Sunday, July 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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