Sunday, August 13, 2017

Living Hope for Social Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:13-25

Fr. Alexandros knew he didn't have much longer. In this second week of February, Alexandros was terminally ill. And Alexandros was extremely relieved by that fact. You see, Fr. Alexandros' last twenty-four or twenty-five years of ministry had been a very trying time. In the year 704, he was hauled from his monastery to be acclaimed patriarch – as a successor, he and his fellow Copts believed, of St. Mark the Evangelist. But by the 700s, Alexandria and all Egypt were not under Coptic rule. No, they were subject to governors sent by the Umayyad caliphs, the rulers of the vast Islamic empire that had conquered Egypt over sixty years before. And in the wake of rebellions and some failed expeditions, that empire was desperate for extra revenue streams. So why not go after the churches in Egypt? That's how it was that, during the reign of one caliph after another, one governor after another, taxes on Christians, especially on monks and bishops, began to skyrocket.

On his deathbed, Fr. Alexandros remembered how one governor demanded each bishop to cough up two thousand dinars and more, every year; how that governor had spat on images of the Virgin Mary and mocked the name of Christ. But still he paid what he could. He remembered how the next governor taxed him an extra three thousand dinars, and to be tortured 'til he came up with it, though he was under a vow of poverty. And when he went to greet and honor the next governor, that man demanded the same – even though, after going through the land like a beggar, Alexandros still had five hundred dinars left to go on his last tax debt!

Fr. Alexandros recalled being thrown in prison, seeing the churches be robbed, watching his associates tortured in the streets. But through it all, he submitted, he patiently endured, he prayed. The next governor was worse still, and things didn't look up until they'd actually started branding the hands of Christians with the mark of a beast, so that if they were caught doing business without it, the Christian was fined and had his hand cut off. It was at that point that Alexandros prayed God to make him deathly ill and spare him from being branded – and God answered him. But in the meantime, up until that last straws of the mark and of forced labor provoked some bloody Coptic revolts here and there (which Alexandros didn't endorse), the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria tells us this:

The Christians gave [the caliph] all the money they could, and trusted in God, and rendered service to the Muslims, and became an example to many.

That sums up Fr. Alexandros' approach to the government under which, the society in which, he ministered and lived. But a few centuries earlier, his predecessor Mark's mentor, a man named Peter, felt a burden to advise a band of Christian communities throughout several Roman provinces on how they should approach their society and their government. They were in tight straits. Some of those believers had been wealthy, had been doers of good and indeed benefactors to their cities and regions. But was there a point to it, if society would be this hostile? And many believers wondered: Can we really remain subject to a pagan government, in a world where all around us, temples are being built to the emperor as a god? Should we just give in and go with the flow? Should we take a stand and revolt? Peter tells us we ourselves are a “holy nation” all on our own (1 Peter 2:9). So in light of that, should we denounce the emperor, condemn his governors, mock municipal officials, withhold taxes, make up our own laws, separate ourselves from surrounding society, form Christian ghettos in our towns? What should we do, Peter? What should we do?

Peter doesn't outright say it, but by way of analogy with what he does say later on, he might well have started off his reply by saying this: “Do you not know that to this you have been called, because Christ left an example for you, so that you might follow in his steps? Didn't Christ live on this earth under a pagan government? And yet he didn't withdraw from society. When I walked with him, we did not live unto ourselves, nor live by ourselves. Christ didn't angrily denounce Caesar. He didn't revile Pontius Pilate with disrespect. Nor did he urge violence against that fox Herod. Nor did he despise their centurions, but readily offered them aid in their hour of need (Matthew 8:13); nor did he shun their tax collectors, but made one his disciple alongside me (Mark 2:14). No, Christ paid his taxes – and mine (Matthew 17:27)! 'Render to Caesar what is Caesar's,' he said, 'and render to God what is God's' (Mark 12:17). So as not to give needless offense (Matthew 17:26), he submitted to the laws of Rome and Jerusalem in all that didn't infringe on his mission and conscience, though he was Son of God, and King of a higher kingdom than theirs.”

So might Peter well have said. But what Peter goes on to actually say is just as helpful in guiding them – and us – on how to deal with government and society. Peter hints, first, at what government actually is. He tells them to consider the governing authorities as a subset of “every human creature,” or perhaps we should read, “every human creation” (1 Peter 2:13). Caesar may claim to be a god on all his coins, and he may have temples to him scattered throughout these cities – actually, imperial cults were the fastest-growing religion in the first century – but he merely stands alongside other human creatures. His whole authority structure is man-made, though by these conventions, he does wield the highest authority. And into his provinces, Caesar sends out his governors to wield an accountable authority. And they have two purposes: first, they are to punish evildoers. That's their job – that when people violate any of Rome's just laws, a penalty should be imposed. But the second function is to praise those who do good – Peter's language suggests he has his eye on civic benefactors, those who perform notable services like buying grain to feed the people, or sponsoring construction projects, or representing the city on a diplomatic mission, or things like that – things the governor, or the town council, would invariably notice and set up a monument or plaque in commemoration (1 Peter 2:13-14).

So that's who the government is: not a divine power on earth, but simply a human creature with some valuable purposes. That's what they're for. But who are we in relation to it? Peter says, “People who are free” (1 Peter 2:16). Maybe he remembers the time he asked Jesus about taxes, and Jesus pointed out to him that even in this world, the children of the kings of the earth are, by right, exempt: “Then the sons are free” (Matthew 17:26). The rightful authority of “the kings of the earth” doesn't touch the royal sons in the same way, because the royal sons are free. And that, Peter is saying, is who we are. We relate to the powers and authorities of this world in a unique and special way, because we are free. And we are free because we are royal sons and daughters, or as Peter says here, “God's servants” (1 Peter 2:16). In that way, we are not under this world's jurisdiction.

And yet... And yet, Peter says, it matters how we use that freedom. We dare not use it as “a cover-up for evil.” Our status as royal sons and daughters isn't meant to free us up to be lawless, to spread anarchy in the land, to mindlessly defy Caesar and his governors over every little thing. Instead, we are to live as God's servants – our relationship is to his authority, which we really are under. And God's will, Peter tells us, is that “by doing good you should silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 1:15). He tells us, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 1:12). The way we treat governing powers, the way we treat society, the way we treat our neighbors and our neighborhoods, is meant to be a witness. It's meant to be a refutation of all the accusations they bring against Jesus and his people. Lawless living, tax evasion, withdrawing from society – those behaviors don't silence the ignorance of foolish people. Instead, they're bound to occasion a lot more speaking against us as evildoers! But conscientious living, willful contributions, positive engagement with society – those behaviors are a good witness. And that's what our freedom is for.

And so, Peter encourages us, “be subject to” – submit to, defer to, show respect to – “every human creature” – yes, even the emperor, even his governors – but do it “for the Lord's sake” (1 Peter 1:13). Even though we are free, even though in a sense we aren't under their jurisdiction, yet we submit to them... because we don't do it for them. We don't obey their laws because those laws are binding on us; we don't obey their laws because we fear the consequences that might befall us if we don't; no, we obey their laws for the Lord's sake, as an act of worship. Paying the taxes they demand – that's an act of worship, because we, as sons and daughters of God, offer it as voluntary contributions. Following the speed limit, give or take – that's an act of worship, because we do it out of honor for God's other image-bearers on the road and as a witness. The same for all other laws that don't step beyond what pertains to Caesar. We voluntarily submit to those human authorities, for the sake of worship and witness. No one has to pry this submission from our cold, dead hands, as they say; we give it for the Lord's sake.

And so Peter presents us with a set of exhortations – tells us how we should treat the various relevant parties. First, he says, “Honor everyone.” There's a basic level of honor and dignity that every fellow human deserves from you, by God's command. Honor the janitor.  Honor the tax collector. Honor the banker. Honor the crook. Honor the rioter and protestor. Honor them regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexual ethic, regardless of their skin color – I trust I don't have to mention this weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to those of you who pay close attention to the news. But it'd be an understatement to say that the ugliness observed there was in no way obedient to this command: to “honor everyone.” How we speak of those of different ethnicities, or for that matter of different social classes and subcultures, is directly relevant to this command. White, black, Asian, Hispanic – honor everyone. Speakers of English, Spanish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Arabic – honor everyone. Man or woman, young or old, inner-city dweller or suburbanite or country dweller, Republican or Democrat – honor everyone. Do good to them, treat them with respect, speak about them with respect. Yes, that's a challenge. It's a challenge because we don't always do that. We harbor prejudices, we speak before we think, we pass along malicious rumors and stereotypes, we fail to see our actions through their eyes or hear our words through their ears. And that's a violation of this commandment. Peter calls us to repent, and to honor everyone.

Next, he tells us: “Love the brotherhood.” That's the next step beyond honoring everyone. When it comes to our fellow believers, we owe them a loyalty, a fidelity, a solidarity, that goes even beyond the universal honor we give to God's creatures. When it comes to the church, Peter tells us to love her. When it comes to Christian fellowship, Peter tells us to love it – be loyal, be faithful, to the active gathering of believers. Is that compatible with avoiding church and trying to lead a do-it-yourself 'Christian' life? Not even close. A solitary rendition of the so-called Christian life, one that doesn't intertwine with other believers as much as possible, is a blatant violation of this command to love the brotherhood. And so, for that matter, is our sad neglect of Christians who don't look like us, don't speak like us, don't live in the same place as us – we need to be more active in showing love to the believing 'brotherhood' in countries of persecution.

And at the climax, Peter tells us: “Fear God.” As in, give God your absolute devotion, your utter reverence, your total obedience. God is the one with an ultimate claim on you. He's your Father, your Maker, your true King. If God says it, that settles it. Your life, Peter's telling us, should be one oriented and shaped around this reverence and devotion to God, and God alone. So what, then, about the king – the governing authority, like Caesar? Where does he fit in this ranking? Peter saves him for the end: “Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Note the choice of word. It's not 'fear the king,' as if the king were on the same level as God. No, it's “honor the king” – because the king (or in our days, the president and the Congress and the Supreme Court) is part of the 'everyone' mentioned earlier. And that's true if his last name is Clinton, or if it's Bush, or if it's Obama, or if it's Trump – honor the king.

Don't view him as a God-substitute, don't render your conscience to him, don't obey his example or edict when it contravenes God's will; but at the same time, show appropriate honor and respect. And I have to admit, that's hard sometimes, especially when presidents, legislators, and judges leave themselves open to fair criticism. And yet we're to honor them even when we rebuke them, and to do it from an attitude of submission to every human creature. The way we talk about our political leaders – does it reflect that command to honor the king? Or do we prefer talk-radio shock-jocks and loudmouthed pundits who 'tell it like it is'? Instead, Peter tells us, honor the king and everyone else; love the brotherhood; and fear God, out of which we fulfill God's will by offering the worshipful witness of our productive citizenship, even in a society that's looking for an excuse to accuse us. And in doing so, we are in a perfect position to imitate Christ. That's how we live out our living hope with respect to government and society.

But that's not the end of Peter's counsel for our social life. He goes on, in the next paragraph, to address slaves directly – specifically, domestic slaves in a Roman household. Their situation was a lot better than what our country put many people through in times past, but still, it's a perilous position for them to be in – especially if they're bound to serve a pagan master, as some of the believers in Peter's audience were. They were attached to pagan households, and pressed into service to sometimes cruel masters. And you can just imagine the difficult situation that was – especially now that, in Peter's letter, they've heard that they're living stones in God's temple. Maybe they wondered if they should rebel. Maybe they wondered if they should despair. What is God's will for them, in that situation?

Peter turns here to the life of Jesus, who innocently suffered injustice during his earthly ministry and especially as he neared the cross: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21-25). Peter's telling these Christian slaves: You better than anyone are positioned to imitate Jesus! When he came, he came to be like you! He suffered injustice for your sake – and look how he reacted. Be like that.

And so Peter tells these slaves that, out of their fear for God, they should “be subject to [their] masters..., not only to the good and gentle, but also to the crooked” (1 Peter 2:18). It would be one thing if their masters, their supposed owners, would consistently be easy to work for. But some of them are out-and-out crooked, ready to dole out beatings without just cause. How should the Christian slave respond? Like Jesus did: submitting and being voluntarily subject anyway, as a witness to what Jesus does when a heart is fully his. Jesus didn't return insult for insult. Jesus never threw a punch at the soldiers who whipped him. When the nails went in, Jesus did not say, “You'll get your just desserts, just you wait.” No, he looked past the human injustice to the God who judges justly, and so he was innocent in death as he had been in life; and now, praise God, he's innocent in life that's too indestructible to ever end!

And so in imitation of him, Peter tells Christians who are enslaved in Roman households, if they suffer as Jesus did, they should be mindful of God and receive it as actually being an expression of grace, that he counts them worthy of being like Christ (1 Peter 2:19). That's a totally separate thing than if they were to suffer justly for something like stealing silverware. “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if, when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20). Buried in the pain is the grace of God in a broken world.

For us today, it might be difficult to see how this matters to us. The Roman slave-system has been dismantled. Its more brutal and racist cousin on our shores was abolished in the Civil War. And while human trafficking and slavery are still a real problem, even in twenty-first-century America, none of us are among its victims, so far as I'm aware. So does Peter have a message for us, or should I have skipped these verses? Well, I'm not convinced I should have skipped them – as much as some of you may be eager for me to get to 'Amen'! Because while we don't have Roman slavery, the closest analogy we have – imperfect though it is – is still relevant to some of our lives here. Everywhere Peter writes 'servants,' read 'employees.' And where he writes 'master,' read 'boss.' “Employees, be subject to your bosses with all fear [toward God], not only to the good and gentle ones, but also to the crooked. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while being penalized unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you do wrong and are penalized for it, you endure? But if, when you do the right thing and are penalized for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in God's sight” (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-20).

Now that hits home! I know many of you here this morning are out of the workforce – just as many of those who heard Peter's letter the first time weren't Roman domestic slaves. But for those who are employees, or have been employees, here's the message. Maybe you're prone to resent your boss, your supervisor, the manager, the owner. Maybe their policies are ridiculous and unfair. Maybe they're giving credit to absurd complaints against you. Maybe you feel like you're doing good work and not getting ahead, while co-workers are bilking the company and getting away with it. And you wonder if there's a point to being a good worker in a situation like that – why not take advantage, why not complain, why not goof around on company time, why not swipe some meaningless supplies, why not call in sick, why not protest and resist?

And here's Peter's answer. Suffering justly is not a credit. If you do those things and get caught, well, he says, you deserve it – you get no credit for it, you've done nothing valuable, and you've pointed nobody to Jesus. But on the other hand, if you put up with an overbearing boss and crummy co-workers and crazy complaints and dreadful demands – if you do all that, and you suffer for doing good, that's grace! That's grace, because that's exactly what Jesus did for you – he put up with the crazy complaints lodged against him, and the dreadful demands of the soldiers, and the crummy co-workers his defective disciples were, and the overbearing tyranny of Pilate, and he was censured and penalized in the heftiest way and, though he was innocent, was fired from the land of the living. But his Father hired him to a new and better life.

So when you go to work, be subject to your employers and supervisors, even the crooked ones, out of the fear of God – do your work with an eye to him, and not to the rest. Those employers and co-workers are part of the 'everyone' we're told to honor, anyway. Only entrust yourself to the Boss Above who judges justly the work you do in his name – even if that work is wiring a house, or selling wares, or cutting hair, or running a copier, or living wisely and honorably in retirement. That's what grace looks like in the workplace. If Peter can say these things even to Roman domestic slaves in danger of real abuse and physical beatings, how much more does it go to those of us who are in no bodily danger from our supervisors on the job? And if Peter can say these things even to those who live under pagan Roman rule, how much more does it apply to us who live under a pluralistic, Christian-leavened-but-sadly-secular-leaning government with the structures put in place by the United States Constitution?

We've talked over these past few weeks about the living hope we have – how the word of God, the gospel which announces the death and resurrection of Jesus, has made us born again, made out of gospel stuff, with a new-creation inheritance in store behind the veil. We have a new relationship to a trustworthy God – Peter calls that our 'living hope.' We are the living stones in his temple; we are the royal priesthood who minister to him; we are the holy nation and treasured possession set aside as God's special portion; we are, in Christ, chosen and precious to our Father. And yet as we sojourn in this world as exiles, resisting the aggression of fleshly desires that still wage their war against our souls, we live out our living hope in our social life – our relation to the workplace, our relation to the public square, our relation to the governing authorities, to societal institutions, to our neighbors and our neighborhoods.

And Peter's message to us is this: Living out your living hope here looks like living out the life of Jesus here; and living out the life of Jesus here means submitting for the Lord's sake, even to man-made authority; it means looking past the suffering to the God who judges justly; it means giving honor to everyone; it means seeing every situation, every mundane social act, not as a chance to voice our personal opinions but as a God-given opportunity to serve the Lord and bear witness to his kingdom and its King, Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

We're no different in that respect from Fr. Alexandros and his fellow Copts under Umayyad rule: Our living hope for social life involves voluntarily giving whatever we can from what authorities ask of us; entrusting ourselves to the God who judges justly; rendering honor and service to everyone; and, God willing, acting as an example to many. We are not property of the state, or the courts, or our employers (however much they sometimes think we are); no, we belong to God, we live as his servants and as the free children of the King; but this is how we serve God with our freedom. This is our opportunity for worship and witness, here and now. Thanks be to God – our living hope is hope for the world! Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Living Hope, Living Priesthood, Living Temple: Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-12

I remember it almost like it was yesterday. With deep solemnity, on October 24, 2009, we walked into the main hall. And as sheer grandeur washed over my friend, his otherwise-unceasing voice trailed off, his eyes grew wide, his head tilted back... and so did mine. Had we been the only ones there, we would have been too mesmerized to make a sound. High overhead soared a dome, hanging seemingly from midair, where once there gazed down a massive image of Christ the Almighty on his heavenly throne; flanking him, above the four columns supporting the dome, hovered four six-winged seraphim, “living creatures” seen by prophets and seers of old; and all around once sat sainted elders in gold-rich mosaics. Ballooning with half-dome after half-dome, the cavernous space stretched out in all directions, as if beneath an open heaven as Stephen saw. And in my mind's eye, I was transported not only to heaven, but back through time, over 1400 years.

In those days, Constantinople, capital city of the great Roman Empire, was torn by riots surrounding politicized sports teams, which soon united against the emperor. Running rampant, they torched much of the city, not even sparing the great cathedral church dedicated to God's Holy Wisdom. When the revolt was quelled – though at the cost of over thirty thousand lives – the emperor set his heart on rebuilding. In years past, his great rival, the noblewoman Anicia Juliana, had overseen construction of the largest church in the city – and acclaimed herself as greater than emperors of old and even than Solomon. Not one to be outmatched, the Emperor Justinian saw his opportunity. On the ruins of the cathedral church, he hired two great masters of mechanics, Anthemius and Isidore, to design a church larger than had ever been built. Sparing no expense and bringing materials from all over the empire, the work took nearly six years, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, tile next to tile, until in the year 537 it was at last ready. In late December, close to Christmas, the emperor was led into his completed masterpiece, the famed Hagia Sophia – and his reaction to the soaring heights and elegant curves was not so unlike mine. As he surveyed the magnificence from a balcony, rumor has it that he shouted out, “Glory to God who considered me worthy of this task! O Solomon, I have outdone thee!” – not an uncommon sentiment among those who saw it.

What was on his mind was the Bible's story of King Solomon, son of David, overseeing the construction of a temple in the heart of Jerusalem. Hiring a half-Israelite architect from Tyre and bringing timber from the forests of Lebanon, Solomon had a grand temple built. The foundation was made of “great, costly stones,” “dressed stones” (1 Kings 5:17), all quarried by thousands upon thousands of stonecutters out in the hill country (1 Kings 5:15). All the stones were carefully chiseled in the quarry and cut into shape there, so that the site of the temple would be quiet and peaceful (1 Kings 6:7). The temple he built was long and wide and high; had it covered inside and out with pound after pound of fine gold; decorated it with a rich veil and heavenly sculptures and mighty pillars and images of trees and flowers like in the garden of God. It took over seven years to build, with all its great furnishings; and when it was finished, Solomon had the ark of the covenant brought, and the cloud of the glory of the LORD filled the temple, and priests sang and celebrated with trumpets, and by much sacrifice was the house dedicated (1 Kings 8). And Solomon prayed that the temple would mean the presence of God to answer even a foreigner's prayers (1 Kings 8:41-43), so that “all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God, and there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60). And that was what the temple was all about.

Centuries passed. A somewhat wicked and conniving descendant of Solomon named Ahaz lived in the palace built alongside the temple; a young man, he'd freshly been appointed co-regent with his father Jotham. But Ahaz held the real power. Troubled by his boldness and vigor, the Arameans and northern Israelites sought to pressure him to join their rebellion against Assyria; they harassed his armies, took his men prisoner, and now laid siege to Jerusalem itself – leaving Ahaz in quite the tizzy. The prophet Isaiah warned him not to give in to them, but also not to seek an alliance with Assyria, either. What Ahaz needed to do, Isaiah told him, was to ignore the conspiracy and focus on God, who could be “a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel. … And many shall stumble on it; they shall fall and be broken” (Isaiah 8:14-15). The LORD himself was this Foundation Stone, which could save or could break the kingdom.

Ahaz didn't much care to listen to Isaiah. He offered tribute to Assyria, reshaped features of the temple to be more pleasing to them, and made a covenant with them. Isaiah retorted that it was a covenant with death itself (Isaiah 28:15). Did they really think that Assyria would flood into the region and leave them untouched and unchanged? But they thought that Assyria's promises would make a fine shelter; Ahaz and his counselors had no trust in the God who lived among them. And so God said, “Behold, I am laying a foundation stone in Zion, a stone of testing, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation; and whoever believes will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16). Built on the Stone would be the true house of refuge; and this Stone would be the one against which all others are tested. God's sanctuary would stand firm against the flood; those who trusted this Stone's firmness would be safe, and all others would be judged.

Ahaz didn't listen. The Assyrians came and went. But worship in the temple continued, on the very site where Solomon had built. Even today, we can hear their songs of deliverance – like the last Hallel psalm, where a worshipper approaches the temple, having been saved by God from affliction; he bids the priests open the gates of righteousness to him (Psalm 118:19-20). And once inside, standing firm on the temple's foundation near the altar, he cries out, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23). The suffering saint, once rejected, is now honored like the stone undergirding the temple. Israel itself, rejected by the empire-building powers like Assyria, is chosen by God for his kingdom. And those who gather in this temple bask in God's light (Psalm 118:27). That's what the temple was for.

Hundreds of years later, a chain of Christian communities lived under great pressure and rejection, far from the temple that still stood in Jerusalem. And far from them and Jerusalem alike, the Apostle Peter was living out his closing years in Rome. Faced with their predicament, he mulled over the Psalms and Prophets and his Master's own words, where Jesus identified himself with that very Stone. And so Peter wrote to the Christians then – and to us today – words of encouragement and exhortation.

Peter stressed to them – to us – that we have been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't who we once were. We're made out of new stuff now – we're built of gospel-stuff, the very word of God that lives and persists and abides (1 Peter 1:23-25). So we can't live the way we used to; we can't be tangled up in malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, or slander (1 Peter 2:1), or in any of the passions of our flesh that wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). If we're born again, it means that what we need is what Martin Luther called “sweet, fat grace” – and what Peter calls “pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The basic, simple nutrition of the gospel. We know from firsthand experience how that tastes, if indeed you've tasted that the Lord really is good (1 Peter 2:3).

And so in our times of distress and weariness, Peter urges us to turn again to that “sweet, fat grace” – to go back to Jesus, who so tenderly feeds us. And this Lord, Peter says, is a “Living Stone” – the very stone from the psalm and from Isaiah's prophecies. Jesus is the Lord GOD who offered himself to Ahaz instead of the Assyrian Empire, to be a sanctuary or a breaking-point depending on whether they trusted him. Jesus is the Stone whom his Father placed in Zion as a foundation, a standard against which all else would be measured, and the basis for the only refuge there is in this world or any other. And Jesus is the Stone whom the builders overlooked – the One who, like the believers Peter writes to, was judged unfit and unworthy by the authorities of this age. Peter quotes all those prophecies, applying them to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:6-8).

But whereas the human builders rejected Jesus, much to their discredit, he is nevertheless chosen by God – “a Living Stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,” now a foundation and capstone and cornerstone in God's Zion (1 Peter 2:4). That's who Jesus is. Don't be surprised when people reject Jesus. That is just what people tend to do. They overlook him. When they meet him in the quarry, they judge him by unjust standards and decide he isn't worth the trouble; that he isn't fit for building on; that he has no place in the work they've set out to do; that he stretches their vision of God and of themselves in all the wrong ways, and so he has to go. They don't esteem him. They may profess some measure of mild respect for him, maybe, but when push comes to shove, they overlook him and discount him. He is a rejected stone to them, unfit for building. So say most humans, even today. And as a result, they don't find sanctuary in him; instead, they take offense at what he really teaches and stumble over him. “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do,” Peter writes (1 Peter 2:8).

When all is said and done, their stumbling over Jesus will be their undoing. Because there's simply no other way to God. We can't get around that. We can't deny that. We can't afford to compromise on that truth. There is no other foundation worth building on. Nothing else can survive the flood. There is no other refuge – and we so desperately need a house of refuge. Countless religions and ideologies stumble over Jesus – they have to try to domesticate him somehow to fit him into their scheme, but it just doesn't work. And the end result of this kind of offense-taking and stumbling and falling and being broken is that it ends up in permanent shame when the story gets wrapped up on Judgment Day.

On the other hand, Peter says, Jesus is “chosen and precious” in God's sight. Human ways of thinking may not respect Jesus, they may not honor Jesus, they may not be willing to reorganize themselves around Jesus and build on Jesus – but to God, Jesus is what it's all about! In God's sight, Jesus has infinite value – because Jesus is what God sees when he looks in the mirror. Jesus is his perfect eternal reflection; and, after the Word became flesh, also the perfect worshipper and the perfect human life. Humanity – Jews and Gentiles alike – rejected Jesus to the point of crucifying the Lord of glory. But their act of rejection paved the way for God's act of choosing and honoring. God raised Jesus from the bonds of death and exalted him to glory, displaying his real preciousness forever.

And the words spoken by Isaiah and now quoted by Peter are true: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). It may be the case, as Peter's audience knew firsthand, that some of our neighbors, our family members, our workmates and associates, our fellow citizens, and others will mock us. They'll think it weird that we follow Jesus. I mean, don't we know that it's 2017, which I guess is supposed to mean something? Don't we know that religion is toxic and outdated and bad for you and bad for society? If we believe in Jesus, if we trust and follow him, then we don't quite fit in. Oh, sure, American society, Lancaster County society, is still ready to tolerate the general forms of piety. But if you actually take him seriously, if you actually treat him as your entire foundation, if you wrap your life up in his preciousness and make him the standard for all your deeds and all your words? Well, in the eyes of many, that's pretty freaky.

And yet, Peter says, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” – not when the story gets wrapped up, and the veil is torn away, and the flood comes in full, and everything else is washed away, and nothing matters except how things are in God's sight on Judgment Day. And when that day comes, then the only place to stand unashamed is on a foundation God deems “chosen and precious.” That's the only place left to stand. Peter adds, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Peter 2:7). Not only will you stand unashamed, but if you're standing on the only chosen and precious foundation, which is Jesus Christ, you will be honored. If people don't respect you now, you'll sure see God's respect for you then – and if you could only see it, you're already honored in his sight. It's behind the veil; all that waits is the unveiling, and the final rescue operation, and the coming together of us and our imperishable and undefiled and unfading inheritance (1 Peter 1:4-5).

What's more, Peter says that, as we approach Jesus as the Living Stone that's foundational, we too are “living stones” – we're conformed to his image. We are hardy building-blocks, and we're connected to his invincible life. But what's God building? Peter tells us: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). And in light of all the verses he's quoting, it doesn't take a genius to realize: when Peter says 'spiritual house,' he's talking about a temple! That temple, that house of refuge, built on the foundation – we are that! You are a stone being installed in a temple that's undergoing an expansion. Like Jesus, the powers-that-be in this world may look at you and think you're unfit. You may have internalized that perspective, maybe – you might wonder if you're good for anything, if you're useful, if you matter. And God's answer is, “Yes!” It is as plain as that: you matter, because you are one of the gilded, beautiful stones being cut for God's temple. You belong to God's grand construction project.

More on that shortly. Peter adds that, unlike those who stumble over Jesus, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9) – these are all phrases referencing Israel's mission in the Old Testament, which in the end took the one Faithful Israelite named Jesus to really carry out. God said to Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Peter is casting us in that role! We are God's holy nation. We are God's treasured possession among all peoples – and, in these days of the new covenant, drawn from all peoples.

Peter adds that, just like Israel at Sinai had been delivered from Egypt “on eagles' wings” to be brought to God, so we – like the afflicted worshipper running to the temple for safety in Psalm 118 – have received mercy and have been called “out of darkness into [God's] marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Now that's redemption! You once were in darkness; you once were afflicted; you once were far-off. Now you live near to God, seeing his marvelous doings; and the LORD's light shines on you. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

And so, as God's mercy-receiving, light-basking people, he asks a few things of us. First, to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Those things – things like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander, and other vices – have to be put away, because they weigh us down for our journey, and they clutter up the temple with dirty nonsense. Avoid them, abstain from them, because they are the real enemy – not a politician, not a pundit, not a professor, not a persecutor, but perilous passions.

Second, “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Peter's a realist: he knows that people are going to speak against us as evildoers. Think of today's trendy words: 'Intolerant,' 'deluded,' 'wicked,' 'hateful,' 'bigoted.' Follow Jesus, and people will speak against you as evildoers. But don't give them any unnecessary ammo! Do good deeds, and behave honorably, so that they've got no excuse for their accusations. Be a living witness to your living hope.

Third, “proclaim the excellencies of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). That is, after all, why you, just like Jesus, were chosen in him. You were chosen to proclaim how very excellent God is! And that's not something you can do by keeping quiet. Proclaim it, not just when singing between the stained glass, but in daily conversation in daily life. The psalmist said, “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you” (Psalm 118:28). Be that!

And fourth, offer yourselves to God. He calls you his “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We're to present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Each and every one of you, if you believe, belongs to a holy priesthood. As the guy behind the pulpit, I don't have a monopoly on that word, 'priest.' You are a priesthood. You are a holy priesthood. And your purpose is to offer spiritual sacrifices through Jesus, the kind that God will accept, of lips and lives.

That's what we're built up as a living temple for. You may seem like a worldly misfit sometimes, but all the more reason you belong here. Like Solomon's Temple, even 'foreigners' – strangers to country and strangers to God – should be able to come and meet God in our midst, and have their prayers heard when they face us. We are built as a house of refuge, a sanctuary, firmly fixed to our Foundation. We should be filled with God's light. But are we? Are we firmly built on this one foundation? Are we living as an organic outgrowth of Christ the Living Stone? Do we offer refuge to all who might wander into our midst – not just on a Sunday morning, but all week long? And can 'foreigners' encounter God and his “sweet, fat grace” among us? Are we offering those spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the excellencies of the Light-Bringer and Temple-Builder? Because, make no mistake: however small in number the stones here may be, we here at Pequea are part of God's construction project. May we be what can make our Temple-Builder, the God of Holy Wisdom, honestly look down at us and say: “O Solomon, O Justinian, I have outdone you!” Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Living Out a Living Hope: Sermon on 1 Peter 1:6-25

The boy had a thousand miles yet to go. His whole world had been turned upside-down... when the guns came, and the bombs came. Like Fr. Balakian whom we met last week, the boy had to escape what sounded like sure death – though in the journey ahead, the boy was less sure of finding Fr. Balakian's “indestructible hope of salvation.” The boy missed his father. He missed his mother. He missed his little brother and his sisters. He and the others did their best to move only by night. During the day, the sun overhead was just too hot to be safe. And the soldiers might see them. Without shoes or supplies, they trudged through the bush, the grasslands, the desert, the swamps and rivers; braved crocodiles and lions and serpents; wandered through the territories of tribes who survived only by kidnapping the unwary; and the survivors withstood disease and deprivation as thousands fell before and behind them. But though the journey was filled with predators and soldiers and enemies, and though they could travel only by night, and though they seldom could settle anywhere for long, still the boy and thousands of other men, women, and especially children marched on. And he said:

We roamed the desert for forty days from Sudan to Ethiopia with no food to eat and no water to drink. We still experienced God's grace and blessings as he sustained us through very dire circumstances. Despite our strenuous circumstances, we did experience God's marvelous grace in ways that were beyond measure. He protected us from several tribal groups that were all out to steal what little resources we had, and he protected us from others who were determined to kill us all. Though many of us were killed and we were constantly facing attack, God provided the rest of us with shelter, sometimes in a refugee camp or in the bush, and he graciously provided us with songs in the midst of our sorrows.

Those are the words of my friend Jacob – who was that little boy walking the wilderness by night. You can learn a bit more about his story, and his ministry of Africa Sunrise Communities, in the upcoming month's church newsletter. Looking back on those first months after he fled the powers of death that came to his village, Jacob sees the link between his experiences and those of another group of men, women, and children who wandered through the desert and braved serpents and hostile tribes as they fled the powers of death in Egypt. The Israelites of the exodus generation, at least, had had plenty of time to prepare! And they prepared through a ritual called the Passover, a meal with an unblemished lamb sacrificed to save them by its blood (Exodus 12:5), whose meat they were to eat with their loins girded to go (Exodus 12:11). And when their deliverance came and they escaped the powers of death that were descending upon them, they praised their God for having redeemed them and led them (Exodus 15:13). In return, out in the desert, this God led them, established a covenant between him and them, and insisted on their holiness for the long journey to their destination: their inheritance, the land of promise.

Sound familiar? It should – and not only from the pages of Exodus and Leviticus. It should sound familiar also because the Apostle Peter, whose letter we started reading together last week, sees his hearers – and us today – as on a similar journey. The journey begins, he says, with an unblemished Passover Lamb whose blood saves us. Only Peter says that the real deal is no mere livestock one might barter or trade for currency or favor: no, our ransom, our redemption, came “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Our journey begins with nothing less than the death of Jesus, whose perfection takes the place of the lamb. And like the lamb's blood protected the Israelites from the Angel of Death, so Jesus' precious blood – more valuable and imperishable than silver or gold or cattle or any costly thing – is what redeems us. That word means 'bought back' or 'set free,' loosed from the chains of slavery and returned to original ownership. And that is exactly how our journey starts. Like the exodus people, we have been redeemed! (How we love to proclaim it!) And it's all thanks to the “precious blood of Christ.”

But unlike the many Passover lambs sacrificed for each household in those days, the one perfect Passover Lamb for us all didn't stay dead. Peter tells us: “God … raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21) – and because of this resurrection, our faith is made possible. Through Jesus, who was made manifest in our last days for our sake, Peter says, we are made able to believe in God in a new way. We have experienced his power, his goodness, for ourselves. Everything the old Passover and old Exodus foreshadowed, is precisely our journey.

Peter explains that even the angels of God in heaven are curious about the mysteries that have been unfolding in and around us, and the prophets of old tried their very best to puzzle out the things we've experienced firsthand – but what they predicted from afar through the Spirit has been announced to us in the gospel by the same Spirit from heaven, because the ancient prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, and all the rest – they were only serving us (1 Peter 1:10-12). Jesus Christ, foreknown before the foundation of the world, was finally made manifest for us, for our sake (1 Peter 1:20). It was for us that it finally happened – for you, these things over which prophets puzzled and angels yearned.

That's what set off our new exodus journey. Things are different now. Before our redemption, we were in a bad place. Peter tells us that. We may have thought things were fine, but we see it now. Peter describes our past as a state of slavery to “the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). At one time, we were ignorant – we didn't know God, didn't know the truth, had not yet tasted and seen for ourselves. We were wrapped up in our desires for things that just weren't good for us.

Peter talks also about “the futile ways inherited from your fathers” (1 Peter 1:18). That's a bold way to talk in a world where tradition was everything! But it's the truth. My friend Jacob tells in his memoir about how, when the people of his tribe become believers, they are “set free from the tribal rituals and the powers of their evil spirits through Jesus Christ, who cleanses us from all our sins and makes us holy in God's sight,” giving them “fellowship with God rather than with our ancestral spirits and customs.” But the same is true for us. We, too, have plenty of customs – especially those of us who are Pennsylvania Dutch! And some of those customs are fine things! But when they become an encompassing way of life, they can weigh us down when the journey requires us to pack light.

And not every custom or tradition is good. Especially those that entangle us with the spirits of the past. We may not have rituals geared around reverencing the literal spirits of our ancestors, but we do tend to cling to tradition – to the way things used to be, the music that once was, the influences that went before us. Again, not always and universally bad, but when it weighs us down for the journey or detracts from the sole glory of God in Christ, that's a problem. And whether we've inherited them or forged them on our own, some of our pre-Christian or extra-Christian or anti-Christian habits are indeed “futile ways” – they're pointless, they're fruitless, they're empty, they achieve nothing of value for us. Rely on them, cling to them, and you'll stumble and fall and be devoured.

Now, Peter says, we've been “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't the people we used to be – so it's silly to live like we are, to say the least! We have been re-begotten, born all over again, built from new stuff. Peter calls it being “born again, not of perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” which unlike all fleshly and mortal things “remains forever. And this, moreover, is the word that was evangelized to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25). The very gospel we heard, the good news about our redemption through the precious blood of Christ – that's the stuff we're made of now. If we're made out of gospel stuff now, how could we ever live the same? How could we ever go back to pointless paths handed down or to the passions of former ignorance? We're on a journey – not to refuge in Ethiopia or Kenya or America, not to the earthly land of Canaan, but to the greater promised land of the new creation, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4-5).

There's no sense in trying to turn back the clock – not to go back to Egypt, or the war zone, or the futile ways we inherited. Only death lies that way. We must keep marching on toward our inheritance. We must stay sure and confident of the salvation that will be revealed. It's already ready, hidden behind the veil with Christ; all that remains is the unveiling. In the meantime, when it comes to living out our “living hope,” we can't afford to go without supplies – not outward clothes and tools and provisions, but the six spiritual supplies Peter sketches for our journey.

First, as should come to no one's surprise, is hope itself. The entire Christian life is summed up in hope! But it's also our first supply. For Peter, what it means to be a believer, what it means to have an active relationship with God, means that “your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21). Our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is not in our inner strength. Our hope is not in our works. Our hope is not in what we earn. Our hope is not in the changing winds of political fortunes or in the economy getting a pick-me-up. Our hope is not in our family, or our hobbies, or in keeping busy, or in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or in retirement or vacation or the lottery or anything else. Our hope is in God – period, full stop, end of sentence, no more need be said. To whatever extent your hope is anchored elsewhere, to that extent you're holding back from being a full believer.

Peter insists: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13) – a grace we've nibbled on here and now and found it amazingly satisfying, but which we'll find so much fuller on that day. That is where our hope must lie completely – we need to be all-in. To that end, Peter tells us, “gird up the loins of your mind and be sober-minded” – that's a description of what has to happen for us to set our hope fully on God's grace in Christ. Gird up your loins – that's what the Israelites had to do when they ate the Passover meal (Exodus 12:11). It means having the hem of your robe tucked into your belt so you're ready to run, ready to work. Today, we might just as well talk about rolling up the sleeves of your brain. Be equipped to think clearly; don't be distracted or weighed down when everything's on the line – because it is. Only by thinking clearly, only with conscious effort and reason, can we strip away our encumbrances and set our hope fully on the God who unveils himself as grace. And that hope is the first supply you need for this trip.

The second supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is purity. He talks about “having purified your souls,” and about the importance of a “pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). In today's culture, 'purity' can almost be a bad word at times. And we've played our part in giving purity a bad name. But to be pure is simply to be clean; purity is cleanliness – not necessarily in the modern hygienic sense, but in a deeper sense. A pure heart is what it takes to see God (Matthew 5:8; cf. Psalm 24:4). “Truly God is good to … those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1), to anyone “who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4). That's what purity of heart and soul begins with – avoiding idolatry, even the subtle kind, and not entangling ourselves with deceit or falsehood of any sort – including the idolatrous untruthfulness that stems from ingratitude (Romans 1:21).

But Proverbs asks us, “Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin'?” (Proverbs 20:9). Perfect purity is not within our unaided reach – it's a gift of God's grace, but one we need to cultivate and maintain for our journey to a pure inheritance. As we go, we need to keep our hearts clean from compromise with untruth. That doesn't mean being a zealot or bigot or dogmatist; it means being loyal to God, avoiding the attitudes and actions in us that might be a stain in his sight.

Speaking of which, the third supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is holiness. “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as the One who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:14-16; cf. Leviticus 11:44-45). What does it mean to be holy? Literally, it means to be 'other'; it means to be abnormal; it means to be special and set apart and above what most things are. It means separation from ordinariness, but the emphasis is that what's holy is separated unto total devotion to God.

God is holy because his transcendent power and goodness are totally distinct, separate, from this world we're used to. And we're holy when we're totally reserved for his purposes. “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). In Leviticus, that kind of language mainly revolved around the food laws (Leviticus 11) and occasionally social order, sacrifice, and spiritual devotion (Leviticus 19:1-8). For us, it relates to “all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). Living out our living hope for the journey means that, in everything we do, we should be totally reserved for God's purposes – not letting our own agendas get in the way. They run the risk of weighing us down when we're to be on the move.

The fourth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is – and this one may surprise you – fear. But when he says that, he doesn't mean fear of the danger on the journey – fear of crocodiles and pythons and lions, fear of blazing sun and hostile tribes. What Peter means is fear of God, as in, a healthy awe and reverence for a God who deserves our respect. Peter observes that God “judges impartially according to each one's deeds” – that's an intimidating thought – and urges us to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your temporary residence” (1 Peter 1:17). As in, during our journey, the way we behave should be one that reverences God, one that goes to pains to carefully behave in a way that pleases our Judge.

Similarly, the fifth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is obedience. And here we relate, not as subjects to a Judge, but as children to a Father. And that is exactly who God offers himself to us as: “Our Father, who art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Peter urges us to be “obedient children” (1 Peter 1:14). He notes that we “call on him” – our God and Judge – also “as Father” (1 Peter 1:17). God is the One who has re-begotten us (1 Peter 1:23). And the only way our souls will be purified is by “obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22), which in this case is the true word of the gospel that is announced in our day (1 Peter 1:25). When we know the truth, it demands action in accordance with it. And fulfilling that action is obedience.

Literally, obedience is submitting beneath what is heard, submitting to what God our Father says by complying with it. Obedience is not just an Old Testament thing. It's essential to our journey. If God is the one leading the way, then if we disobey, we run the risk of venturing off the path, slowing everybody around us down, and getting tangled up in danger – and if we desert the way altogether, we might lose faith and fall in the desert and fail to reach our destined inheritance. What God tells us – about money, about relationships, about hospitality, about honesty – all calls out for our obedience, for our own good in our journey.

And then the sixth supply Peter tells us to take on our journey is love. That love is first and foremost for the One who made our journey possible: our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, slain as our Passover Lamb but raised again to be given glory. “Though you have not seen him,” Peter says, “you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him” (1 Peter 1:8). We don't presently see Jesus – though, Peter hints, one day we will, which is a mind-blowing thought, or at least it is to me. And yet we love him. We love him because, though we don't yet see him, we belong to him; we've experienced his grace; we know his love is shepherding us along our way, and we couldn't make it on our journey without him. So we love him.

But our love is also, scarcely beneath our love for Jesus, also love for each other. Peter tells us that obedience to the truth aids us in purifying our souls, but the purpose is “for a sincere brotherly love.” What we're to do with a pure heart is to “love one another earnestly” (1 Peter 1:22). Maybe you could render that, “Give each other a love that's fully extended, a love that's stretched all the way out.” Brothers and sisters, we need to love each other – it's a command, and also a delight.

Yes, I know – sometimes our brothers and sisters in Christ do less-than-lovable things, or have less-than-lovable habits and quirks. Sometimes, we and our fellow sojourners can be pretty prickly and not all that inspiring. Sometimes it's easier not to love one another – to just drop into each other's worlds temporarily with minimal investment. I know a woman who once told me that the reason she started attending a megachurch was so that she wouldn't have to be involved with anybody; nobody would know who she was, and nobody would love her enough to keep her accountable if she went missing. But that is not the life God commands of us. We're to give each other a love that's stretched all the way out – stretched out far enough to cover every sin, stretched out far enough to forgive every fault, stretched out far enough to lend any hand... stretched out with the outstretched arms of a crucified Savior. For this journey, you've got to love one another.

Hope, purity, holiness, fear, obedience, love – six supplies for the journey. That may sound like a lot to bring – but considering the baggage we walk around with every day, it's actually packing quite efficiently! Don't pack all that other junk, handed down or acquired along the way – you're redeemed from that former ignorance and those futile ways. Instead, pack these six things. That's how we'll live out our living hope along the way. And I won't tell you that this journey is easy. Neither will Peter. The specific local Christian communities he was writing to had been enduring prejudice and marginalization for their faith. Peter acknowledges that they've been “grieved by various trials.” And so have we. There are few families affiliated with this congregation who haven't undergone one of various trials in the past couple years – and been, in many cases, quite grieved by it. That's natural. That's normal. That's our journey.

But Peter reminds us, it's only “now for a little while.” And besides, they serve a needful purpose: to test and verify the “genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). The image is of a quality-test: gold being evaluated in its purity by how much heat it can stand. And if that goes for perishable gold, how much more for the imperishable life that's brought to life in us by faith? So our faith's quality is tested, evaluated, by fire in our various trials. But hard as that may be when you're the one passing through the fire, it's a good thing! It's good because, Peter says, “the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).

Our trial-tested faith brings glory to Jesus – woohoo! – and it will be an honor to us – yeehaw! And so that brings us to one last supply for the journey: joy. In light of the final salvation that's ready to be revealed, Peter tells us that the faithful will “rejoice” in spite of their present temporary trials (1 Peter 1:6). And although our faith hasn't yet been made sight, we “believe in [Christ] and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). The word for 'rejoice' here – literally, it means a lot of jumping around and celebrating! In spite of our trials, in spite of the hiddenness of Jesus' glory from our view, yet by faith we anchor our hope in him and leap for joy!

And that joy is our seventh supply to round out the bunch. It's a supply that lightens the whole load when you add it. And you can have it because, in Jesus, you “obtain the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Though the journey is long and challenging, we go with joy, because like my friend Jacob said, God has “graciously provided us with songs in the midst of our sorrows.” And so, like Fr. Balakian, we may “remain excited by the indestructible hope of salvation.” Thanks be to God! May we all be supplied sevenfold for the journey of the redeemed, as we live out our living hope. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Born Again to a Living Hope: Sermon on 1 Peter 1:1-5

His heart was pounding. The morning was still dark, save for the first touches of dawn coming over the snowy summit of distant Mount Ararat. The rain in Islahiye, a railway town on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, had been falling for fifteen hours by now. And Fr. Grigoris Balakian had only one thought on his mind: escape. Like the Prophet Ezekiel long before him, he was an exile far from home. An Armenian priest, rounded up and arrested in Constantinople and taken for a long march across Turkey, destined for the Syrian desert. The Reverend Father wasn't alone. They all were starved and dehydrated, and traumatized by the things they'd seen and heard. Scenes of massacre. Reports of death squads and eyeless bodies, cannibals and vultures. Fr. Balakian's blood had chilled when an eyewitness claimed the police soldiers were complicit. And he knew he had to escape.

And so on that rained-out morning in April 1916, in the thick of the genocide against his people, Fr. Balakian prepared a disguise, crept off a train, threw aside his priestly overcoat under cover of darkness, knelt for a brief prayer, met up with two other escapees, and rushed into the forest, bound for the mountains and the life of a fugitive living under a false identity as a German engineer. And what gave Grigoris Balakian, vartabed in the Armenian Apostolic Church, the courage and determination to escape, for he and his compatriots to put themselves “in the good Lord's hands” and confidently walk for hours into the unknown? In his own words, “we banished every pessimistic thought and remained excited by the indestructible hope of salvation.”

Hope is a powerful thing. And in hard times especially, you dare not lose it – or you might not make it through. Fr. Balakian knew that. And many centuries earlier, scattered throughout the very lands through which he and his friends had been made to march on their way down to Islahiye, a beleaguered network of local Christian communities in cities and villages were likewise struggling to hang on to hope. They were facing hard times – abused, robbed, harassed, mocked, socially excluded, hearing reports of violence against Christians, fearing no guarantee of the protection of law. And they weren't sure they could keep holding on to hope – maybe you know the feeling. Would their hope prove so indestructible as what Fr. Balakian would find?

It was into a situation like that that a letter began making the rounds, village to village, through five provinces in what today we'd call Turkey. The letter carried the voice of none other than Simon Peter, a recent arrival in the empire's capital, with help from Paul's colleague Silvanus. And this letter from “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” made its rounds through Christian communities scattered in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” We don't know much about those who read it. Scholars can't agree whether they were mainly Jewish or mainly Gentile. Scholars can't agree whether they first met Peter during a missionary journey he took through those provinces decades earlier or whether they were deported there from Rome. But they didn't fit in. They were looked on as outsiders to the place they called home. And they were scared and suffering through fiery trials. And so Peter wrote to them, with a compassionate heart to feed Christ's frightened lambs.

And he called them something strange. “Elect exiles,” maybe your Bible says (1 Peter 1:1). On the one hand, they were outcasts. They were foreigners. They didn't belong. Geographically or socially, they were far, far from the center of things. The word Peter uses here – it suggests people who are not permanent residents. They come, they settle for a little while, and they move along. They're in temporary housing, in other words. And that's who these believers are. The place where they find themselves, where they struggle to fit in and lay low, this whole society, is just temporary housing for them; they have no lasting place there. And it would be easy to conclude, as most of their neighbors surely did and as maybe some of them did, that they were unimportant. That they didn't matter. And yet Peter adds the word 'elect' – 'chosen.' The outsiders had been handpicked for rescue, for obedient living, for life-changing and world-changing things orchestrated by Father and Son and Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:2).

That's true of us, too, by the way. We have a lot to learn from Peter's letter. I admit, we live in a cozy place. A place where the professing Christians are many – so many, I have a hard time around here finding too many people who don't claim to be one! And that sounds very unlike what this letter's original audience was living through. But it still only masks the truth: we're in temporary housing. Relative to the larger society, we won't quite fit in – not if we take Jesus seriously. And in the grip of a big culture – big politics, big business, big media, big entertainment and all sorts of other industries and institutions and forces at work in the twenty-first century world – it would be easy for us to conclude that, because we're outside the mainstream and because we live in a seldom-considered, out-of-the-way place, that we're unimportant. But we, too, are God's elect – we're chosen, handpicked, by the Trinity for life-changing and world-changing things. And the same deep truths that Peter unpacks for Christian villagers then, he unpacks for believing villagers and town-dwellers now – whether we live in Pontus or Salisbury Township, Bithynia or Leacock, Galatia or East Earl.

And the first deep truth he gets to is that God, “according to his great mercy, has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). He uses a weird, rare word – literally, God has caused us to be re-begotten, to be conceived and born all over again. And Peter goes on to say that we've been “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), which is the good news of Jesus. It's a strange-sounding thing to say. But what Peter is saying is a radical thing he first heard from his Master. 'Born again' – we use those words so flippantly, we're so comfortable with them, we miss what they mean. In the world where Peter lived, who you were – your character, your status, your identity – was in large part fixed at birth. There was no such thing as change, no such thing as reinventing yourself. Who you were born to be is who you were. Birth is destiny.

And then along comes this strange group of outcasts who start talking about being born again – getting a new identity, totally restructured – not a fake identity, like the German soldier Fr. Balakian posed as, but a real new identity, a new self, a new life. A new self made of a new stuff – that's what Peter means when he talks about 'imperishable seed.' Jesus died for you – and his blood was sprinkled to seal a new covenant. And then he rose from the dead. That's the crux of the gospel – it's the living and abiding word of God – and it's the power through which we can be re-begotten. If you believe, if you trust, if you follow Jesus, if you've given your life to him and let him tear it down and give you a new one, that's exactly what's happened to you. That's what it means to be born again. You are not your past. You are not who you were. You are not what you've done. In being born again, all your old shame, all your past sins, belong to someone who no longer exists. What you were born to be the first time around – it doesn't matter. If you were born and raised into the farm life, into riches or poverty, into slavery or prejudice, into drugs or crime – whatever it was, you are re-begotten through the resurrection of Jesus, a Messiah who left the company of the dead behind and raced into an indestructible life. You are not who you were.  You are forever new.

What's more, Peter says, you are re-begotten, born again, to an inheritance. The word he used here is the same one Greek-speaking Jews used when they retold the story of their ancestors approaching the Promised Land, the fruitful place promised to their fathers where they could put down roots and live in peace, after all their listless wanderings. That was their inheritance, and all the generous bounty contained within it – sweet water, planted trees, walled cities, great treasure, all ready for inheriting. The Promised Land and all it holds – that was what they meant by their inheritance. 

And Peter turns to these rootless Christians, excluded and unwelcomed in their society, possibly already deported once and with the prospect of more sufferings to come, and he says: You have an inheritance, too. You have a homeland all your own, with all that's in it. Only it's not one patch of dirt in the Middle East. No, it's much better. Unlike your property here, it's imperishable – it won't wither, won't die out, won't collapse or shrivel. Unlike the stuff you're used to, it can't be contaminated, can't spoil, can't go bad, can't be corrupted or damaged or polluted. Unlike this world's lands and things, it can't be extinguished, can't be snuffed out, can't be stolen or supplanted. 

This inheritance is “imperishable and undefiled and unfading” – three words Peter uses that, among Greek thinkers, described the realm of the gods. And Peter says that's what their homeland is. It's the new creation, the pattern and quality of the new heaven and new earth; and already, it's safeguarded in God's heavenly storehouse, beyond the reach of earthly powers, where neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves break in and steal (1 Peter 1:4; cf. Matthew 6:20). That's what we have waiting for us – what we'll find when it comes busting out of storage for us. It's on lay-away. You have an inheritance. No one will fight you for it. No one will steal it. No one will break it. No one will ruin it. It won't die, it won't fade, it won't get old. None of that is possible. No matter what happens to your land or house or property here, you have something divine waiting for you – a place you can really call 'home.'

What's more, in the middle of our suffering, in the middle of our worldly exclusion, in the middle of our doubts and questions and anxieties and fears, Peter tells us that there's a rescue operation on the horizon – words that must have been music to Fr. Balakian's ears a century ago. It's a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” Peter says. This big rescue, this big 'yes' to whom we are in Christ, is already set. God has no need of further planning. Unlike your pastor, he doesn't procrastinate! God has no need to work out further logistics. God has no need to gather supplies. This big rescue is ready. It's complete, finished. All that remains is implementation – or, as Peter says, unveiling. Like at a magic show, the real work of the trick is already done; all that has to happen is for the curtain the assistants are holding up to be dropped to the floor, revealing the astounding change that's already taken place. And the unveiling is scheduled for “the last time,” the final hour.

All God asks of us is faith – faith to keep watching, faith not to turn around or leave the theater and miss the big reveal. Faith like a faith that makes a dangerous escape on an unknown forest road in the rain. Fr. Balakian himself said: “What saved me was not an unreserved belief in fate, but rather pure faith in providence. Therefore I had to walk with powerful faith toward final salvation.” So must we. And when we have that faith, we are protected by the power of God – that's what Peter says. Read it for yourself: We “by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Our inheritance, our promised homeland, is securely stored in the heavens. But even better news is that you are just as securely safeguarded – watched over diligently and protected – as your inheritance. Keep living by faith, and the chance of missing it is zero. You have been chosen to be re-begotten into a new life with an inheritance waiting in store and a rescue operation that's in the wings – you are not neglected, not unseen. God has his eyes trained on you like a hawk, and nothing you go through goes unnoticed. And he will protect you for what's to come.

And in the meantime, Peter says, we've been born again to “a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). He doesn't say 'a dead hope,' one that's long since been crushed and defeated. He doesn't say 'an extinct hope,' one that came to pass but has gone by and is relevant no longer. He doesn't say 'an unborn hope,' one not even yet conceived, a hope in the future with no relation to now. He says 'a living hope' – alive and present here and now. Final salvation already exists, on the other side of the curtain, where we gaze in faith. And because of that, it totally changes the terrain, and totally changes who we are and how we live.

Hope is a synonym for the Christian life. For the new identity you have as someone born again. You relate in faith, not to a passing society or a fleeting arrangement of the world, but to a God who has the final word – and has already whispered it behind the curtain. Our whole reborn existence is a living declaration of hope. Just like the Reverend Father Grigoris Balakian, whose escape from the train and life as a fugitive was possible because he “remained excited by the indestructible hope of salvation,” that's what your life is like. You must “walk with powerful faith toward final salvation.” You have every reason to be excited by an indestructible hope of salvation. Your whole life consists in exactly such a hope, right here, right now, alive and well and free.

Peter's entire letter is going to unpack that for us, in so many different ways, as we'll see in the coming months. He'll teach us, as people who don't fit in, what it looks like when an “indestructible hope of salvation” is alive in us, here and now. In these few verses, he's just laid the groundwork. You may question your significance, you may feel excluded, you may wonder if there's a place for you anywhere, you may struggle to keep your head above the water, you may look around at all your fleeting things as they fall apart and become obsolete and you wonder if there's any real inheritance to be had or any hope to live for or any way to be free of who you've been.

And the answer is yes. Through no effort of your own, no planning by you, God has “caused you to be re-begotten to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that's imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice,” in spite of any present trials! And with that ahead of us, as guaranteed by the living and abiding word of God through which our new life came, “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who took one look at us and had great mercy indeed (1 Peter 1:3-6). All praise and glory to God! “May grace and peace be multiplied to you” all. Amen.