Just as Lent is getting underway this year of years, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter provides us with a day to celebrate in the midst of penance. Some years ago, a parish priest told us in a homily on one of these feasts that fall during Lent that it is a day when “you get to give up giving up what you gave up for Lent.”
That always bothered me just a little. It felt a bit greedy. How does Lent benefit me if I’m just going around looking for ways to take a break from the penances I chose? I feel much the same about the practice of declaring Sundays “not a part of Lent.” If Sundays aren’t part of Lent, why are they numbered and labeled as the Sundays of Lent?
All of this consideration, of course, can derail my entire Lenten observance into a rabbit-hole of misguided thinking and muddled motivation,
The readings for this great memorial feast of the Chair of St. Peter give me the guidance I need to be back on track. What I’m thinking about this morning, as the first full week of Lent gets under way, is the importance of living my life as a response to faith rather than as a series of rule-following activities. If my focus is on the rules, the rules become a trap. They become an end unto themselves, and when that happens, no amount of energy spent on following them will take me where I need to go.
But responding to faith? That’s a different picture. And today’s readings make the perfect backdrop to it. Let me start in the middle, with the beautiful 23rd Psalm. There probably is nothing new I can say about it, but the sense of peace that comes over me when I read it is new and wonderful every single time. One of my older brothers, a recovering alcoholic who I think struggled in some way with his sobriety every single day of its 35+ years, used to say that he read the 23rd Psalm several times a day for the peace it brought him. This psalm is such a contrast to the penitential psalms and the psalms that come from the depths of despair. Here there is hope and peace and joy from the knowledge that the Lord cares for us, loves us, and never fails us. From Him come rest, security, safety, courage, sustenance, and all of these in abundance. Do we have enemies? Of course, but look! He lays out a feast for us right in front of them. How do we not trust in a God Who does that?
Responding to faith? Peter, in the reading from his first letter, is telling the early Christian church how simple that is. We are to tend one another willingly and eagerly, with humility (recognizing who we are in relation to God and to others!), and be a good example to one another. That’s how we behave when we live in faith.
Responding to faith? The heart of it is in the Gospel reading. Jesus wants to know who people are saying He is, and more specifically who the disciples think He is. And while others outside of that small circle are still unsure, Peter resoundingly speaks for the Twelve in professing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
So here it all lines up for us: In faith, we recognize Who God is and Who Jesus is, and recognizing those truths, we understand who we are – that our entire existence is built by and around God, Who constantly cares for us. And a people who are gifted with faith and who see themselves rightly in this relationship with God will care for each other the way God cares for them.
It isn’t about the rules. It never was about the rules. That’s where the Pharisees and the scribes went wrong. It’s about knowing who we are, and it’s about responding to the relationship that God Himself has built with us. As simply as I can say it: How do people behave when they are loved with the greatest Love?
Father in Heaven, thank You for the gift of my faith. Lead me always to seek Your will in responding to my faith, and create in me a heart filled with Your love so that I may lovingly tend the flock You give me – those I encounter each and every day and who You love and call me to love. Amen.
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