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A Chair and a Half

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Praised be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
he who in his great mercy
gave us a new birth;
a birth unto hope which draws its life
from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead;
a birth to an imperishable inheritance,
incapable of fading or defilement,
which is kept in heaven for you
who are guarded with God’s power through faith;
a birth to salvation
which stands ready to be revealed in the last days.

As any good preacher does, I paid my due diligence and researched the history of 1 Peter for this occasion. It was clear to me that this reading for today was the blessing prefacing a longer teaching; but when was it written and to whom? That’s when I came across this explanation from a commentary: “[We] suggest [an authorship] . . . after the death of Peter and Paul, perhaps A.D. 70–90. The author would be a disciple of Peter in Rome, representing a Petrine group that served as a bridge between Palestinian origins of Christianity and its flowering in the Gentile world. The problem addressed would not be official persecution but the difficulty of living the Christian life in a hostile, secular environment that espoused different values and subjected the Christian minority to ridicule and oppression.” Reading this alone in my room I uttered an audible, “wow.” The relevance to our current cultural situation is astounding. After sitting with this for awhile, the reality that nothing much has changed since the first century is oddly comforting. I know that in the midst of the centuries following this letter, persecution of the faithful increases, religious wars ensue and controversy and scandal within the Church abounds. Yet amidst all of this hardship the Church grows and bears fruit. The great mercy of Jesus Christ gives us new birth, again and again; hopes are dashed but never diminished to despair. The Church remains a symbol of heaven, of the imperishable inheritance, incapable of fading or defilement and the means through which our salvation comes. This indeed is a great blessing.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter: the chair that serves as a symbol of the Church but also as the ultimate bridge builder—the pontifex—between the religious and secular worlds. I suppose the idea of a chair being a bridge builder is an odd one. As a Rector, though, this idea makes a good deal of sense to me. When I began my ministry this fall as the new Rector of Ryan Hall, I was told my apartment would have some new furniture. Upon walking through the door my eyes focused immediately on this giant, way-oversized grey armchair. I will admit that my mind immediately joked: “Ah yes, my Rector Throne.” I learned shortly thereafter that this type of chair is deemed ‘a chair and a half’ for its peculiar size. It’s slightly smaller than a loveseat but slightly larger than a regular lounge chair. Being as short as I am, if I sit diagonally across the length of the chair my legs rest comfortably without hanging off the edge. This is indeed an extraordinary chair.

It did not take long before I recognized that I was not the only one who would see this as the “Rector Chair.” It doesn’t really matter how many students I have in my room at any time, it doesn’t matter if I’ve situated myself on a pillow on the floor, my women hesitate to sit in this chair. It has become for them a symbol of the role I play in their lives. And oh what a role this is. I have the humble gift of serving as a bridge builder: the one who helps them build the bridge between the sciences and liberal arts when they realize they really don’t want to be a doctor; the one who helps bridge the gap between two roommates who are driving each other crazy; the one who attempts to give hope to the woman whose family is divided and can’t even begin to visualize a bridge over the chasm that has begun to form in her life. When I sit in this chair, my women see me as someone who can help them process through the difficulties of their lives and navigate a way across.

When the time comes for me to leave my position as Rector, the women of Ryan Hall will immediately give this same trust to the new person who comes to sit in this seat. This is the gift and responsibility of an important chair, and as Christians we all share in the Chair of Peter. It’s a chair and a half, if you will. You and Pope Francis can cozy up on it together. I’m not saying that we necessarily share in the power of authority that comes with assuming the papacy; what I am saying is that by our Baptism we share in the responsibility that the Pope undertakes as bridge builder between the Church and the world. It is in a cultural climate like this one where we have to sit firmly in our Christian chairs and invite others to pull their chairs closer to ours or, better yet, pull ours closer to theirs—to sit comfortably as we listen to those who disagree with us and speak confidently and lovingly in return. And the sitting is an important part. It is a symbol of patience; a symbol of generosity of time and hospitality; a symbol of peace. I give thanks for the wisdom of Jesus Christ for gifting us the Chair of Peter as a strong symbol in a time of trial. Let us use this image of the chair as an example of loving, patient, generous, peaceful—and maybe even cozy—dialogue that we are called to as a Christian people living in a secular world. Let us not live in fear, but be ever reminded that—as today’s reading notes—we are guarded with God’s power through faith; and no matter how difficult things become, whether we will face persecution or war, let us remember we share life in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Editors’ Note: This post will be delivered as a homily during Vespers for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle.

Featured Photo: Chair of St. Peter, Lawrence Lew, O.P.; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.