Being led where we might rather not go

Sermon        3rd Sunday of Easter       14 April 2013        Fr Adrian Ling

(Mass readings: Acts 5:27-32,40-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21.1-19)


Jesus said to Peter: ‘when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and somebody else will put a belt round you, and take you where you would rather not go.’

Barry was a good friend of mine from Great Yarmouth. Barry suffered from arthritis in the neck that left his head and shoulders in a permanently hunched position. If there was one thing that Barry dreaded more than anything it was being out on the streets when the children came out of school, because he was subject to a lot of ridicule and abuse. Whatever church activity he was at, he had to be home before the children came out of school. A Church Army captain came to work in the town, and struck up a friendship with Barry. Imagine Barry’s shock and horror when the captain said he needed him to assist with the youth club. That was the last thing Barry would ever want to do; it was the stuff of nightmares. The captain was very persuasive and Barry trusted him enough to give it a go. As it happens, he turned out to be a very good assistant, because although he could not join in with games and activities, Barry would lean against the wall and watch, and the kids would come across to Barry, and tell him their problems. Barry was a good listener.

One day Barry was late in returning home, and found himself on the street as the children came out of school. And it started: the name-calling, insults, and abuse. But then, one of the kids stopped the others, ‘leave it out’ he said, ‘that’s our Barry, he helps at our youth group, he’s all right.’ And the abuse stopped. Barry would not have chosen to assist at a youth group, but he could see that was where God was leading him;  he trusted God and his agent. As a result the group was able to function, and he and the youth were blessed by his presence.

When you grow old,’ Jesus told Peter, ‘you will stretch out your hands, and somebody will take you where you would rather not go.’ When Peter first met Jesus, he had told him to get away from him, for he realized he was a bad and unworthy man; there was something very unsettling about his first encounter with Jesus.  Peter was not prepared to follow Jesus along the way of suffering, and he did not think that was right path for the Messiah. When put to the test, in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house while Jesus was on trial, Peter’s courage failed him and he denied knowing him. It took the experience of the risen Lord to transform Peter, he spoke compulsively of Jesus despite being ordered not to, and wasn’t frightened of a  flogging.  In the end, Simon Peter the Galilean fisherman would follow his master along the way of suffering and be martyred in Rome.

I wonder how many of us are living the lives we imagined. Did we have any idea how they might turn out? In trying to map out an ’ideal life’ all sorts of things will complicate or frustrate our plans. Some parts of our life appear to be under our control, while others are not. Relationships come to an end, jobs are lost, illness strikes, people we love die.  The chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quoted a Jewish mother who said that after having a child, she felt she understood God better, having created something she could not control.

Our Christian faith will not inoculate us against the problems of life. Those who think it will, delude themselves.  Though our Christian faith will not prevent bad things from happening, it will help us to deal with them.   Julian of Norwich in her revelations said she did not hear the voice of Jesus say, 'You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted'. But she did hear him say, 'You shall not be overcome.' God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.

Barry took a risk, a leap of faith. At our Annual Church Meeting after this Mass we will be looking at the future of this church. Through Lent we discussed how we might grow as Christians and as a church. This church faces many challenges, but with every challenge there is an opportunity. We are presented with many risks, one of which is the risk of failure. But that need not worry us, because the important thing is to have a go and give it our best shot. However, if we aim at nothing, we will hit the target.

In seeking to know what God might want of us, perhaps we should begin with what needs doing, rather than what we might want to do.  Dare we stretch out our arms and be led in ways we might rather not go? Christ needed Peter to be a shepherd to care for his flock. What might he be asking of us?

To discern God’s will is not easy. A chap told his wife that he felt called to mission work but didn’t know where, and so he prayed and prayed for a sign. When he got up in the morning, there on the kitchen table was a brazil nut, and so he concluded he was being called to work in Brazil. ‘Well, it’s just as well it wasn’t a Mars bar’, his bemused wife replied.