Lately when I've been here, I've been focusing on working through one chapter of scripture: 1 Peter 2. Four weeks ago, we looked at the first three verses, and one thing we learned was how important it is for us to be challenged and forced to really think and ask the hard questions when we're sharing our spiritual thoughts with each other, even here at prayer meeting. If we don't do the hard work, we can't grow. And all of us need to grow. God wants to transform us, not leave us behind. God wants us to walk with him, and a walk means progressing forward. Two weeks ago, we looked at the next set of verses, and we learned that we're called to be the one holy temple and royal priesthood of God on the earth. All of us are responsible to be together a holy union where people can come to experience the glory of God in Christ and to receive the power of the Spirit. We don't have this kind of privilege and responsibility by birthright. We're sinners called from all walks of life. But now we form one temple, and we have to let God be manifest in our midst. We're called to offer up our praise and service to God as a priestly sacrifice, and to give thanks to God, because it's only as members of the body of Christ that we can be royal priests, not on our own.
Too often, all of these lessons pass us by. Too often, we Christians are content to live on milk for life and to take our limited spiritual food through the IV of broken-down devotionals. Too often, we fear stepping outside of our traditional comfort zones, and we let our complacency and our ways of doing church get in the way of maturing spiritually. Too often, we Christians make it almost impossible to experience God among us. Too often, we get in Christ's way with our division, our squabbling, our rabbit trails, our personal agendas, and our laziness. Too often, we reflect the secular rather than the sacred, instead of reflecting the sacred to the secular. Too often, we model our priestly service on Cain's offering instead of Abel's – we don't give God the firstfruits of our praise, the best of our service, but just toss him a few cheap afterthoughts and expect God to thank us for it as if we were doing him a favor. And too often, we forget the grace that saved us and look down on those who are where we all were – and especially those who commit the apparently unforgivable offense of doing sins that look different than our favorite sins! Too often, we forget that we're both unpolished blocks and the temple of God's presence for all the world.
We need to keep those lessons fresh in our minds. They're part of what God is teaching us through Peter. We sometimes think that we can just drop in on a passage of scripture without reading what else the author has been saying up to that point, and we can get into trouble by doing that. This week, remembering what came before it, we can pick up where we left off and see just how much Peter has packed into the next two verses:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” [[1 Peter 2:11-12]]
Peter has already been talking about our identity as far as Christ is concerned. Being in Christ means being royalty in the kingdom and a priesthood in the kingdom and a temple in the kingdom. Note: 'in the kingdom'. What about 'in the world'? What does being in Christ mean for our position in society? Look at the words Peter uses. 'Foreigners'. 'Exiles'. See, our citizenship isn't really in the world, not our first allegiance. When we look at the world around us, we aren't supposed to think of it as 'home' anymore. This world, as it now is, is not our home. It isn't our native country. We aren't citizens of this world in this age. We're citizens of God's monarchy. Or, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven”, not in earthly places. And, he continues, from heaven will come a Savior who will take our lowly bodies and make them glorious bodies like the one he already has.
So this world isn't our home, and our citizenship isn't here. We live in this world as nomads. We wander to and fro, passing through. Our investments aren't here, or at least they shouldn't be. Our allegiance isn't here, or at least it shouldn't be. We are every much as foreign here as someone who lives in this country on a temporary visa. We aren't the natives. We're ambassadors from somewhere else. And an ambassador of the kingdom of Jesus the sinless 'last Adam' is not supposed to live like a citizen of the kingdom of the fallen 'first Adam'.
Now, it's easy to misread what Peter is saying here. When I say “this world”, I don't mean “this planet”, the earth that God created. I do not mean that we don't belong with our feet on solid dirt. I do not mean that our goal is to leave our bodies behind and live forever as spirits with harps on clouds somewhere way, way out there, far away from this place. No, that's not what we're talking about. If we mean by 'heaven' the place where God is now, somewhere separate from the earth we're currently living on, then 'heaven' is not our end goal. The Bible teaches us that we will be resurrected, raised bodily from the dead when our spirits return to what remains of our bodies. (After all, we just quoted Paul saying that Jesus will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” [Philippians 3:21] – the body that was lowly ceases to be lowly and becomes glorious, so clearly what gets discarded is the lowly status, not the body itself!) That's why, while the Greeks and Romans who rejected the idea of resurrection sometimes cremated their dead, early Jews and Christians buried their bodies in the ground. It was the people of God's way of bearing witness to the world that there's no need to 'burn their bridges' with the body, because God isn't done with it yet! So even though they knew that God can raise a person up as easily from scattered ashes as he can from a skeleton or even a mummy, they wanted to use even death as a chance to point the world to what their real hope was.
So 'escape' to heaven is not the idea that we're working with in the Bible. We can see that plainly at the end of Revelation. The New Jerusalem comes down to earth. The presence of God will be on the earth forever. Earth is not something God will abandon, and it isn't something we will abandon. There will be no more divide between the world where God lives and the world where we will; all will be brought together as one. What God has in store is a healing for the whole earth, a redemption from the fall. God has given us some glimpses into earth-as-it-will-be, and one of our responsibilities right now is to be good stewards of the earth and to help it and everything in it become more like what's to come; our job is to bring a taste of the future 'heaven on earth' into the present world. So when I say, “This world is not our home”, I don't mean that this earth is not our home. I mean that worldly society as it currently exists, in this 'present evil age' (as Paul describes it in Galatians 1:4), is not the society we're made for in Christ. When it comes to that world, we're passing through as pilgrims. And when that world comes to an end at the Last Judgment, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”, says the author of Hebrews (12:28).
So here, we're 'foreigners' and 'exiles', we're 'pilgrims' and 'strangers', we're 'aliens'. Because of that, we have no reason to conform. Fitting in is not part of the Christian job description! People who are citizens of 'this world' give in to their sinful desires. Christians are foreigners who should not. Peter insists that we should “abstain from sinful desires”. If we really did that, wouldn't it be a lot easier to tell the difference between the people of the kingdom and the people of the world? Peter also says that these sinful desires “wage war against your soul”. Our yearnings to sin are not something neutral. They are not something we can establish a nice working relationship with. They are not our friends. In the war that wages in each of us, they are enemy combatants. They are the devil's footsoldiers firing away at our spiritual health, our relationship with God. Show the devil no mercy! Don't concede an inch of ground in your hearts to sinful desires. Don't take the free sample. Don't think that a little sip won't hurt. Sin is like a can of Pringles: once you pop, you just can't stop! Sin is intentionally addictive, and it results in soul decay. That one taste is a dangerous risk. That one taste is not abstinence. And abstinence from giving in to sinful desires is exactly what God calls for, and nothing less. Taking the 'a little bit won't hurt' approach to sin makes no sense. Not if we believe what Peter says about sin waging war against our souls. Who plays flirtatious games with the enemy army? Sampling sin is like letting an enemy soldier put a bullet through you because, after all, it's just one, and it's such a little thing. No one in their right mind would take that approach to any soldier who wages a war against our bodies. Why would we take that approach to what wages war against our souls?
But that approach is exactly the approach taken by many of those who don't believe. Some will relish certain sinful desires, because they don't see the war. They think the enemy soldiers in their souls are on their sides. When they look at their bleeding wounds from messing with sin, they blow them off as decorative! That's the way Peter's audience used to look at the world. They were in sin, and they were in sin deep. But now, Peter says they shouldn't even so much as dabble in it. It's a complete and total 180º.
Peter's advice is this: live good lives among the pagans, or among the non-believers. I think there are two really instructive things in those simple words. The first one is easiest to miss: “live … among the pagans”! There have been so many groups of Christians throughout history who have thought, “If only we could withdraw to our own place, we'd be free from this corruption. If only we had a place where just Christians lived, then we wouldn't have bad influences. We should get out of the bad part of town and spend our time with our new society, the church. If we associate with church people, if our friends are church people, if we work with church people, if we go grocery shopping among church people, if our restaurants are owned by church people, then we'll only have to deal with church people – nice, clean, decent folks we can trust. God's going to judge the world soon enough, and so we'd better withdraw now so that when the hammer falls and makes a big splat, we don't mess up our nice clean shirts with the splatter.” That's the way some Christians think, if they're being honest about it.
Back closer to Peter's time, there was a Jewish group called the Essenes – the ones responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls – who took the same sort of approach and pulled out into the wilderness to live together and wait for God to end the messiness around them. Our county is home to another group with many of the same tendencies: the Amish. But Peter says to live among the pagans. Christians are called to be separate (morally, that is), but not to be separatists. Separating ourselves that way is not a fully Christ-like life, because it misses out on the Incarnation. No, we're supposed to be living among the pagans. We're on a mission to them. Our whole lives are supposed to be caught up in this mission. You know what logically comes before being the hands and feet of Christ among people? The 'among people' part. We have to be very careful that we don't create our own little bubble of a Christian subculture and go live inside the bubble. Christ came to burst our bubbles.
But just saying to 'live among the pagans' isn't enough. The pagans are living among the pagans, and I don't see God patting them on the back for it. So why would God be happy with a person who refers to himself as a 'Christian' and lives among the pagans, but lives a pagan life? What God says here is that we should “live good lives among the pagans”. Remember faith, hope, and love? Remember mercy and grace? Those aren't just fancy church words. They're life words. They're the words for our lives among the pagans. Peter says that we should be living such godly lives that, even when the pagans accuse us of all sorts of nasty things (and, he says, they will), the charges won't stick. Their falsehood will be obvious. There's no guarantee that the pagans we live among won't continue to accuse us of every form of socially unacceptable behavior under the sun, but we can at least live so that no one can say that they have a point! People will see the way we live, and anyone with half an open mind will be able to see that we're motivated by love and grace and want to be a positive influence on the world, almost like we're salt and light or something. That's the way it's supposed to be, at least. That's the idea. God wants us to be mixed in all throughout the world as a living, breathing witness to what he can do with a human life. God wants our holiness to be visible – not so we can take credit for being righteous, like the Pharisees were fond of trying, but so that God can get credit for his holiness rubbing off on us. So how are we living among the pagans? Are we really living in abstinence from everything that wars against our spiritual health? Are we living intentionally in the midst of those who need to meet Jesus? Are we showing Christ's character undeniably in our lives – his holiness, his compassion, his truth, his love, his mercy, his grace? And, most of all, are we doing it all to see God glorified?