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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Keys and Secrets

Matthew 16:13-20
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
August 21, 2005

Keys and secrets.

Every now and then, I’ll be talking with a committee member or other volunteer here at the church. They’ll be planning to get something done after hours – dropping off flowers, waxing the floors, spray painting the walls, et cetera, et cetera – and at the end of the conversation they’ll ask, “But, how do I get in if the doors are locked?” And I’ll stutter with incredulity: “Well, you’re a church member aren’t you? Just use your key.” And they’ll say, “But I don’t have a key.” And I’ll say, “What??? You joined the church and we didn’t hand you a key? Somebody’s falling down on the job.”

I know it’s NOT true that every church member has a key. There’s also no truth in the rumor that realtors in Lakemoor Hills include church keys as part of the closing. It IS true, however, that there are a lot of church keys floating around out there. And if you don’t have one, or if an escaped convict steals yours, you can get a new one just for asking. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone. It’s another one of those Lakemoor Hills things that everybody knows but nobody talks about.

Keys and secrets. BOTH keys and secrets show up in today’s gospel lesson, and they’re closely connected. Jesus tells Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” But then… he sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah.

“Well,” Peter might stutter with incredulity. “What good is that? I mean, Lord, what good is having the keys if I can’t tell anyone about them? Why have the keys to the kingdom if I can’t use them?” Peter might go on to say, “Good lord, Lord. What good is knowing you’re the Savior if it’s a closely guarded matter of heavenly homeland security?”

Hmm. WE hand out keys to the church so people can get things done. Jesus – on the other hand – hands out a key (hands out THE key) and in the next breath tells people NOT to do anything with it. What’s up with that?


Do any of you collect keys? (On purpose, I mean. There’s always three or four in the kitchen drawer that you have no idea what they fit. That’s an accumulation, different from a collection.) Back in the days when hotels used to use real, metal keys – instead of those infuriating credit cards that you always have to take back to the desk to be re-energized – back in the days when I was a boy, people used to take hotel keys home with them as souvenirs. (Did any of you do that? I sure hope not. Because there’s a commandment about that kind of thing. You shouldn’t take the towels, either, you know.) I once visited a home where they had a wall in their living room decorated with hundreds of motel keys from 30 years of family vacations. Some families take pictures; some take room keys.

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!... And I tell you, you are Peter (“Rocky”), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.”

If the kingdom of heaven really had keys, what would they look like?

If heaven really had keys
How would they look to you?
Would you know them when you saw them?
Or would you have no clue?

Could you drop them in your pocket
Or lose them in a drawer?
Could you hang them by the cabinet
or hide them near the floor?

If heaven really had keys
Could you find them in the night?
Or would you fumble, cursing
The luck that stole your right?

Would you want to be entrusted
With power so great and dear?
Or would you tell the giver, “No,”
“Please make them disappear.”

If heaven really had keys
Would you know them when you saw?
Or would they take another form
Inspiring dreams and awe?

Would they fit inside a baby’s hand
Would they be too large to hold?
Would they be made from whispers,
Or spun from cords of gold?

If heaven really had keys
Would you keep them for your own?
Or would you run make copies
For all you’ve ever known?

And what for those you’ve never met?
What of those hopeless souls?
Would you op’ for them the doors of God
Or shut them up in holes?

Do they deserve to be condemned,
Because they different be?
Or are they folk so just like you
Who haven’t found the key?

If heaven really did have keys
What would you with them do?
The answer, friend, is in your hands
Their use is up to you.


“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you lock behind prison doors on earth will be locked behind prison doors in heaven, and whatever you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.” – an equally valid reading, that brings home the idea that Jesus is handing Peter the keys. Not keys to the car. Not keys to the front door. Not keys to the Pearly Gates. The kind of keys Jesus is talking about are the ones that lock people in prison. And the kind that unlock people from their prisons. Prison doors are what these keys fit. And on this foundation, Jesus tells Peter to build the church.

It’s really no surprise that Jesus tells the disciples to keep it quiet. The church is always a bit of a mystery. It’s either the door to lock away the secrets, the door to lock away the answers, the door to lock away the saints so they don’t get dirt on them, the door that locks out people who don’t know the secret password and haven’t spoken the right words of confession… Or the church is the unlocked door that sets free the captives, the door that appears as good news, the door of freedom. The church always has to decide whether the key will be used to lock or unlock.

A long time ago, in the church of the “Presbyterian” flavor, the men held all the keys. And, truth be told, we fellows didn’t share very well. The church was our ship and we its captains. That’s why we have “fellow-ship.” Seriously. In particular, we men didn’t share the keys with women. We men made all the decisions for the church (or so we thought). We men might let the women teach the children, or have teas, but never could they preach, never could they handle money. So, not content to be shut out by the keepers of the keys, the women… built another door. They organized themselves into the Presbyterian Women and her predecessor societies. They became the voice of mission for the church. They became the church’s heart. They unlocked the door for the women who now lead as equals and sometimes more than equals in this ship of community, this ship of more than fellows.


If everyone really has a key to the church, why lock the doors in the first place? It’s a fair question. Before we get carried away with the analogy, let’s remember: the church is not a building. And in 2005, when no one’s inside a building, you’d better lock its doors.

But if the church is the community of God (and it is), do we really want to lock it away and keep its news a secret? Could we, even if we wanted to? Jesus tells Peter not even the gates of Hell can prevail. In the right hands, there’s nobody, there’s no place the keys to the kingdom of heaven can’t unlock. The kingdom of heaven may be a mystery, but it’s no secret. Though he be crucified, though he be buried beneath a rock in a hole beneath the ground, Jesus will be free, Jesus will arise.

Bad news for any church or any person who thinks he or she has sole possession of the keys to the kingdom. But good news for any church, or any person, or any group of human beings who have been locked out by the “fellows” on the other side. Jesus did order the disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah, the Savior. Oddly enough, they didn’t have to. Even though they may have had to climb over a few rock-headed people to get there, people found Jesus, people found salvation. He couldn’t be locked away. He never will be locked away. And neither should any of his followers. The way Jesus built his church, there’s always another door.