The sifting of Peter audio (4.5MB)
Have you ever had one of those conversations with another Christian that you just met where they tell you all about their church and how good it is and how many people there are in their congregation and how its grown from 300 to 1000 in the last 3 years? and what a great model of ministry they've got and if you just started doing this program they developed then you'd be bound to have people coming to your church just like them. How do you feel? I used to have conversations like that often with other ministers when I was the vicar of a small struggling Anglican church. I didn't feel really encouraged! They were really saying look at me, look at me, aren't we great, there must be something wrong with you if your church has only got [insert whatever small number of people you like, as long as its significantly less than the church of the person you're talking to]! The problem actually is one of superficial judgment/engagement with exactly where I'm at or the context my church is in.
One of the reasons that we are looking at the life of Peter over these few weeks at church is that Jesus taught him what he really had to offer other people. Jesus taught him how to be a disciple and how to strengthen others to follow Christ. He taught him how not to despair and give up but how to continue to be a disciple. He took Peter beyond superficial judgments and down to the true foundations for following Christ. Through Peter he's going to get us to the bedrock of what it means to be the church.
Despite following Jesus for nearly 3 years, Peter had not yet truly grasped the foundation of true discipleship. Peter had yet to discover the true basis for all real following of Christ. But when he discovers it, it is going to become his lifelong ministry to teach it to others, including us.
In the episode of Peter's life we are looking at today, it is the night of the last supper. Jesus is going to take Peter closer and closer to the point where he will fail, so as to show him what he will have of real value to offer others in the future.
It's not what we want to hear from God, but there is a sifting of Peter that is about to take place. God is going to allow a sifting of Peter to take place and build it into his purposes and plan for Peter's life. Do you know what Jesus means by a sifting? In his day you sifted wheat by throwing it up in the air repeatedly from a great big wire basket and the chaff blew away and gradually you were left with just the heavier kernels of wheat in your sieve.
Have you baked a cake recently or perhaps in olden times when the flour was not so pure? You have to sift the flour through some kind of wire mesh to strain out all the impurities, so that your cake contains just pure flour, and not flour and weevils mixed into it. Or you might have tried to sift soil to take the weeds out of it - I bought a house in Brunswick about 20 years ago that once had had a beautiful garden but all this couch grass had just about taken over these lovely old garden beds. So I set about digging them to get rid of the couch grass. But it had been let go for so long that I had to dig up the soil down about two feet and using an old wire bed frame I sifted out all the couch grass roots stuck in the clumps of soil. It took me about two weeks work to sift them all out!
Jesus says to Peter:
"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death."Jesus answered, "I tell you Peter, before the rooster crows today you will deny three times that you know me." (22:31 -32)
There is a battle going on that we may not be aware of all the time. Satan has gleefully asked to sift Peter - that is to put him in a situation that he knows will show up the impurities in Peter's life, to show him his failure in the hope that he will give up in despair at his own weakness. It's a test isn't it? "You're no real follower of Christ, you might as well give up now if you're going to be shown up like that!" And perhaps it's a test for Jesus himself, "Well with friends like that who needs enemies! Why don't you just get real and send him away just as he deserves. He's not worthy to follow you."
Do you remember that Peter has been chosen for a leading role in God's fishing for people enterprise? He's been called into this by Jesus taking him, the master fisherman, fishing, and catching so many fish in unpromising conditions that Peter says to Jesus, completely honestly, go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. But Jesus doesn't go away from him. He only comes closer and works harder at preparing Peter for future leadership and service of others. Jesus marks Peter out for a leading role amongst the disciples and the early church. When Peter sees who he really is one day, Jesus says to him, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. He gives him a new name - Peter, from the Greek word, petros, which means “rock”.
Is it Peter himself who proves to be the solid rock on which Christ will build his church? ….. It's not always the man himself, as we will see over this week and next week, it is the insight God gave him into who Jesus really is that is the solid foundation of the church.
Is Peter in himself dependable and reliable in serving Jesus? Well, he is usually the first one to jump into anything. He gets in with the first response. He will, later on this very evening, draw his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant with a wild swipe before jesus can tell him to put away his sword. He acts before he's thought through what he's doing. He opens his mouth a number of times before his brain's in gear. He is a patron saint for those of us who are impetuous and impatient. He could be seen as a natural leader but the question is: what direction is he leading in and on what basis will he lead people?
And here is the hard part: if Peter was going to be a rock and a bearer of news about Jesus then he needed sifting so that in future years of service and responsibility, his faith would not fail. He needed more solid ground for his following of Jesus than he currently had. The sifting that Jesus is foretelling to Peter, is all about sorting out in his mind where security in following Jesus lies. Jesus says to him: Simon, Simon, (not “Peter” the rock of the church, but Simon, the man by himself) Satan has asked to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
Peter needed to grasp that it is not him and his impetuous sincerity that will keep him following Jesus. He needed to find his security in following Jesus somewhere else, and so God allows Satan to sift him - to put him in a situation in which he will fail dismally. When Jesus says to him, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, he doesn't mean that Peter will get it right does he? For we know that before the cock crows three times the next morning Peter will have denied knowing Christ. Despite all his bravado, Peter will have disassociated himself from Jesus out of fear. Peter replied: Lord, I am willing to go with you to prison and to death. But it wasn't so, was it? His mouth ran away ahead of his actions. His impetuous words weren't enough. Before the cock crows the next morning he will have betrayed and denied his Lord.
What does it mean then for Peter's faith not to fail ?
It means that he will not despair at his own failure and he will turn back with a renewed understanding of where success lies. Jesus is deliberately setting him up for an experience of failure so severe it will teach him once and for all where success lies in following Christ. He will fail, turn back because of Jesus' prayer for him, and then be able to strengthen fellow Christians in the future on this basis.
You see, Peter's initial response to Jesus here gives the whole game away about what is really going on for him. He says, Lord, I am willing to go with you to prison and death. He really thought he was because he was so sincerely willing at the time. He could find the words to say, it's just that he couldn't actually do it when the heat was on. He did what we often do. He said: because I can find the words to say it and because I think I can do all these things, then I am secure in following Jesus. Yet he wasn't. He had to learn that his security in following Jesus, his success in discipleship would come not from his words, I am willing, but rather from Jesus' words, I have prayed for you…
Jesus knows Peter. He knows what will happen. But Peter is so bold and convinced of himself that he contradicts Jesus. Yet Jesus is looking ahead to giving Peter a firmer foundation on which to follow him and to encourage others in the future. He allows this sifting that shows up Peter's failure so that he will remember Jesus' words: I have prayed for you Simon that your faith may not fail. Because Jesus prayer for us is where we find real security that we will not fall away from following him or betray him. It's a completely different foundation for faith than the one we naturally start with. And it's about future usefulness to God. The sifting is allowed so that Peter might be able to strengthen others with this different understanding of where his true security lies.
Do you believe that your security in following Jesus lies in his prayer for you? Are these words at the heart of your following of Jesus? I have prayed for you that you will turn back and be able to receive my forgiveness. This is the true basis for strengthening or encouraging other Christians. It's those who've failed who know this, not those whose church is so wonderful they can't resist telling you how you should follow them.
We had a man in a home group we led who had broken his marriage by committing adultery with someone he worked with. Geoff was the most encouraging guy I ever met because he was so humble. He didn't claim anything from himself. He wouldn't mind me naming him to you because he was so open about what he'd learnt about God's forgiveness from his own mistake. Out of that experience he became someone who saw himself as an unworthy servant, merely a forgiven sinner and nothing more. He'd been through an experience like Peter's.
And the ominous thing is that like Peter, we might need to be sifted. God may allow Satan to show us failure in following Jesus so that we learn deeply about following him. Satan hopes we'll say to ourselves, “I knew he was a harsh man, demanding things I couldn't achieve in the end”. He hopes that we'll fail to see the father who is waiting to embrace the son who has turned back to come home again. He hopes that we'll fail to see that Jesus wants to reinstate us and to take and use our experience of being reinstated to strengthen our brothers and sisters about the true nature of following Jesus.
Jesus isn't going to protect us from failure. That's not the way it works. He lets us come up hard against it in order that the glory of the father who forgives and reinstates is revealed. And this ministry of strengthening others to see and believe in the grace and forgiveness of God is more important to God than our individual performance or comfort.
What if God allows Satan to sift you, to put you through failure now or in the future? How will you respond? I hope that you will remember Peter's life - that out of his failure God brought forth someone who knew that Jesus prayed for his faith in Jesus' mercy to endure, someone who didn't despair at what they failed to do by themselves, and someone who would be able to strengthen others by showing them this truth.
Jesus let Peter loose the battle so that he could win the war of knowing how to be a true disciple. So he could strengthen others to find their true security in Jesus' words: I have prayed for you. It's the certainty that the father will give the Son all he asks for, including us each individually, that gives us security. We can rely on our own abilities and it's like building on a meringue! One decent bit of pressure and it crumbles. Or we can build on the rock of who Jesus is before the father. The one whom he delights to give things to.
May we be those who lean on Jesus words: I have prayed for you Simon Peter that your faith may not fail.