Monday, February 22, 2010

The Chair of Peter

Like the committee chair, this feast refers to the occupant. It commemorates Christ’s choosing Peter to sit in his place as the servant-authority of the whole Church (see June 29). After the “lost weekend” of pain, doubt and self-torment, Peter hears the Good News. Angels at the tomb say to Mary Magdalene, “The Lord has risen! Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” John relates that when he and Peter ran to the tomb, the younger outraced the older, then waited for him. Peter entered, saw the wrappings on the ground, the headpiece rolled up in a place by itself. John saw and believed. But he adds a reminder: “..They did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). They went home. There the slowly exploding, impossible idea became reality. Jesus appeared to them as they waited fearfully behind locked doors. “Peace be with you,” he said (John 20:21b), and they rejoiced. The Pentecost event completed Peter’s experience of the risen Christ. “...They were all filled with the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4a) and began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them. Only then can Peter fulfill the task Jesus had given him: “... Once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). He at once becomes the spokesman for the Twelve about their experience of the Holy Spirit—before the civil authorities who wished to quash their preaching, before the council of Jerusalem, for the community in the problem of Ananias and Sapphira. He is the first to preach the Good News to the Gentiles. The healing power of Jesus in him is well attested: the raising of Tabitha from the dead, the cure of the crippled beggar. People carry the sick into the streets so that when Peter passed his shadow might fall on them.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). What Jesus said indicated the sort of death by which Peter was to glorify God. On Vatican Hill, in Rome, during the reign of Nero, Peter did glorify his Lord with a martyr’s death, probably in the company of many Christians. Second-century Christians built a small memorial over his burial spot. In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine built a basilica, which was replaced in the 16th century.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (16.13~19)

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "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, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

The Chair of Peter
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

I have often been impressed with the simplicity of the Christian message as expressed in Christian leaflets left in letterboxes of suburban homes. The short leaflets are generally made of glossy paper, with attractive diagrams and colouring, and are expressed in simple, pithy language. The principal doctrines of the Christian religion are expressed in terms of a compelling system. There is sin and its consequences, and this dire situation is answered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of his Holy Spirit. Then there is the call to conversion and a new life, setting the Christian on the way to Heaven. The strength of the message is the call to the individual to turn to Jesus Christ as Saviour and to resolve to follow him and his written word in one’s personal life, and of course to do this in some form of fellowship. The leaflets I am thinking of are obviously productions of Evangelical Christians and their dedication and strategy are laudable. There is, though, an assumption in their message which may not be immediately obvious. In urging the reader (or hearer) to turn to Jesus and to accept him as Lord, it is intimated that being a Christian is simply an affair between Jesus and the Christian. That is to say, in the plan of God the Christian religion is nothing other than this living interpersonal relationship between Jesus and me. More specifically, provided I convert and follow Jesus and his word as I read it in the inspired Scriptures, I may take “the Church” to be largely a product of individual preference and circumstances. While the Church is important for fellowship and ongoing spiritual guidance, there is nothing divinely-intended about its structure and formal mission. What matters is my acceptance of Jesus as Lord and my fidelity to his word in the Scriptures as I sincerely judge it to be. Jesus my — and our — Saviour is what matters, and if need be “the Church” may fall by the wayside. Such is the common assumption of many Christians, but an open-minded perusal of the Gospel shows that this does not represent the full Christian message, but a mere part of it.

In our Gospel today our Lord turns to his disciples and asks what men say of him. Various answers were given and we can easily imagine the various answers that would have to be given were the same question be put by Christ to his disciples today. But then our Lord asks his own disciples what they think of him. As we read, “But what about you? he asked. Who do you say I am? Simon Peter answered, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We may say that the reply of Simon Peter to Christ’s question is the very same as that given in the succinct and effective Christian leaflets that I mentioned earlier. Jesus Christ is the Messiah who saves — and specifically, he saves the world from its sin. He is the Christ, and he is the Son of the Living God. This is the essential belief of any Christian. Were a person to call himself a Christian who does not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has taken away the sin of the world, and that he is the Son of the Living God, then that person would be using the word “Christian” falsely. But this is not all there is to the Christian message, for our Lord does not rest content with praising Simon Peter highly for his answer and assuring him that his faith has come from God. He does not merely say, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” No, for he immediately goes on to reveal what is also a necessary part of his redemptive plan, and what will be the divinely appointed channel for bringing the blessings of the Kingdom of God to men. He tells Simon in the presence of the Apostles that “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16: 13-19). The Church is Christ’s own deliberate creation. It is founded on Simon who has a title, the Rock. Simon will hold the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, and the authority to bind and loose, and his decisions will be ratified in heaven. So, the Church founded on Simon matters.

The Church is Christ’s creation, as is the Chair of Simon Peter. Just as the Church Christ founded continues through history as his body, so does the Chair of St Peter continue through history. That Chair holds the keys, and with by keys are the doors to the Kingdom unlocked for men. That Chair, occupied by the successors of St Peter, has authority from heaven to bind and to loose, and its decisions carry divine sanctions. Christ will be with that Chair till the end when he comes, and the gates of Hell will never prevail against it. Let us love and revere this Chair, this office that bears witness to the teaching and person of Christ. By means of it we live in the truth.

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