God, the living Logos revealed this to me.
Jesus handed the keys to the kingdom to Peter. But Jesus also handed the keys of the kingdom to me. How do I understand these keys? First, the certain knowledge that reborn by the Spirit, you are transformed, no longer conformed to the pattern of this present world. You are transformed so that you are now drawn by the Holy Spirit of God. Your thoughts and actions are now drawn, pulled forward and upward by the Spirit. We are no longer held back and dragged down by our animal nature. This is the work of the Spirit, an experience. And it doesn’t mean our work is done. Jesus went on to talk about our actions and thoughts:
The actions and thoughts we welcome here in this world continue on into the life to come. Our life in the kingdom of heaven begins here, it starts now. What we willingly embrace, what we loose here on earth continues beyond this life. We can let go of the “patterns of this world” now and here, starting our journey to realizing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
If we embrace attitudes and actions of gentleness, kindness, goodness, giving, loving, the fruits of the Spirit, this is what we let loose both here and in the life to come. If we choose anger, vengeance, jealousy, bitterness, envy, taking, this then is what we loose both here and in the life to come. These are the keys. We choose what we loose and what we bind - and the decision is for a long, long time to come.
I often picture an airport runway, a straight and narrow runway into the wind. It leads from here into the kingdom. As we accelerate there's lots of room to deviate, to turn off the straight path — and crash. Reborn of water and the spirit, we do not deviate willingly. We try to stay headed straight. Yes, I continue to sin. But I struggle, and when I fail I throw myself on the mercy of our lenient and loving God. When I begin to veer off the straight runway, and confess it, God is quick to forgive. But, it's up to us to course correct and straighten out.
A few years ago Katie and I were driving on one of the long straightaways of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I sometimes slip into a semi-meditative state when driving—and forget to set the cruise control. Driving and meditating about the path to the kingdom, I sort of forgot I was just heading for Skaneateles—not exactly the kingdom of heaven. I experienced a living parable. The path from here to the kingdom is much like being in the cockpit of a great jet plane preparing to take off. The runway is this mortal life, and we see the straight path and do our best to stay on it as we pick up speed. There comes a point as we accelerate when lift on the wings makes the plane weightless. Then, when the captain commands, "Rotate," the plane lifts off the ground, no longer bound to the earth but seamlessly, smoothly aloft, continuing in the same direction we were headed. Now wheels up, in flight.
Katie, with white knuckles, brought me back with a desperate “AHEM!” I noticed we were hitting ninety. Our Subaru has no wings, so I reluctantly aborted our premature journey into the next life. I pulled over and let her drive the next leg of the trip while I considered the experience of my parable.
I believe the lesson Jesus taught his disciples and us that day in the north of Galilee was this: the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is here. Now. Close by if you will just reach out for it. Be transformed. The kingdom begins now.
Jesus also said that day, there are some here who will not taste death before all these things come to pass. It helps if we put the car in Park before we meditate. Let me say again, I believe our rebirth lesson and the key to the kingdom is understanding that what we begin, what we choose here in the present life, will continue after this mortal shell of flesh is discarded, when Our Captain issues the command, and our true self, our soul lifts off, wheels up, and we fly into the prepared mansions of eternal life.