Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt. 16).
1. Who is Jesus and what are the keys of the kingdom? Yesterday on Market Street a man wearing worn clothes and just socks on his feet walked along pushing people at random as they waited in a security line to enter Ross’ clothing store. Another man crouched in the corner of a bus stop bent over with his head at knee height repeatedly wailing from the heart as a police officer stood five feet away with a loudly barking German shepherd on tight leash. Another man was lying on the ground at Eddy and Mason his hair full of litter.
Drugs and mental illness touch nearly every person you encounter just down the hill from here. Most of the stores have left and the world seems like it is ending. This kind of feeling pervades the beginning of J.T. Alexander’s book I Am Sophia.
His science fiction novel describes a not so distant future as climate change makes the planet uninhabitable. The center of gravity for human culture seems to have shifted into outer space as investors in places like Mars support companies here in the Bay Area doing gene engineering and carbon sequestration.
San Francisco has been renamed Sanef and is one of several independent nations formed after the collapse of America. Like narcotics in our time, many people of the future have become addicted to Stims (this acronym which stands for “Sensory-Targetted Immersive Mindtech”). It is a kind of virtual reality that destroys souls. Horrifying and dehumanizing levels of inequality have become commonplace. Poor people are shunned and called lowcontributors. Sometimes they will have their minds effectively erased by the government.
Nihilistic terrorists frequently kill ordinary people with bombs. There is almost no religion of any kind. People call it metaphysics (or metafiz) and respond to it with a mixture of disdain, suspicion and fear (as many do around us today). In this anti-religious world of the future there is only one remaining Christian church in the universe. It has ten worshipers and a doubting twenty-nine year old bishop named Peter Halabi. That church is in the ruins of Grace Cathedral.
In that future time this very building has holes in the ceiling and the stained glass windows have long been boarded up. But the eleven worship faithfully every Sunday in the Chapel of Nativity. Peter worries that he will have to shepherd the church to extinction. He looks up to that same mural and the image of Mary and says, “I’m not asking… for a big miracle… Just something to let me know [God’s] still up there.”1
Soon a tent appears in front of the Ghiberti Doors. The homeless woman sheltered there enters the church just as Peter is about to read the lesson. She takes the book from him to read and her first words are “I am.” This seems to refer to God’s self-description at the burning bush. It is the way the gospels often describe Jesus. It is the meaning of the letters in the corners of icons. This young woman with a scar on her face walks like a dancer. She calls herself Sophia (a biblical word for the divine feminine) and for most of the book we wonder about her. Is she God, the second coming of Jesus Christ? Or is she sick, unstable and deranged. Or is she just a fraud manipulating the gullible Christians for the sake of her own agenda?
2. This feels like the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus walks on water and then rescues faltering Peter the disciples say, “what sort of man is this” (Mt. 8:27)? The crowds seem to be wondering the same thing when Jesus asks his friends, “Who do people say the Son of Man is” (Mt. 16)?
Although we have to answer this question in our lives, as readers of this gospel we stand outside the experience of those depicted in Matthew. We see what they do not. The Gospel begins with these words, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah…” (Mt. 1:1). As we read we wonder when, and which one of them, will realize who Jesus is.
This exchange between Jesus and Peter happens in Caesarea Philippi, the capital of the Tetrarchy of Philip son of Herod the Great. Herod dedicated the famous Temple there to Rome and to Emperor Augustus, whose statue stood there. He was the first emperor to add to his title: “Divi Filius” or “Son of the Divine.”
Jesus asks his friends who they say he is and Peter says, “You are the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16). Soon we see that Peter does not yet really understand what he is saying. All of us have trouble with this. We think of Jesus as simply a more powerful version of Emperor Augustus when Jesus is really overthrowing that whole way of being.
Jesus shows that the way of domination and self-aggrandizement although it seems stable and powerful on the surface is like sand. In contrast we have the path of Peter with his imperfections, his courage and fear, his insight and foolishness, but above all his
faith. This improbable foundation is the rock upon which our lives can be founded. This is faith which is a kind of pursuit rather than an accomplishment.
Going on Jesus says, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Mt. 16). Through history this sentence has been used to justify the church in those moments when we have been more like the Emperor Augustus than like Jesus, as if some institutional authority in Rome or Canterbury could have power over whether a person can be saved.
This could not be further from the truth. The Biblical scholar Herman Waetjen points out several other ancient examples that clarify what Matthew means. The power of the keys has to do more with things and policies than people. For instance, the historian Josephus writes about Queen Alexandra who ruled the Hasmonean Kingdom from 78-69 BCE. She deputized Pharisees as the administrators of the state and gave them the power, “to loose and to bind.” For Herman this power is about determining what practices are permitted or forbidden.2
We all have a role in this. We all in our way preach the gospel through what we say and how we live. We contribute to the picture of what is acceptable. And we have a responsibility for creating the kind of society which is humane in its care for the people I saw on the streets yesterday.
The puritan theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) writes that the reason for this passage about the keys is that over history it has been dangerous to speak Jesus’ truth and it is important for us to know both that we are doing God’s work and that God stands beside us as we do.3
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that the thought of God will always disturb the world. Our relations with each other, will never be perfectly clear. We will never adequately understand our situation in the world. That is the reason we need to orient ourselves toward the Eternal, to God. Barth says, “For the vast ambiguity of our life is at once its deepest truth… We know that our thinking of the thought of eternity is never a thing completed in time…”4 Our attention to Jesus, our prayer, is how we avoid being conformed to the world. It is how, instead, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ (Rom. 12).
About half of I Am Sophia takes place at Grace Cathedral and half on Mars. In the book, Sophia was terribly abused as a child but she found nourishment in the Bible and other Christian books. This made her a kind of theologian. Was Sophia the Christ? I do not
want to spoil the book for you. As he finds himself falling in love with her, Sophia has a great deal to teach the young bishop, and perhaps us also.
She says, “You are the guardian of a great treasure. It is your tradition, and it has an incredible spiritual value, an almost miraculous capacity to change lives for the better. But you misplaced the keys to the treasure chest… when scripture and religion became primarily about trying to determine who was right and who was wrong.”5
Later she gives a kind of invocation, “May your soul have deep roots and strong wings.”6 This means that followers of Jesus need to have a foundation, a stable identity, but we also need room to evolve. Changes in technology and society leave modern people less rooted and more focused on wings. You see this in their emphasis on individual freedom, innovation and progress.
In contrast, many Christians regard the secular world as destructive and offtrack. This leads them to become so backward looking that they are all roots and no wings. The living, loving God of the gospel became to them static and oppressive. What does not evolve dies.
This summer’s survey and our town hall meeting this morning address consider this issue. The idea lies at the heart of our mission statement to “reimagine church with courage, joy and wisdom.” For generations Grace Cathedral has been known for this. But it is up to us if we will continue to have roots and wings.
Near the end of the novel, Sophia says to Peter, “You think strength means being untouched by the suffering we are approaching. You still do not know me…”7 Will San Francisco as we know it die as people self-centeredly and obsessively seek to save themselves? Will the future Grace Cathedral lie in ruins? Will the world know who Jesus is?
At the center of Grace Cathedral is not a statue of the emperor or a belief in domination and self-assertion. At the heart of our being is a living person, the living child of God. He calls us by name and offers the keys to a deeper, more humane and faithful life. Come let us follow Jesus.8
1 J.F. Alexander, I am Sophia: A Novel (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock, 2021) 7.
2 Herman Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity: God’s New Israel as the Pioneer of God’s New Humanity (NY: Bloomsbury, 2017) 185-7.
3 “It was important for the apostles to have constant and perfect assurance in their preaching, which they were not only to carry out in infinite labors, cares, troubles, and dangers, but at last to seal with their own blood. In order that they might know, I say, that this assurance was not vain or empty, but full of power and strength, it was important for them to be convinced that in such anxiety, difficulty and danger they were doing God’s work; also for them to recognize that God stood beside them while the whole world opposed and attached them; for them, not having Christ, the Author of their doctrine before their eyes on earth, to know that he, in heaven, confirms the truth of the doctrine which he had delivered to them…” John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. John T. McNeill, Tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 1213 (4.11.1).
4 “There is – and this is what we mean – a thinking of the thought of grace, of resurrection, of forgiveness, and of eternity. Such thinking is congruous with our affirmation of the full ambiguity of our temporal existence. When once we realize that the final meaning of our temporal existence lies in our questioning as to its meaning, then it is that we think of eternity – in our most utter collapse. For the vast ambiguity of our life is at once its deepest truth. And moreover, when we think this thought, our thinking is renewed; for such rethinking is repentance. We know too that our thinking of the thought of eternity is never a thing completed in time, for it is full of promise. As an act of thinking it dissolves itself; it participates in the pure thought of God, and is there an accepted sacrifice, living, holy, acceptable to God.” Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 437.
5 J.F. Alexander, I am Sophia: A Novel (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock, 2021) 60.
6 Ibid., 95.
7 Ibid., 168.
8 Matthew Boulton, “Who do you say that I am…”, SALT, 21 August 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/18/who-do-you-say-that-i-am-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twelfth-week-after-pentecost