Sunday, August 20, 2017

Living Hope for Family Life: Sermon on 1 Peter 3:1-7

Almost every day, the woman wept. This hadn't been the direction she wanted her life to take. This wasn't how she wanted her family to look. She'd married young – she was just a teenager then. She'd been raised as a Christian. But her husband Patricius had not. He was a town councilor and a pagan – not an especially devout pagan, but a pagan all the same. He was skeptical of her faith, resisted her pleas to baptize their children – she almost won that one when her son seemed deathly ill and he gave way, but his recovery put an end to that. And now, while that son was off at school in pagan-dominated Madauros, sliding away from the faith and into the clutches of his pubescent lusts, she was left at home in forest-bedecked Thagaste with her husband Patricius – dealing with his lusts. His constant affairs with one mistress or slave girl after another. It took all the grace God gave her to keep silence over it, both to him and to town gossips.

And his temper! He was a very enthusiastic man. Impulsive. It was his impulsiveness that led him to shower more than they had on their son's education – most men in his tax bracket wouldn't, she knew. But that same impulsiveness gave way to furious outbursts – he was intensely hot-tempered. She knew she was the only one among her friends who avoided domestic violence, but he still was verbally abusive and foul, and he beat the slave-girls. A hot-headed, adulterous pagan husband, perhaps a tad overly fond of wine... a son set adrift and with his faith in peril... and so Monica, the long-suffering wife and mother, saw nothing to do but weep in her room in Thagaste, lift up holy hands to her Father, and pray, and be patient, and strive to preach her God to them through her behavior. What else was a lady to do?

It would be nice, Monica surely thought, to all have harmonious families – to plant the flowers of Eden around every hearth. It would be a beautiful thing for the family to be all united in worshipping God and God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord. It would be wonderful for all faults to be stripped away – for nothing to infringe on the marriage bed, for no storms of temper to roil the household peace, for no demons of criticism and fault-finding to find a place to nest, for the channels of communication to remain clear and sweet with love and forgiveness. But it's not always so. Sometimes we're not so equally yoked. Sometimes our family life seems a counsel of despair. Throughout human history, how many really happy homes have there been? And how many have seemed to be eaten up by moths until the fabric is on the verge of unraveling? It was God's plan for every home's hearth to be surrounded by the sweet flowers of Eden. But east of Eden, our families so often play host to thorn and thistle.

A few centuries before Monica was born, one of her favorite authors – the Apostle Peter – knew that all too well when he wrote his letter to the churches in Anatolia, a land far away from Monica's home forty miles inland from the north African coast. Too many of the believers in first-century Anatolia were in situations not so very unlike hers. And so for Peter, it wasn't enough to give them counsel on how to relate to governing powers, or to society at large, or to their workplaces – we covered all those last Sunday. Peter would also need to address one last locus of human living: the family. He spends only seven verses on it, but his advice has been controversial – his words can be hard to hear, hard to understand. There are a few things we should keep in mind as we read.

First, at the time when Peter wrote, women in Anatolia – Asia Minor – were relatively free, as far as the Roman world goes. Many of these women had educations, they could hold political office, they had more authority to run a household, they had rights. If you had to be a woman in the Roman Empire, well, that was one place to do it. So when Peter advises Christian wives how to behave, this is the baseline.

Second, the local Christian communities Peter was writing to – they included a significant number of female converts who, like Monica, were married to husbands like Patricius who had not converted but were pagans. And so a disproportionate number of Christian women in Peter's audience were in mixed-faith marriage situations – married to unbelievers. This was a social setting where the husband legally had life-and-death authority over all members of his household – that was the ideal of the Roman paterfamilias. And prevailing philosophy convinced men and women alike that women were inferior creatures – Aristotle said they were like deformed men – whose interests could be disregarded and who could be, to a certain extent, controlled. Things weren't quite as bad in Asia Minor as in some places, but still, domestic violence was common and abusive language, adultery, and other offenses against marriage were even more so.

Third, in the Roman world, women were expected to follow their husband's lead in religious matters. The idea of a woman adopting a foreign religion right under her husband's nose was a troublesome one to the Roman mind. One author, Plutarch, said that a woman should befriend her husband's friends, and his best friends were obviously his gods; and therefore it was necessary for every household to be united under a husband's gods and for him to take whatever measures were needed to protect that unity from any cult or superstition – which is exactly how the Romans tended to classify Christianity. So you can imagine what a problem that presented for Christian women who converted after marriage! Their faith itself was seen as a rebellion by their husbands, who would be mocked by their friends and neighbors for inability to control his household's religion.

And so when Peter writes, he has an eye firmly fixed on their situation – one where the gospel is viewed as a home-wrecker and an embarrassment. So Peter encourages the women to live up to Roman gender roles in every other way, so as to counteract the suspicion of rebelliousness their pagan husbands, or pagan onlookers at Christian marriages, might have. The things Peter writes on marriage here, he would have written differently if addressing Adam and Eve on Day Six. But Peter has to keep an eye on preserving peace, calming tensions, and evangelizing the pagan marriage partners in a non-offensive way.

So Peter says, “Likewise, wives, be subject” – that is, defer to – “your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2). That's exactly it. That's the goal. Even if they're in a mixed marriage with an unbeliever who doesn't obey the gospel word, the wife's respectful and pure conduct – faithful, true, without critical harping or defiance, according to Roman standards – may have the best chance to illustrate to their skeptical husbands the value of the gospel, the beauty of Christ. They're to illustrate that, while the gospel may trump their husbands' legal right to control the wife's religion, nevertheless the gospel makes them better wives than ever – so they strategically 'out-Roman' the Romans at it. And the hope is that this kind of peaceful, respectful, pure conduct will quell the storms of marriage, defuse the ticking time bombs of conflict, and perhaps even pave the way to attract their husbands to the gospel – which, as a matter of historical fact, is exactly how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries, often with women converting and then leading their households to Christ.

Again, you might remember from last week: in Peter's mind, the believers at the greatest social disadvantage are actually the ones best positioned to imitate Christ and be rewarded for it. These women, who might be mightily discouraged by their situation, should actually, Peter says, be encouraged – they have a radical opportunity to be united with their Savior, and his whole life on earth was lived to dignify their indignities. These women Peter addresses have a unique opportunity to bear witness to Christ in a non-confrontational way, and to live out what Christ's calling looks like in their difficult station in life. The wives submit to their husbands – again, that was the Roman model for marriage relationships – but not in fulfilling the expectation to worship their husbands' gods or participate in pagan rituals. These women are not to be bullied into that; they are not to be intimidated by however their husbands may react to their faith. Peter urges them to obey, not so much their husbands, but the word of God – and, as spiritual servant-leaders, to perform the priestly duty of inspiring their husbands to do the same.

Peter goes on to add, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). A gentle and quiet spirit certainly is very precious in God's sight – and that goes for both men and women. It's the total opposite of being quarrelsome – a gentle and quiet spirit doesn't stir up trouble. But a gentle and quiet spirit also doesn't nurse resentment within, letting it build up and disturb the spirit until it finally is unleashed on the spouse. A gentle and quiet spirit turns things over to God's own gentle and quiet Spirit to deal with, and then is able to calmly address marriage and family issues at the right time, without a sense of pressure. A marriage involving truly gentle and quiet spirits is a marriage less likely to be pierced by conflicts about money, about behavioral quirks, about one another's faults and flaws.

As for what Peter says about adornment: It was trendy then for well-to-do women to imitate the latest fashions in the street, and elaborate braided hairstyles and exquisite clothes and mounds of gold baubles and jewelry were part and parcel of that. Even some pagan moralists were troubled by it – it seemed like women were in rebellion against their husbands, consuming untold household resources just to look the part of being rich and fashionable. And, truth be told, it's a common temptation today, sometimes for men and women alike: How we dress communicates something, and we might dress in a way that communicates wealth, social status, elegance, glamor, or freedom from social ties. Any fashion magazine is rife with those messages, to say nothing of our cinema and our network TV. Minus the technology, it was no different in Peter's day.

The point is, investing in those messages is a waste of God's resources. Gold, jewels, stylish clothes, fancy hair – that's not what makes someone beautiful. Real beauty radiates internally, and can last far after the clothes have been eaten by moths and the hair has fallen apart and the gold and jewels have been lost or stolen. Peter's talking about an “imperishable beauty,” the kind that radiates out from “the hidden person of the heart” where a “gentle and quiet spirit” makes its home. Instead of a wasteful message of conspicuous consumption, Peter's advice is to communicate something more human – a message of inner strength and inner beauty, which shuns the outward trappings of wealth and status and reclaims the dignity of simplicity. That's good advice for both men and women – but in Peter's day, it also was advice that would reduce marriage friction by taking away one major source of conflict. A Christian wife following this advice would be likely to make an impression for faithfulness and good sense – one that might elicit admiration for the faith that led her to it.

Peter goes on to give an example: “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him 'lord.' And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear any terror” (1 Peter 3:5-6). Looking back through scripture, Peter finds a precedent for the behavior he's asking of these women: it's like Sarah, the mother of the faithful. But there's actually some irony in what Peter's saying. On several of the occasions when Sarah submitted to what Abraham asked, it was precisely when Abraham was being most disobedient and skeptical toward God's word of promise: It was when Sarah was told to say she was Abraham's sister, for his protection against those who lusted after her beauty (cf. Genesis 12:11-13; 20:2). There is one occasion when Sarah refers to Abraham as 'lord,' which was a common word for husbands at that time – but when she says it, she's being sarcastic! It's when she overhears God say she'll bear a son, and she laughs while eavesdropping and scoffs at how “my lord is old” (Genesis 18:12). The only obedience Abraham asks of her there is baking some bread for the heavenly guests (Genesis 18:6). Not only does Genesis depict her obeying him, it flat-out says that “Abram obeyed the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2).

Unquestioning, one-directional obedience is not Peter's vision for the ideal marriage. It can't be, because Peter knows how to read, and that's not what the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was like. Sarah submitted to Abraham, treated him with all the deference due to a husband in her culture; she was loyal and faithful to him whatever happened, even when he wasn't being terribly bright; she did as he asked, but also gave him advice and received his obedience in return.

She never let Abraham's authority intimidate her, nor did she let herself be cowed by the perilous situations they got into. But instead, her faith grew alongside his, so that from her former state of scoffing, she learned how to entrust herself totally to God. The both of them did – and so Sarah is described as a holy woman who “hoped in God” – her lifestyle, her conduct in marriage, were a display of her living hope in a living God. And to the Christian women who similarly respected and deferred to their husbands without being intimidated or fearful, but who instead persisted in good conduct and good faith, Peter holds out the majestic title of being Sarah's children, Sarah's heirs – the daughters of the divine promise. Now that's an adornment far richer than any display of jewelry, diamonds, or glamorous gowns.

After Peter's said all this – and it's noteworthy that he addresses these women directly, which was uncommon, since moralists of the time tended to talk about women a lot more than to women in their works – only after he's said all this does Peter turn his attention firmly to the men, the husbands, who have converted and thus likely belong to united Christian households. (That's not necessarily a sure thing – Paul mentions some households in Corinth where husbands believe but their wives don't [1 Corinthians 7:13]. But in Peter's setting, if the husband was a believer, odds are strong the wife and kids followed.)

And Peter tells them: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives with knowledge, honoring her as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). That language – 'weaker vessel' – has been a big sticking point for a lot of people in recent years. But Peter just means that, on average, the women he's been talking to were less physically strong than their husbands. And that's why they were so vulnerable to domestic abuse – which is exactly what Peter is ruling out here.

See, to many pagan husbands, the fact that the woman was “the weaker vessel” was a license to bully them – since the woman was weaker, she mattered less and deserved less respect than his male peers. Peter's turning it on its head: If a man's wife is “the weaker vessel,” as they used to say, then she deserves greater respect and greater honor. There's no license to bully here; Peter is explicitly revoking that license in his commands to the men. Once, they treated their wives callously and disrespectfully in ignorance, regarding them as little better than servants. But now that they've encountered Jesus in their lives, now that the light of God has fallen on them, they have an obligation to live with their wives with knowledge – knowledge of God, and knowledge of their wives as God's image-bearers and, as Peter says, “heirs with you of the grace of life.”

That may be one of the most exalted things anybody had said about women up to that point in time. Peter is pointedly reminding Christian husbands that their wives are their spiritual equals, fellow recipients of unearned grace that yields life and living hope. These husbands are obligated by God to treat their wives respectfully as equal partners. Peter tells the husbands to 'honor' their wives – just as they have to honor the king and governor and municipal authorities. Anything less will hinder their prayers, detain them short of heaven, tie them to earth (or lower) with a short leash. Those who ignore their wives and disregard them will find, in short, that their prayers are similarly ignored and disregarded by God. And that's serious business! There's no excuse here for domineering behavior, or an “I'm the boss” mentality, or any of the similar ways Peter's language has been sadly perverted over the years. The simple fact is that these husbands are to illustrate to their wives how Christ cherishes his church, like Paul says (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).

All good for Peter's time. But what does it mean for ours? Peter's advice is so thoroughly tailored to the lives of families in his world; does he have anything to say to ours? I would say yes, he does. He shows that there is a clear and definite way to display living hope for our family lives. There is a way to plant a few flowers of Eden around your family hearth. But it requires mutual respect and consideration: Wives and husbands putting one another's needs, and the family's needs, before their own; wives and husbands deferring to each other where they can, being reasonable toward each other, speaking kindly to one another, exhibiting gentleness and a quiet spirit toward each other. Try it – you might find it nips a lot of arguments in the bud.

Peter encourages us to focus less on accessories – less on material goods, on things to buy, things to own, less on our building projects or on our income – and more on one another. Less time at work, more time with the family. Less expenditure on flashy things, and more focus on character formation. We're to build one another up, encourage each other, praise the good in each other. But our focus is on correcting ourselves, not each other, in a marriage. Peter never says to the men, “Husbands, make your wife submit.” Nor does he tell the women, “Wives, criticize your husband until he honors you.” Peter's words are not weapons to be employed against each other; they're a way to heal, not to destroy.

Peter urges us to win one another over with love, not with arguing, and with an ultimate focus on winning one another, not to our 'side,' but to Christ. If you're wondering how things turned out with Monica, it went well. The surviving description of her life says “she busied herself to gain him to [God], preaching [God] unto [Patricius] by her behavior” – and she did. She offered “the witness of the fruits of a holy life.” As a result, a year before his death, her husband Patricius was baptized into the faith and changed from his former adulterous and violent ways. Having submitted to her husband, Monica's patience “brought forth fruit unto God” and won him for the kingdom.

As for her wayward son, who did abandon his Christian upbringing for years, her prayers prevailed there, too. Monica was certainly diligent – not just praying at home, not just going to church every Sunday, but going twice every day, and praying for her wayward son with many tears. She eventually pursued him across the sea to Italy to minister to him. As a result, he became, not only a Christian, but a bishop; and not only a bishop, but one of the greatest Christian thinkers in history, St. Augustine of Hippo. And he always gave ample credit to the prayerful witness of his mother, St. Monica, whose obedience to Peter's words changed not just his life, but the whole world, long after she fell ill and died at the age of fifty-six.

That's the power of living hope for family life. In the end, Patricius became, like Monica, an heir of the grace of life. And for his final year, they were a model Christian couple – surely not perfect, but a breath of fresh air for all their neighbors, no doubt, who were accustomed to something so much less in their own lives. What Peter advises for us today, in the end, is this: If your spouse isn't an active believer, isn't committed to the God of the church, then don't draw back. Be the marriage partner in whose conduct your spouse can see the life-changing beauty of Jesus Christ. Submit as Jesus submitted in this world; display a gentle and quiet spirit like his; give honor to all, including your spouse – especially your spouse.

And if your spouse is an active believer, then together, be a couple who strive to recapture the harmony of Eden, by God's grace. Build a marriage, build a family, where others can see the beauty of Jesus in your relationship. Aim for a marriage and a family that can unite in common prayer, with no impediments to your love for one another or for God – nothing holding you or your prayers back. This isn't my marriage wisdom, of which I, a bachelor, have none. No, more to the point, this is God's marriage wisdom – so, unlike opinions mine or yours, it matters. Apply it in faith and in living hope.

And if you aren't in a marriage, then devote yourself to Christ and to the encouragement and support of the marriages around you – they might need it. But whatever situation you're in, live as an heir of the grace of life. Invest your singleness, your widowhood, or your marriage into the Greater Marriage: the impending nuptials of Christ and his Church. For “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” on the cross (Ephesians 5:25), and the Church in turn honors and loves the risen Christ in godly submission (Ephesians 5:24). He died for her and rose again for her, and the Church is waiting for the day when her Bridegroom returns for her. She waits – we wait – with living hope, and any marriage here is meant to be a living parable of Christ and his Church. “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb [will soon] come, and his Bride [is making] herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7). Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.