Poor old Peter – he never seemed to be able to be right for very long, did he? In the passage from Matthew that was set for last week – did you hear it, I wonder – he was the one who proclaimed that Jesus was the true Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But now we see him getting it wrong. He was only trying to help, but somehow it didn't work.
Jesus was telling them that he was probably going to have to die, and Peter says “No, I won't let that happen!” And Jesus is so tempted – supposing Peter did fight? I wonder, what would have happened – not that we are ever told that. Peter did have a sword, we know – he had it in the Garden of Gethsemane. Unusual for a fisherman to have one, but Peter did, and he may well have known how to use it. But probably he would have been overwhelmed and died, and the result would have been the same. All the same, it must have been so heartwarming for Jesus to know he had a friend who was prepared to put his life on the line. But no – Jesus mustn't listen. This was the voice of the tempter, always so near, so insidious, so tempting.... “Get thee behind me Satan!” he says. “Peter, you're not helping!”
Peter was trying so hard to help, but really, he wasn't helping at all.
That happens sometimes. I asked the children earlier to try to remember a time when they had tried to help and it all went wrong. Or perhaps you can remember such a time? You thought you were being helpful, but you weren't.
I think this happens to us as Christians far more than we really care to think about. We think we are being helpful, showing others about how lovely it is to be a Christian, but really, we are putting people off.
Take one example, for instance – street preachers! Now, you know and I know that it takes a very great deal of courage to go out there and proclaim your faith in the middle of the street, to hordes of shoppers who haven't the time or the energy to listen, or to commuters who just want to get home and put their feet up. But why is it that so often you listen to what they have to say and cringe? All too many seem to think that the Good News is that you are a sinner and God is going to condemn you! Is that helping?
I remember once I'd had to go up to Oxford Circus to buy something – I can't now remember what – and there was a street preacher who had decided, for some reason, that all the people going shopping were there just for their own selfish pleasure and started berating them for consumerism. I was very tempted to point out to him that he really didn't have a clue, but didn't. I expect he went home very pleased with himself, but was he helping? I don't think so!
But there's me being judgemental, and that won't do, either. I am as bad as any – I try to preach love, not judgement, as you know, but is what I preach reflected in my own life? I don't think so! Well, not all the time, anyway. It's so not easy to get it right – often, we want to comfort a friend, for instance, but what do you say? So often, whatever we say is wrong!
I'm sure you've found this as often as I have – a well-meaning friend tries to comfort you when you're upset, but actually makes things worse! I know sometimes being told that God will never fail me or forsake me really hasn't helped when it's felt that this is exactly what has just happened! I know, obviously, that God hadn't failed me or forsaken me, but at the time, it felt like it! But sometimes people simply won't acknowledge the reality of our feelings: “Oh no, you don't feel like that”, or “Oh no, you don't believe that!” It doesn’t help. I remember once being told, by someone who really ought to have known better, that if I didn't find God's promises true – I forget which one I was complaining about – there was something wrong with me!
Well, quite probably there was – but it really didn't help for the person to say so. God doesn't always work in ways that are as straightforward as we would like to believe, does He? The Holy Spirit is a rushing mighty wind, not an electric fan. Or, if you like, he is not a tame lion! God does exactly what God wants, and because He sees round corners in a way that you and I simply can't, we don't always know what's going on. And being told that if we believe thus and so, or pray in these words rather than that, then our pain will wrap itself up into a nice little ball and go away really isn't helping!
We will see our loved ones again in Heaven, no doubt – but that doesn't help when we want to see them fit and well here on earth, does it? The thought that we will, one day, see them again is a great comfort once the worst of the pain is over, but it's no comfort at all when there is a great big black hole in the middle of your life where they once were!
Of course, we have all mouthed pious platitudes at friends in trouble – I know I have. And I don't suppose it helped, any more than it helped when friends mouthed pious platitudes at me! The Bible may say thus and so, but in the real world, people have feelings and emotions and although God simply adores us, he never promised we wouldn't have trouble and pain. Nor did he promise that we would be aware of him while we were having it – only that he would never fail us or forsake us. And he did promise that he would work all things for good to those who love him, but he didn't promise that would exclude the bad things!
I think a lot of the time it's because we don't know what on earth to say! We want to make ourselves feel better by clinging to the truths – and don't get me wrong, of course they are truths – that we have found in the Bible. But sometimes it's just simply the wrong thing to say. Or perhaps it's the right thing to say at the wrong moment! Someone whose marriage is in dire trouble simply doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't divorce – they need to be loved and held and allowed to cry. Someone who finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't do sex when they're not married.... bit late for that, I should think! Again, we need to learn how not to be judgemental – and oh, how hard it is to learn that!
And perhaps we need to learn how not to give advice! Often, the best answer to “What should I doooooo?” is “What do you think you ought to do?” or “What choices do you have?” Usually, I think, people make the wisest choices when we help them find out for themselves what to do, rather than tell them!
I seem to have got a long way from Peter, but it's all part of the same thing, really. “Lord, I'll never let this happen to you!” Peter was in denial about what was to happen. How often we deny what our friends are feeling, we tell them they don't feel like that, or worse, that they are wrong to feel like that. Oh, I've been there and done that – obnoxious little prig I was, when I was younger! Probably still am!
Peter wanted to make himself feel better, as much as Jesus: look how supportive I'm being! But that wasn't what was wanted just then. What Jesus needed, arguably, was a shoulder to cry on, or even someone to buy him a pint and let him have an hour or so to relax and forget about what was looming. Denial didn't help. The wrong kind of being supportive didn't help. Tempting Jesus to look for a way out of it didn't help. Peter was trying to be helpful, but in the end, he was not helping!
This is all very depressing, really! I'm sure we've all remembered occasions that we look back on and cringe at what we said to someone that really didn't help, that made matters a great deal worse! But that, of course, is not what I want to leave with you today. Yes, the street preachers I started with need to learn where people are, not where they think they are, so they address themselves to the problems people are actually facing, not what they think they ought to be facing. Yes, we need to learn how not to be judgemental, how not to give unwanted advice, how not to try to make ourselves feel better by regurgitating the “Christian” answer to a problem that really doesn't address how our friend is feeling.
But the point is, we are human, and we're always going to get it wrong some of the time. And the One to whom we go for forgiveness when we do get something wrong is also the One who will help us and enable us to get it wrong less often. God the Holy Spirit can, does and will help us to get it right.
Look at Peter again. This is the same man to whom God gave the knowledge that Jesus was – is – the Messiah, God's anointed one. This is the same man who denied Jesus three times. This is the same man who leapt over the side of his boat to swim to the shore to greet the risen Lord. And this is the same man who was anointed so powerfully at Pentecost that one sermon converted three thousand people!
If God can use Peter, despite Peter's propensity for putting his foot in it, God can use us. And that's why we shouldn't despair when we find we are not helping – we should, instead, ask God how we can help. And listen to the answer! It isn't always the obvious “Christian” thing – in fact, very often it isn't. Perhaps, if people don't tend to come to us for support and reassurance, they have learnt they won't find it from us. But as we make ourselves more and more open to God; as we learn that we don't have to be perfect, we just have to be Christians; as we learn more and more to listen to God and to expect the unexpected, so people will come to us more and more. Amen.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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