In her book The Shell Seekers, which became a best seller after it was featured on television, Rosamunde Pitcher tells of the death of Penelope, a principal character in the story. Olivia, Penelope’s daughter, is responsible for the funeral arrangements. She finds the visit of the vicar who is to conduct the service much easier than feared. She thanks him for his kindness and care, especially, as she explains, because her mother was not a religious person and possibly did not believe in God. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” the vicar assures Olivia, “she may not have believed in God, but I’m certain God believed in her.”
The story reminds me of a saying of William Barclay which I once found difficult to accept. He said: “Without us, and without what we can do, God is totally helpless.” I ought to have known better having read John of the 4th Gospel’s account of the post-resurrection lakeside meeting of Peter, one of the Twelve fellow travellers with Jesus. Peter’s circumstances and those of Penelope were different. Peter did believe. He was a disciple who had cause to consider himself a failure. His behaviour was despicable, unforgivable in his eyes, he had betrayed the Master. In all probability Peter could be remembering the evening when he told Jesus in no uncertain terms: “If everyone else runs away from you, I will never desert you” – but he did. Three times courage failed him; three times he denied all knowledge of his Master. In his gracious restoration by Jesus at the lakeside, not only was he restored and forgiven, he was entrusted with an important and responsible task. Here is the affirmation, the assurance that in spite of ourselves, God believes in us:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep”. (John 21:15–17)
When I am gone take care of my flock: for Peter this would turn out to be a life of continuous care for Christ’s sheep. What a privilege; what a responsibility, a clear signal that God believes in us.