Sunday, August 21, 2011

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Solid Seat or Stumbling Block

Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 137:1-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
Picture: cc CastawayVintage

Sisters and brothers, some weeks ago I heard a loud cry of shock and dismay coming from a room not far from where I was. Later, I discovered the reason for it. Someone had tried to sit in an old armchair. It was one of those chairs with two cushions, one on the seat and the other against the backrest. Anyway, this person had planted himself in the chair, apparently with some force, only to feel, to his great surprise, his bottom going right through the seat. The chair was broken! Hence the loud exclamation.

My friend’s surprise and irritation are understandable. For we rightly expect chairs to be capable of bearing our weight. They are meant to be places where we can rest. And to suit this purpose, we expect them to be solid enough. But solidity is not the only requirement. In order to fulfill its function, a chair also has to offer us a space that is wide enough to fit our bodies. Isn’t this why there is something in us that feels uneasy when we come across a chair that is cluttered with other things, like books or laundry (clean or otherwise) or when it has been choped with a little packet of Kleenex tissues? However solid such a chair is, we still can’t sit in it. Not without first removing the other objects. When a chair is either too fragile or too full, it fails to perform its rightful function. Instead of being the welcoming space it is meant to be, it ends up simply taking up space. It becomes an obstacle in our path.

It’s useful to keep this in mind when we consider the authority that Jesus grants to St. Peter in the gospel today. Playing on the literal meaning of Peter’s name, Jesus tells him that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. The authority granted to Peter is meant for a very particular purpose. It is to serve as a foundation stone for supporting the rest of the church. And doesn’t a foundation stone bear close similarities to a chair? Like a chair, a foundation stone needs to be both solid and spacious enough to support the building that is constructed upon it. In this case the church.

Furthermore, what is said of Peter the Rock, can be extended also to the Church itself, to you and to me, we who are members of the spiritual building that the Rock of Peter supports. Again, like a chair and a foundation stone, a building too needs to be solid and spacious enough, so as to better accommodate its occupants.

Solidity and spaciousness. We see this combination of qualities also in the first reading, where God grants authority to the steward Eliakim. Not only is this authority described as a solid peg driven into a firm place, it is also said to be a throne of glory. In other words, it is a solid and spacious seat.

Which leads us to consider an important question: Whose glory is the throne of Eliakim ultimately meant to hold? Who is the rightful occupant of the spiritual building that is the Church? We find the answer in the second reading. Here, St. Paul ends his reflection on the richness of the depths of God, by acclaiming joyfully that all that exists comes from God; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen.

In other words, together with the Rock of Peter, we who make up the Church, are meant to be the dwelling place of God. This is where God has chosen to take his seat in the world. It follows then, that in order to fulfill this function, both Rock and Church must share the same qualities of solidity and spaciousness.

And to better understand what spiritual solidity looks like, we need to pay closer attention to our gospel reading for today. Notice how it is that Jesus comes to confer on Peter the keys of the kingdom. Jesus does this only after he hears Peter’s answer to the very personal question who do you say I am? Not just what your teachers, or your priests, or your parents, or your friends say, but what do you say. Who do you say I am? You are the Christ, Peter responds, the Son of the living God. Through his ability to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, through his willingness to believe that God, the Almighty Creator of the whole universe, could actually be present and active in a mere human being, Peter demonstrates the solidity of his faith.

But, as it is with a chair, so too with Peter’s faith. Solidity alone is not enough. Spaciousness is also needed. And, as we will see next week, when we continue our reading from the gospel of Matthew, as solid as Peter’s faith may be, it still isn’t quite as spacious enough. For although Peter is willing to recognize God in the man who works wondrous miracles and attracts great crowds of admirers, he can’t quite bring himself to accept the fact that this same wonder-worker must also walk the Way of the Cross. Peter’s faith, at least at this point in the story, is not spacious enough to recognize God in the bruised and battered face of the suffering and crucified Christ.

And it is when Peter rejects the Cross of Christ that he falls short of the purpose for which Jesus has chosen him. Cluttered by unrealistic expectations, the chair of Peter’s faith is unable to accommodate the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the same Mystery that we are celebrating at this Mass. Instead of a foundation stone, Peter turns into an obstacle in the Lord’s path. Which leads Jesus to tell him to get behind me, Satan! 

Sisters and brothers, clearly Peter’s experience provides an important lesson for each and for all of us. As members of the Church, as living stones making a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), in which God wishes to dwell, as the spiritual seat that God wishes to occupy on this earth, we too are called to remain solid and spacious enough to receive the Lord. We too are called to be courageous enough to acknowledge the presence of God not just in good times, but also in bad. Not just when enjoying popularity, but also when suffering rejection. Not just in good health, but also in sickness. Not just in a booming economy, but also in a recession. Not just in the midst of career advancement, but also in retrenchment. Not just in times of peace and harmony, but also in times of chaos and unrest. Not just in family and friends, but also in strangers and even enemies. Whatever the times, situations, and people in which the Lord chooses to come to us, like Peter, we too are called to be ready to welcome and to follow him. Like an inviting armchair, we too are called to be solid and spacious enough to receive the full presence of God.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine ourselves today, both as individuals and as a church, what do we find? Are we truly a solid seat, or are we merely a stumbling block for the Lord?

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