Unlock the Door to Heaven

Back in June I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican unprepared for what I was about to see. 

St. Peter’s Basilica is no ordinary church.  It is one of the largest buildings in the world and certainly the largest church, able to hold up to 60,000 worshippers at one time.  Christians have made pilgrimages there since the original Basilica was constructed in 329…almost 1700 years!  In the 1500s a new basilica, the one that still stands today, was constructed on the same site.

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Walking in, I was stunned by the size and grandeur and beauty of the place. If the ancient architects of this place intended to inspire worshipful awe, they succeeded with me. The scale of the place is enormous, like the world’s most ornate airplane hangar, but bigger. Then there’s the opulence. Even those who feel slightly queasy about the accumulated wealth of the church might find themselves inspired by the architecture, the priceless art, the gold, the stained glass, the icons. The beauty and history of the place come together to inspire awe.

Cathedra Petri (“Throne of St. Peter”)

But there is an obvious tension for a Protestant in a place like this. You simply cannot escape the asserted authority of the Catholic church, underlying and hovering over everything. I felt it most with the emphasis on Peter (it’s his basilica, after all). To Catholics, Peter is the first Pope, his authority received directly from Jesus Himself. This same authority has stretched through the centuries and been held by every Pope of the Catholic church. Under the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s, at the intersection of the cross-shaped building, there is an enormous bronze canopy to mark the widely accepted location of St. Peter’s tomb, below the floor.

As I looked up at this canopy representing Peter’s unique place of honor in the church, I was still thinking about a painting I’d just seen in the Sistine Chapel. There, a famous masterpiece by Perugino depicts the moment when Peter received his divine authority: Jesus giving him the keys of the kingdom. Why did Jesus do this? Matthew tells us that when Jesus asked His disciples who they say that He is, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter’s answer revealed an understanding of Jesus as the One God sent to save people. The physical embodiment of deity. The fulfillment of ancient promises now standing right in front of them.

Peter’s answer was divinely inspired.  Peter’s answer was pure worship. 

Jesus’s response: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter [Petros, or “little rock”], and on this rock [petra, or “bedrock”], I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).

As I stood above the tomb of Peter, my neck aching from gazing upward at the dome of the basilica named in his honor, my heart thanked God that He did not choose Peter alone to hold all authority in Jesus’s name. Peter was one of a kind, for sure. He was blessed by God with understanding. He was greatly favored by Jesus, and given the great honor of leading the early church.

However, as others have often pointed out, the meaning of the Greek words “Petros” and “petra,” along with an understanding of the context of Jesus’s words, reveal that Jesus’s wordplay both honors Peter and points to a larger foundation. Peter was a rock, but not the bedrock. The truth in Peter’s words is the bedrock. I like John Piper’s succinct explanation of the rock and the keys here. I was also reminded of the same truth in this recent podcast with Pastor Jim White. We Protestants understand Peter not as the first pope, but as the honored representative of the apostles, and of every witness to the power of Christ.

So what about those keys? What are they, if not a unique symbol of Peter’s authority? The literal depictions of Peter holding these keys are a beautiful symbol of something far greater: the ability every believer has to profess the truth Peter first proclaimed—the truth of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Like Peter, we are all empowered to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus. Jesus is the builder of the church, and the cornerstone. Peter and the other apostles are its foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20). You and I stand on that foundation today.

Jesus goes on to explain that the bedrock of faith in Him as Savior and Lord opens the door to the flourishing of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19-20 and 18:18). When everything in our lives is centered on our faith in Jesus, we “bind” and “loose” things on earth in the same way as they are in heaven. Honoring Jesus as the source and ruler of all unlocks the door to the kingdom of heaven. At the very center of the basilica of our hearts we won’t find a canopy honoring precious Peter; we will find Jesus and only Him.

Two weeks after I visited the Vatican, I found myself at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina.  Hanging in the house are three 500-year old tapestries, and one of them includes a depiction of Peter holding his key.  Except in this case, he appears to be handing the keys to the other apostles. 

Flemish Tapestry at the Biltmore House

I’m not sure if this is the correct interpretation of this image, but I like to think it is. It’s a picture of a simple truth: Jesus has given all of His followers the power to unlock the door to heaven, simply by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior!

We all hold the keys.


Important Enough

Have you ever wondered if you’re “important enough?” Making enough of a difference? Doing enough with your life?

In the fall of 1995 I arrived on the campus of Virginia Tech to study Interior Design, confident that my natural ability and love for beautiful spaces would be enough.  Within one semester I was totally disillusioned.  I hadn’t been expecting how competitive the program felt. I was also surprised by how much of design is business rather than creative work.  But the bigger issue was a nagging question I couldn’t shake.  Was interior design “important enough?”  Or could I make a bigger difference elsewhere?

In retrospect, I think the very question was wrong.  I’ve come to see that every kind of work is important and can make a difference in peoples’ lives.  But at the time, this thought really shook me up.  I responded by changing my major (a couple of times actually), and ultimately going on to grad school and then law school.  Each of these experiences was valuable in its own way, and I wouldn’t change a thing.  But it is a bit ironic that today I’m a highly educated homemaker whose favorite hobby is…wait for it…designing my home. Seeking out beautiful spaces.  Reading design magazines.  Pinning pictures of interiors on Pinterest.  My life-long love for beautiful spaces, starting with dollhouses and continuing through a high school interior design class…well, it hasn’t gone anywhere.  

But for all those years–from the time I changed my major in 1996 up until the last few years–I doubted that my desire to seek out and create beauty carried much importance or could make a difference in God’s kingdom.  It wasn’t “enough.” That’s a burden 25 years in the making, y’all.  I know some of you out there carry similar burdens.  We dismiss our creative abilities, hobbies, and passions as nice but insignificant.  Worse, we apply the same logic to the other callings God makes on our lives.  We even believe the lie that being a full-time homemaker or caretaker isn’t “important enough” work. Or that working part-time isn’t “enough” of a contribution. Or that working full-time isn’t being a “good enough” mom.  

Thank goodness God is patient, even with very slow learners like me.  A few years ago, during a season of prayer for renewed focus and direction for my life, God showed me He can and does use every aspect of human experience in significant and worthy ways.  He taught me that my innate drive to seek out and to create beauty–to see and appreciate and contribute to the miraculous beauty of his world—is worthwhile in His Kingdom.  That’s why today I embrace the “designer” in me by seeking out beauty, sharing beauty, and creating beauty, even in a world that sometimes looks anything but beautiful. I hope doing so honors God and gives Him glory, since everything beautiful points ultimately to Him.

One way God changed my thinking about this was through the story of Bezalel.  Bezalel belonged to the nation of Israel, during the forty years they spent in the desert journeying with God.  At that time, God gave Moses very explicit instructions for building a structure called the tabernacle, created for the crucial purpose of worshiping God.  God specified everything from the size of the tabernacle to the color of its curtains.  He told Moses which rings and lengths of wood should be gold-plated.  He specified what kind of furniture and garments should be made and what they should look like, as well as the actual format of the worship itself. 

But the kicker is this: God also specified who should make these beautiful items.  He named Bezalel, saying, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”  Exodus 31: 2-5.  

God counted “all kinds of skills,” including those specifically described as creative, right up there with being Spirit-filled, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge. Even more wonderfully, God then called on Bezalel to use those skills for God’s glory.  These weren’t unimportant, just-for-fun hobbies.  Bezalel’s gifts, both his wisdom and his creativity, were essential for fulfilling God’s purpose for him!  

What an encouraging message for the homemaker, the caretaker, the creative, the one who works with her hands.  What an encouragement for those who feel like their jobs aren’t important enough, or not making a difference, or are just distractions from what really matters. Bezalel’s skills–all his various abilities–were important to God and useful in accomplishing His plans.  God knew Bezalel and how to put his gifts to their best use. God even called Bezalel to the work by name. 

Just as God knew Bezalel’s name, God knows my name and creative talents, and can use them for His glory.  He knows your name, too.  He knows every skill, talent, and dream you have because He created them.  Whether your gifts are artistic, educational, hospitable, or intellectual, and whether they take the form of a career, a hobby, or a passion, God designed your gifts for a good reason.  

I believe with Paul that all of us “are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Ephesians 2:10.  And I take these words seriously: “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters.” Colossians 3:23.  It’s not the kind of skill or the kind of job or the number of people you serve that matters; its whether you do it in the service of God.

So, no more self-doubt!  No more believing the lie that your gifts don’t amount to much.  The good works God has for us take many forms.  Instead of wondering whether you’re “important enough,” know that your purpose is to glorify God every day with whatever He’s given you, wherever He has placed you.  It’s all “important enough,” because it all comes from Him.