By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
I hope you’re enjoying this little mini-series on the kingdom of God. If this is your first time here since we started, so far we’ve heard about the “Spirit of the Kingdom” (which is God’s unconditional love) and the “Boundaries of the Kingdom” (which are limitless). Today we’ll look at the keys to the kingdom, and we’ll round out the series next week thinking about who’s greatest in the kingdom.
Before we get to the text for today, let’s make sure we’re on the same page: When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he’s not talking about dying and going to heaven; he’s talking about living in the fullness of God’s peace and love, here and now.
For Jesus, heaven is “Paradise,” as in his words to the thief on the Cross, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) When he talks about the kingdom of God, he’s talking about a present-day reality. Luke says,
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come,
he answered them, “The Kingdom of God doesn’t come with observation;
neither will they say, ‘Look, here!’ or, ‘Look, there!’
for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
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Have you ever been to church camp or a revival meeting or a Cursillo weekend or an Emmaus walk … and, just for a few days – or even a few moments – felt perfectly at one with yourself and those around you? This is what I think of as experiencing the Kingdom of God. And I think this is what Robert Browning must have had in mind when he penned the words, “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.”
There are times when everything comes together in perfect unity and we experience the fullness of God’s peace and love. They usually don’t last long. Invariably, our humanness gets in the way. We start bickering and complaining and finding fault; we stop working together and start competing over who’s going to call the shots, and, before we know it, our little Garden of Eden is just as stressful and chaotic as any place else.
So, just to be clear: When we talk about the spirit of the kingdom, or the boundaries of the kingdom, or the keys to the kingdom or who’s greatest in the kingdom, we’re not talking about the sweet by-and-by; we’re talking about the rough and tumble world of the here and now; and yet, it’s right here and now that God promises us life in all its abundance through faith in Jesus Christ.
O.K., let’s begin with the text for today. According to Matthew,
Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi,
he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13)
The setting is the district of Caesarea Philippi. That’s to the north of the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi was the regional capital of Herod Philip, one of Herod the Great’s three sons. If you go there today, you’ll find that Caesarea Philippi was built over the ruins of the ancient city of Panias, now called, “Banyas.” It was here that the Greeks built temples to the gods, Pan, Zeus and Nemesis. Before the Greeks, the Canaanites worshiped Baal on this very spot.
I spent a week in Galilee in 1998 taking a preaching seminar. One morning we drove up to Banyas and had our lecture on the site of these ancient ruins. Dr. Page had us stand in front of the mouth of a large cave filled with water. He pointed out a large round stone in the middle of the water. He explained that it was actually an ancient altar where the Canaanites once sacrificed their children to the god, Molech.
The bodies of the slain children were thrown into the water after the sacrifice. The Canaanites believed if the body of the child sank it meant that Molech was pleased with the sacrifice, but if the body floated on top of the water, it meant that the child’s life had been taken in vain. Because the pool was so deep, the Canaanites believed it led to the underworld, and they called it, “the gates of hell.” And so, according to the gospels, it was here in front of this pagan altar that Jesus asked his disciples,
“Who do men say that I… am?” And when Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied,
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah,
for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my Father who is in heaven.
I also tell you that you are Peter,
and on this rock I will build my assembly,
and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
As I was unpacking all my stuff the other day I ran across a handful of keys. Some of them looked vaguely familiar. I have no idea where most of them go.
Got any old keys lying around your house? It’s funny how they accumulate and multiply. And, of course, you’d never want to throw them away. Why, they may open locked doors or treasure chests filled with all sorts of valuables.
Keys are a symbol of opportunity. They have a fascinating quality: Here’s a key that may just unlock a magic door.
They’re also a symbol of authority. Years ago, one of the members of my youth group in Paris, Texas had a fetish about keys. She’d say, “He who has the keys has the power.” When she graduated from high school, Donna and I collected as many keys as we could find and put them on a big key ring – the kind a janitor might wear on his belt – and gave them to her. She was delighted!
Keys are a symbol of power and authority, and it’s the keys to the kingdom that Jesus gave Peter to pass on to us. So, what are the keys to the kingdom?
No offense to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but the keys to the kingdom are not the power and authority of this world.
I went to Rome the week after Easter. The guest house where I stayed was within walking distance of the Vatican. I could see the dome of St. Peter’s out my window. While I was there, I got a refresher course in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. When the Roman Empire fell in the 6th Century, the Catholic Church became the dominant power over most of Europe, and the singular authority of the Roman Catholic Church was the Pope. In effect, the Pope assumed the role of the Emperor and all of the power and authority that went with it. The problem is that’s not the nature of Jesus Christ. Jesus said,
“For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
And so, I submit to you the first and most important key to the kingdom is to be a servant, to put others’ needs before your own and to let God use you as an instrument of His peace and love.
If ever there were a servant, it was Jack Walker. Jack was one of my elders in Odessa. He sold insurance for a living, but for a life, he spent his time helping others. He’d get up early in the morning and take his dog for a walk. They’d stop at just about every house to pick up the morning paper and lay it on the doorstep. He kept a list of a dozen or so elderly women, many of whom, along with their husbands, had been his customers. He affectionately referred to them his “old widow women,” and he checked on them regularly, sometimes with a telephone call, and sometimes with a brief visit. A number of them were members of my church, and I quickly learned that, though I was their pastor, Jack was the one they called when they needed help.
His footsteps were everywhere. I’d find him in the hospital manning the popcorn machine in the lobby. He managed the West Texas Relays in the Spring, the big track meet they have out there every year. He had a heart for the down-and-out, and, somehow, he always found time – and money, if necessary – to lend a helping hand.
Jack died a couple of weeks before I moved to Bryan, but his legacy of service lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him. He held the most important key to the kingdom, and that is to be a servant, to put others’ needs before your own and to be an instrument of God’s peace and love.
Another key to the kingdom is surrender. By surrender, I don’t mean raising a white flag and accepting defeat. Surrender in this sense is not about giving up.
When we were kids, we’d wrestle around on the floor. We’d struggle to pin each other down. The rules of the game were simple: If, at any time, you wanted the match to stop, all you had to do was to holler out, “Calf rope!” I’m not sure just exactly what that meant, but the effect was clear: Whoever was on top had to stop and let you up.
Well, when it comes to the kingdom of God, surrender doesn’t mean saying, “Calf rope.” It’s not about rolling over and playing dead. It has to do with putting God first. “Not my will, Thine be done.” That’s the spirit of surrender.
I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but inside each of us is a two-year-old child who constantly cries out, “My do it my way!” And if you ever watch little children on the playground, you know exactly where that leads – it leads to endless little squabbles and fights and hurt feelings.
To grow up spiritually is to put that little two-year-old child within you in its place and seek what’s best for all concerned. It’s to work for the common good and realize that the kingdom is not all about you, it’s about God. The irony is once you get yourself out of the center of the circle, everything else falls into place. Jesus put it this way:
“Seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
So, let’s see: The first and most important key to the kingdom is to be a servant, and the second is to surrender your will to God’s will. The third is to deny yourself and take up the Cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus said,
“If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it”
We hear a lot of talk about self-denial during the season of Lent, and most of it’s pretty negative. It has to do with giving up stuff and dwelling on your sinful nature and singing with Isaac Watts,
“Alas and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die;
would he devote that sacred head
to such a worm as I?”
Let’s be clear: The type of self-denial Jesus calls us to embrace is not some form of masochism. There’s nothing to be gained by putting yourself down. You can only love others to the extent that you love yourself.
In her book, Final Payments, Mary Gordon tells the story of a young woman who devoted the best years of her life to caring for her father. She was nineteen years old when he suffered a stroke. Instead of going out with her friends and having a life of her own, she spent the next eleven years of her life at her father’s beck and call.
When he died, she ventured out into the world of dating. But she made some bad choices and got hurt and quickly reverted back to her old way of life. She decided to devote her life to taking care of an old woman who had been their housekeeper. But instead of finding herself, she sank into a deep depression, put on weight, cut off all of her hair and stopped taking care of herself. She felt unworthy of love and gratitude.
Then something stirred within her, and she began to come to life. She realized that this type of self-denial was but another way of drawing attention to herself and eliciting self-pity. She went out and bought a new dress and called a friend to come get her. She would always be a caring person devoted to others because that’s who she was, but, from now on, her caring for others would be matched with a healthy dose of caring for herself.
Let’s wrap it up: Three keys to the kingdom are service, surrender and self-denial. They’re right there in the person of Jesus Christ. Walk in his footsteps and follow his example and you’ll experience life in all its abundance. It’s as simple as that. Here’s the invitation:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.