In my 20 years as a pastor, which ended 15 years ago, I especially enjoyed taking Communion to an elderly woman who lived alone in an apartment house. She’d make her way slowly to the door and then methodically open three locks. She was a very sensible, bright person; it wasn’t paranoia that demanded the triple security. It was simply an unfortunate fact of life: she most probably would not have been sufficiently safe with anything less.
That always upset me – but then, I often think in this connection, I also find upsetting having to lock my car doors, and chain my bicycle to a post outside the store, and endorse checks properly before putting them in my wallet, and so on. We do these things because we are taught that not all people are to be trusted and that there are many who will take advantage of others whenever they can.
The key, the lock, the deadbolt, the burglar alarm are all signs of what we have become – or have not become. They are actually a shame, a disgrace, an embarrassment, a judgment on the human race.
The escalating unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, at least while I was constructing this homily, the looting and bombing and shooting and tear-gassing by citizens are sufficient indication of how low we can stoop as human beings, leaving us with no doubt about the necessity of protecting ourselves against one another.
That said, let’s cast our gaze toward Jesus as he entrusts to Peter and ultimately to the Church the “keys to heaven” and with them the power to bind and to unbind, to set free. But notice: there is no notion here of keeping out or of defending.
I believe it is true to say that Jesus was not speaking to priests when he uttered those words; there were no Christian priests at the time: Jesus was the founder and leader of a popular movement, not an institution. He was addressing all his followers, all his disciples, you and me included. And I further believe that what he had chiefly in mind was the power of forgiveness, of absolution, that each of us has within us, a power that can be exercised or ignored, depending on the intention of the holder.
What those keys unlock, what they unbind and set free, is nothing less than the Spirit of God in the human heart & mind. When that Spirit is released to go from person to person, it bears the gift of life in some form or other, freeing the recipient from ignorance and unwarranted fear, from prejudice and crippling conservatism, from suspicion and distrust, from hatred and violence, from shame and self-loathing. It alone can liberate the person to be open to the life of grace, which is love and truth and goodness and happiness and holy riches.
Life-giving is the main work of the Church; yet, paradoxically, martyrs die for its sake, even in our own day. To be a member of the Church is to share in the power of the keys; we become “church” when we are about the task of opening to others blessings of God’s abiding presence in our midst. The keys have varied shapes and many sizes.
To every member of the Church – to you and to me – keys are given, no two exactly alike. The Divine Spirit tells us, when we are eager to hear, what to do with them. We must listen and then act accordingly.
Whose prison door will you unlock today?