When I first arrived at St. John’s in 2006, I received a ring of keys, supposedly to every lock and every door of every building in the parish … except, I later learned, the pantry in the kitchen. I have since reduced the number of keys on my key ring, and I think I’ve kept the keys I need … I think. And I stopped carrying those I did not need, and those I didn’t have a clue what they did. Don’t worry, none of this keeps me up at night.
The significance of keys in religious imagery goes back a long time, all the way back to the invention of doors and locking mechanisms. The bearer of a key, any key, is the guardian of some treasure or the holder of some office, and that person undeniably possesses something of great value, or at least has access to something of great value. When you sell or buy a house, there is great significance in the act of handing over or receiving keys. When you change a lock on a door, you want to reestablish or redefine ownership of what lies behind the door – property, the safety and well-being of one’s family, a sense of dignity and wholeness, usually after the previous lock was broken or the keys go missing. And when a special visitor is given a symbolic key to a town or city amid great fanfare and joyous celebration, it just means the visitor is held in high esteem and affection by the people, who have granted their guest access to their hearts.
With the advance of digital technology, our definition of keys and what they do has expanded some. Many hotels and businesses now use programmable digital keys for their guests and employees. They look like credit cards with that black magnetic strip. Insert in slot, pull out, and when the green light comes on, the door is unlocked. …
Some vehicles have a digital numerical keypad. You know the numerical code, you can get in. Some have a remote keyless system. You can lock and unlock a car from a distance with the push of a button. The keyless entry and ignition system enables the locking and unlocking of doors, and the starting of a car without a standard key, as long as you have the device on you. Maybe someday there will be a voice recognition keyless and ignition system, so you can make a fast getaway just by speaking a key code. Even better, if your car can come to you when you call it. I read somewhere that breathalyzer ignition interlock systems are already in use, locks that require the driver to pass a breathalyzer test before the engine can start. Don’t ask me why.
People who use computers are familiar with key codes and passcodes and passwords that allow access to program software, digital databases, and online digital accounts. But the principle is similar. Possession of a key or code, standard or digital or virtual, means possession of whatever that key or code opens, unlocks or engages. But what does it mean to possess or be given a key?
The passage from the prophet Isaiah recounts an otherwise insignificant detail in Israel’s history. Shebna, bearer and keeper of the key, served as master of the palace during the reign of King Hezekiah. His authority was virtually unequalled. In that position, he tried to convince the king to enter an alliance with Egypt to defend against Assyria, advice that was completely contrary to what the prophet counseled the king – that he rely solely on God and remain faithful to the covenant. Equally obnoxious was Shebna’s habit of riding around the kingdom in a chariot, and his egregious display of ambition and self-importance. So when the prophet announced Shebna’s demotion, Eliakim was then given the prerogative to permit or to refuse access to the king. (Celebration: A Comprehensive Worship Resource. August 2011. National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, Inc. Kansas City MO: 2011.) The prophet also assigns to the bearer and keeper of the key a fatherly role to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the house of Judah. In many instances in scripture, the conferral of authority and responsibility on a person was God’s way of sharing authority and care for his people. Eliakim would have the honor of public office, but his role was to be patterned after the heart and mind of God.
When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, some people were dismayed. Up until then we knew him only as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a high profile role in the church that brought him and his office face to face with many explosive and controversial issues. Whether or not people liked him, he must have been very good at his job, because Pope John Paul II trusted him. So when he was elected to the chair of Peter, the same Peter to whom Jesus in the gospel entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, his role within the church had to change as well. We call the successor of Peter the pope, an endearment that translates: Father. The role of Peter was to be a share in the role of Jesus Christ. He was to be teacher, leader, father and friend to God’s people and all in his care. He would still be the same flawed and imperfect human being he always was. … Yet in receiving this honor, he is called upon to serve God’s holy people, even those who oppose him, even those who do not like him. I remember receiving advice when I first went to teach in a classroom, “Be tough at first,” I was told. “It will be easier to loosen up when your students know you mean business. But if you start off indecisive and undisciplined, you’ll have a harder time regaining control.” I can’t remember if I followed the advice. But when I first became pastor, I was given exactly the opposite advice — to smile all day and make no changes for the first whole year.
When Peter declared Jesus to be the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God, he did not rely on physical evidence or intellectual reasoning. Jesus pointed out that the gift of faith from the Father enabled him to say what he said, not anything he arrived at on his own. So coming to faith is first a gift from God. And when God invites anyone to a role in the service of the kingdom, which is another way to mean the service of God’s people, (and all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are sent to serve by virtue of our baptism,) God extends us a share of his own authority and his care for his people. The work of binding and loosing come as well with grave responsibility and leadership. We will be imperfect and flawed as before, yet we are now called to dedicated service, care and sacrifice for our sisters and brothers after the heart and mind of Jesus, who is to us shepherd, leader, brother and friend.
I still don’t know why I didn’t get a key to the pantry in the kitchen when I first arrived at St. John. I’ve been there many times since. And now I have a key. But I have learned that just because I have access, there are places I don’t have to be.