The gospel story today is the basis for all those heavenly jokes that have St Peter standing like an immigration officer at the pearly gates of heaven. After Simon son of Jonah is christened Peter (“petros” is Greek for “rock”) and told that on this rock will the Church be founded, he is promised the keys to heaven. With the keys he is given a special charge, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So now you see how St Peter got to where he is. Actually, while that may not be his true place in the eternal scheme of things, you must admit it makes for a lot of amusing stories about entering heaven.

Why on earth would the Lord hand over to humans the keys to the kingdom of heaven? If you were an obsessive, controlling sort of God, wouldn’t you rather do the gate keeping yourself or outsource the job to your angels at least? Why must the Lord tie his hands and allow the screening process to be tainted with human judgment, when he or his angels could do a better job of tagging the undesirables and truly saintly?

Leaving it all to poor Peter who we know to be impetuous and given to lapses in judgment may not be good management. Why on earth (or in heaven’s name) would the Lord hand over power to a “petros” who we know was once so petrified by the prospect of death he readily disowned the Lord when the heat in the courtyard became unbearable?

If you were offered this power of the gatekeeper, would you take it? Who would you let in? Who would you keep out? Would you let yourself in? What would be the basis of your judgment? If you saw some poor misguided souls lugging their baggage (emotional or otherwise) into the celestial customs gate, would you let them pass? Or would you impound everything at the gate and quarantine them?

The truth is we don’t have to be offered this power of keeping the gate. We already have that power to open or close the kingdom of God to ourselves and to each other. We already have the keys to let ourselves in or to shut one another out of the kingdom or presence of God dwelling within us. We already have that power to open our hearts to life and love, hope and faith. And the power is ours as well to keep the shadows at bay.

We received that power when the Lord called us slaves no longer but friends. We were given the grace and the power when the Lord chose to love us despite our impetuous selves and lapses in judgment. Such power can never really be divorced from the grace of his love. 

For that is what love does to the lover. Love divests the lover of his power. When Jesus hands over the power of the keys to Peter, he is emptying himself of all that power from on high and empowering his beloved. It takes power to divest one’s self of power. And on the cross, the ultimate divestment of love takes place. There at the very heart of weakness and utter vulnerability you find love’s true power and true grace.

It is only with the eyes of faith that one can see this. It is this same faith which enabled Peter to see Jesus not as some prophet but as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And it is his faith (as it is the faith of all those called to be disciples) which is truly foundational, the rock and ultimate substrate on which the Church is built.

Someday we may be asked to stand in line and present our passport before St Peter at the immigration counter. Perhaps the only visa that matters for entry is the one that shows our faith in the Lord. If Peter asks what this faith of ours has been all about, I hope we can show by the witness of our lives that it has meant our openness to receive love’s true grace, and our readiness to wield love’s true power. 

If he smiles to let us enter, he is probably smiling because our coming in at last is a joke no longer.

*      *      *

Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin SJ is President of Ateneo de Manila University. For feedback on this column, email [email protected]












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