Acts 12:1-11 & Matthew 16:13-19

Why Me?

I was watching a TV programme a couple of days ago, the main character in which has lung cancer. He’d come to the end of a course of treatment, had some tests, and it turned out the cancer was in remission. The tumour had shrunk by 80%. His wife organised a party for all their friends to celebrate, and as tends to happen at these kinds of things, Walter is called on to say a few words. He said this, “When I first got my diagnosis I asked myself, “Why me?”. When I heard that I was in remission I asked myself again, “Why me?”.” His friends and family were all a bit nonplussed and confused by this. But I think there’s something interesting in that reaction.

“Why me” is one of the fundamental questions that people ask, and they tend to ask it in two different kinds of circumstances – firstly, when something happens that is abnormally bad and secondly, when something happens that is abnormally good.  As I was thinking about the story of Peter, I found myself wondering whether Peter ever asked, “Why me?” and about how his example might help us to deal with situations when we find ourselves asking that question.

In today’s readings we pick up Peter’s story half way through. We’ve missed the early years of a life from boyhood as a fisherman on Lake Galilee. The first meetings with Jesus have already happened. His decision to leave the fishing trade and follow this young rabbi round the countryside was made a few years ago. Since then Peter has seen many amazing things, people healed, storms calmed, and food produced from nowhere to feed thousands of people. He’s received deep but clear teaching about God, and about what it means to live Jesus’ way.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life we hear the climax of all this, we hear Peter make that profession of faith to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This was an insight into who Jesus is that had been revealed to Peter by God, and he believed it, but it also seems to be pretty clear that he didn’t really understand what it meant, what its implications were. We know this because five minutes later we hear him trying to persuade Jesus that he’s wrong to say that he’s going to die and be raised to life.

As we fast forward to the last few days of Jesus’ life we come to a really painful time for Peter. There was that confusing evening of the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane when all that they’d been doing for three years seemed to be falling apart. There was that dreadful night when he did what Jesus had foretold he would do, and denied knowing Jesus, and then the cock crowed and Peter went out weeping. Jesus was crucified, died, and buried.

Then the news that Jesus had been raised to life, and began appearing to his followers and reassuring them and offering them peace. Jesus does this individually for Peter, on the shore of Lake Galilee. Jesus’ friends had returned home and returned to their old way of life- fishing. They had not caught anything. Jesus went to the beach as they were returning homeward and told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They did so, and the nets were full. Peter recognised his Lord and swam to shore, leaving his mates to sort out the fish. After breakfast, Jesus has a little chat with Peter, calling him back to ministry and reaffirming him in his role as shepherd to the flock of the church. This is all very encouraging for Peter, but the conversation ends on a less upbeat note. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’

The gospel writer, John, goes on to explain “He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”

It was through these painful experiences that Peter came to understand the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, not just with the words he said, but in the depths of his mind and soul. He understood that it meant death and resurrection. He knew that it meant that Jesus is trustworthy, even when he can’t be seen. He knew that it meant that the Sun rises even after the darkest night. He believed it strongly enough to trust in it, even through death.

So, we skip forward through time again. Past the astonishing events of Pentecost and the explosive growth of the early church. And we find Peter sat in a jail cell, chained to two Roman soldiers. He doesn’t appear to be expecting to be rescued. It maybe that he had concluded that this was his time, that now was the time that someone else was going to belt a cross piece to his outstretched arms and lead him away to die. But no, he was woken up by a tap on the side, his chains had fallen loose and he was to put his own belt on and follow God’s messenger out of captivity. He would die for his faith one day, but that day was not this day. He still had work to do, he still had people to tell about Jesus, still had a flock to shepherd.

Why me? It’s a question we all ask when things go badly, and when things go well. Why me, why my family? Illness, death, job loss, memory loss – why me?

Recovery from illness, unexpected promotion, the good things of life – good housing, a prosperous country – why me? Why do I have such good things when those poor folk in Syria are constantly in fear of their lives, living in refugee camps. Why me?

We don’t know if Peter asked himself this question, in the good times or the bad times. It’s difficult for me to imagine him not doing, but we can’t know for certain. What we can see is what Peter learned to do when he experienced the kinds of things that might have caused him to ask, why me?

When hard, difficult, and painful things happened Peter learned to trust God. He knew that Jesus had passed through the most painful and heart breaking experiences – betrayal, desertion, torture, death, hell – and had come through the other side. He knew that Jesus had proved that he is able to deliver on his promises, and so he trusted Jesus that in the end all will be well for those who trust him. That trust was enough to give Peter hope, whatever the situation he was in.

When unexpectedly good things happened Peter learned to be faithful and to use those opportunities for the work of Jesus’ kingdom. When Peter was released he used his freedom. He preached the good news of Jesus, he visited people and prayed for them, he brought healing. He led the church into new understandings about the Gentiles. He fulfilled the role that Jesus had given him as shepherd of the flock.

On this day when we celebrate the life and ministry of Peter, perhaps we could think about those times when we end up asking ourselves, “why me”.

In those times when life is hard, and we feel like we’ve been hit by a steam train, when our children are suffering, when our parents are struggling, whatever it is for you. We want to scream at heaven, “why me?” God doesn’t minimise our pain or insult us by trotting out platitudes, and I won’t do so either. But, I do believe that God is trustworthy, that there is always hope, and that hope is visible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a reality that we remember and celebrate today in the Eucharist.

In those times when life is good, and we feel blessed, when we rejoice in our families and are keenly aware that our lives are safer, healthier, and more secure than the vast majority of all the people that have ever lived. In astonishment at our own good fortune, we ask “why me?” God receives our thankfulness with joy, and enjoys our pleasure in creation, but there is also a responsibility. There is the responsibility to be faithful to the call that is ours, as Christians, to tell others of the good news of Jesus, to be generous, to be good stewards, and to act on behalf of the poor, the outcast, and those who are asking “why me?” for the more painful reasons.

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