The Chair of St Peter: A Reflection

This is a reflection I was asked to give at our Jesuit community Mass on 22 February, the Feast of the Chair of St Peter. Click here to listen to an audio version.

Readings: 1 Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19

I was intrigued to learn that there is evidence that two liturgical feasts were celebrated long ago in Rome on January 18 and February 22 in honour of two actual chairs associated with St Peter, one in the baptismal chapel of St Peter’s Basilica and the other in the catacomb of Priscilla. Sadly, those chairs no longer seem to exist, so today’s feast becomes a celebration of the office of the Bishop of Rome. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary history of our Church and its long line of leadership.

Today’s gospel reveals to us Jesus’ call to Peter to lead the early Church. In Peter’s first letter he sends a message of encouragement to church leaders to be examples to their flock. What a great reading if you’re preaching to priests… But in truth, the Lord’s call extends beyond the Bishop of Rome and presbyters and priests. Both Peter and Jesus call us as Christians to be prophets and to “share in the glory to be revealed”. All of us were called at baptism to be witnesses of Christ, and as prophets part of our job is to point the way to Him.

Jesus prompts some internal reflection on his disciples’ relationship with him. We find Him asking them not only who do others say that He is, but he asks them who they say He is. What revelation have they been witnesses to? What revelation have we been witnesses to? Whatever your ministry is you’re in a cherished place as a prophet, pointing the way to Jesus. How do you do that with your students or patients or lay collaborators… or your Jesuit brothers? I think Jesus is asking us how we witness to Him and His mission. I’ve quickly learned at the hospital that it often depends on the patient I encounter, but they know that as a chaplain I’m there in the name of the Lord and somehow I need to proclaim who Jesus is to me in order to more effectively minister to the other.

Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is a proclamation: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter names Jesus in a profound prophetic way. How often in our lives do we proclaim the Christness of Jesus? What in our own lives confirms to us that Jesus is the Christ? Ignatius says we can speak to the Lord as to a friend but we must be careful not to endanger our embrace of Jesus’ divinity. That acknowledgement reminds us that we not only have a share in His glory, but in His divine mission. Jesus is more than just a human leader with good ideas: Jesus is the very manifestation of God himself, the Son of the living God, the active God who comes to earth to redeem and share our very life.

Peter’s response in today’s gospel reminded me of Nathanael who comes to his own revelation after Jesus saw him under the fig tree, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Or when John points out to his friends, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” This is all prophetic speak. When we name the Lord in such a way, pointing out His divinity and messiahship, the Lord then names us. Jesus gives Simon Peter a new name of sorts, a new responsibility in the mission, that is, to be the spiritual leader of Christ’s new Church, to bind and loose in the name of Christ. It took Peter to proclaim and confess the truth of who Jesus Christ is for him to be given such a gift.

Last Thursday we heard Mark’s version of this story but it included Jesus rebuking Peter. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”. The contrast is arresting if you believe that these two events happened in the same conversation. Now Christ is the rock and foundation of our Church but now he asks a sinner to be a part of that foundation. What a heavy responsibility! Sharing in Christ’s authority is a responsibility of the Church then and now. As we are ordinary sinners called to extraordinary ministry we must thank the Holy Spirit for the trust put in us.

Peter and the other disciples, despite all they saw Jesus do, still had a hard time believing, even after the resurrection. So how often do we have a hard time believing? Whether priests in the apostolic line from Peter or laity, our responsibility is to support and continue Christ’s mission in His name in the Church. In order to do that effectively we must first be prophets and proclaim just who Jesus is not only to others but in our own prayer are we courageous enough to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Son of the living God?

St Augustine said, “The apostles saw Christ and believed in a church they did not see. May we who see the church believe in Christ, whom we do not yet see.”

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