The Feast of the Chair of St Peter
The title of today’s feast can sound a bit strange to the literal-minded: “the Chair of St Peter”. That is a hint that it’s not about a literal chair at all. The reference seems to be to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, where Our Lord says that “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses”, meaning that they teach with the same authority as Moses, as his successors. The chair of Peter would then mean the teaching authority of Peter, and it implies that there will be successors who will sit on the chair of Peter.
The basis for a teaching authority in the church is clear from this morning’s liturgy. In the Gospel, Simon son of Jonah made a confession of faith, “You are the Christ”, and Jesus responded, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”. The Collect tells us what this rock is: “Almighty God, you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith”. So the Church is built on the rock of Peter’s faith, not on his strength of character. Judging from the Gospels, he was often stumbling, impetuous, intense, and at times uncouth.
It was Peter who attempted to walk on the sea, and began to sink; it was Peter who impulsively wished to build three tabernacles on the mountain of the Transfiguration; and it was Peter who, just before the crucifixion, three times denied knowing his Lord.
But it was also Peter who, after Pentecost, risked his life to do the Lord’s work, speaking out boldly of his belief in Jesus. It was also Peter, the Rock, whose strength and courage helped the young church in its questioning about the mission beyond the Jewish community. He was opposed at first to the baptism of Gentiles, but he had the humility to admit a change of heart, and he himself baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household.
Although the New Testament makes no mention of it, the tradition connecting Peter with Rome is very ancient. According to a famous legend based on that tradition, Peter fled from Rome during the persecution under Nero. On the Appian Way, he met Christ, and asked him, “Quo Vadis, Domine?” – “Where are you going, Lord ?” The Lord replied, “I am going to be crucified again”. So Peter returned to Rome and shortly afterward he himself was crucified, head downwards.
As we watch Peter struggle with himself, often stumble, love his Lord and deny him, speak rashly and act impetuously, his life reminds us that our Lord did not come to save the virtuous and strong but to save the weak and the sinful. Simon, an ordinary human being, was transformed by the Holy Spirit into the “Rock” and became the leader of the Church. May we who share his weakness of character also share his strength of faith, so that we may one day share his reward.