Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sermon for Easter 4: 1 Peter 2:1-10

Lectionary afficionados will notice that I traded the readings for this week and next week in order to preach through 1 Peter in order (the lectionary has 2:11-25 before 2:1-10).

Why Does God Need Churches Like Ours?

About fifteen years ago the town of Peace River was flooded, and a lot of damage was done to buildings in the low-lying areas of the community, including the Anglican cathedral and synod office. Eventually some government money was made available to businesses and organisations faced with expensive repair work, and in due course the Anglican Diocese of Athabasca put in an application for some of that money. Their application was rejected, with the rationale that they were a ‘non-essential’ service in the community. Just to put things in perspective, the Legion’s application was approved!

It’s quite a blow for Christian churches, who are used to thinking of their role as an important one, to be told that society regards them as ‘non-essential’ - or at least, as less essential than the Royal Canadian Legion! Does it matter to anyone that we are here? Is our role in society a valuable one? Or are we just a rather eccentric special interest group, an anachronistic throwback to the days of the British Empire? This is a vital question to consider. After all, you and I are members together of a Christian congregation that was intentionally planted twenty-seven years ago as a missionary venture to the south side of Edmonton. Why is this important? Why was St. Margaret’s necessary? Society may not think we are important, but does God value us? Why does God need congregations like ours?

To answer this question I want to take you back to our text for these Sundays of the Easter season, the First Letter of Peter. Remember, this letter was written to Christians who lived in provinces right on the edge of the Roman Empire. The Roman government had not yet begun official, state-sponsored persecution of the Christian Church, but nonetheless Christians were beginning to find life very difficult. They were accused of being an antisocial sect who hated the rest of the human race and would not participate in the life of the community. All good Roman citizens were expected to offer incense to the emperor as a god, but Christians refused to do that. Most trade guilds began their meetings with prayers and sacrifices to the gods of Greece and Rome, and once again Christians would not participate - a fact that was making it increasingly difficult for them to do business. And all kinds of vicious rumours were circulating about them. It was said that they practised murder, incest and cannibalism at their secret church meetings - after all, did they not hold ‘love feasts’, call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and talk about ‘eating the body’ and ‘drinking the blood’?

These Christians were just like us! They were finding it increasingly complicated to participate in society and yet not compromise their Christian convictions at the same time; society was marginalising them, and even in some cases rejecting them. But Peter points out to them that even though society was rejecting them, God had not done so. In fact, they were just like their Lord Jesus Christ. He says in 2:4 ‘Come to (Jesus), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight’. Jesus was rejected and crucified by the world, but he turned out to be the most important figure in God’s plan to save the world. And, Peter says, the same is true of you Christians; you may be rejected by the world, but you have a vital part in God’s plan to save it. Look at chapter 2:9-10:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 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.

In these two verses Peter is intentionally taking language that was used in the Old Testament to describe the nation of Israel, and re-applying it to the Christian Church. He obviously sees the Christian Church as standing in continuity with Israel as God’s chosen people, charged with the mission of carrying out God’s purposes for the world. This plan goes all the way back to the twelfth chapter of Genesis, when God chose Abram, the ancestor of the nation of Israel, and said to him “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). In other words, Abram wasn’t called because God thought he was somehow better than anyone else in the ancient world at the time. He wasn’t called so that he and his family could get together and worship God and ignore the unbelievers around them. He certainly wasn’t called because God wanted him to go to heaven and everyone else to go to hell. No, he was called as a missionary, someone who would found a community that would live out God’s ways in their life together, and spread the knowledge and love of God in the world around them.

Of course, Abram’s descendants often forgot that mission. Instead of acting as God’s missionaries to the nations around them, they turned in on themselves, isolated themselves from other people and responded to them with the sword. In the same way, Christian people today are often content to ignore the non-Christian society around them. Too often we seem to think that as long as we can meet each week to worship as we always have, we’ve done all that’s expected of us and we can relax. You would never guess that Jesus had sent us out as his missionaries to people who do not believe in him, calling them to turn from false gods and commit themselves to living as his disciples. You would never guess that this was at the top of his agenda for us.

So who are we, as members of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, striving to be faithful to the mission Jesus has given us in our part of the greater Edmonton area? Well, firstly, we are a people who have been called into the light of Jesus. Peter says that we are to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1:9b). We are a people who have discovered that when Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5) he was telling the truth. We have discovered that life without Jesus is life in the dark, but that when we follow Jesus he is like a light, giving us a sense of hope, a clear view of what life is all about, and a sense of direction.

Some of you here today have lived in that light all your lives. You were brought up to know and love Jesus, and he has been real and close to you since your early days. Others of you can remember a time when you lived in the darkness. You know what it’s like to feel lost and hopeless, and you have experienced the difference Jesus makes when he brings his light into a person’s life.

An American journalist from the early years of the twentieth century was assigned to write a number of articles designed to expose the evangelist Billy Sunday as a fraud. Three towns were chosen. “I talked to the merchants”, the journalist wrote, “and they told me that during the meetings and afterwards people walked up to the counter and paid bills which were so old that they had long since been written off the books”. He went to visit the president of the Chamber of Commerce of a town that Billy Sunday had visited three years before. “I am not a member of any church”, he said. “I never attend, but I’ll tell you one thing. If it was proposed now to bring Billy Sunday back to this town… and if the churches would not raise the necessary funds to bring him, I could raise the money in half a day from men who never go to church. He took eleven thousand dollars out of here, but a circus comes here and takes that amount in one day and leaves nothing behind. He left a different moral atmosphere”. The exposure that the journalist had intended to write became a tribute to the power of the Gospel to bring light into a dark world.

That’s who we are; we are people who have been called out of the darkness of a world without Jesus, and brought into his marvellous light. And now we are given the responsibility to spread that light, because the same Jesus who said “I am the light of the world” also said to us “You are the light of the world...Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

The second thing we can say about ourselves from these verses is that we are a people who have been set aside for God’s use. Peter tells us that we are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Peter 2:9).

Let’s suppose I walk into a guitar store tomorrow looking to buy a new guitar (this is a scenario that strikes fear into Marci’s heart, since she manages the family finances!). Anyway, in I go to the store, and there I see a beautiful guitar, solid Sitka spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard, L.R. Baggs saddle pickup – the whole nine yards. The price is going to have a serious impact on our budget for the next year or so, but I pluck up my courage and go up to the sales clerk. “I’d like to buy that guitar over there”, I say. He turns around, glances over at the guitar and says to me “I’m sorry, sir; didn’t you see the sign on the side of it? It’s already been sold. The new owner hasn’t picked it up yet, so it’s still sitting in the store, but it doesn’t belong to us any more”.

Marci breathes a sigh of relief, of course, but her sigh isn’t the main point of this imaginary scenario. The point is that you and I are like that guitar. We still live in this non-Christian society, but we do not belong to it any more. We have been purchased at a very high price - far higher than the cost of the imaginary guitar in my story - the cost of the blood that Jesus shed for us on the Cross. And that means that we now belong to him. Our lives, our talents, our possessions are not ours to do with as we wish any more. And they certainly ought not to be available for the world or the evil one to use to spread the reign of evil.

In the early 1960s a new cathedral was completed in the city of Coventry in England. The old cathedral had been destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, but on May 25th 1962, after many years of labour, a new cathedral was consecrated as a house of worship. In the New Testament, the word ‘consecrate’ comes from the same Greek root as the words ‘holy’ and ‘sanctify’. It means ‘to set apart for God’. At that service the cathedral was set apart from ordinary and common use for the special purpose of being a place of worship for God’s people.

At that service of consecration the Bishop of Coventry said, “A consecrated cathedral demands a consecrated people”. In fact, the words ‘consecrate’ and ‘holy’ are very rarely used for buildings in the New Testament; they are almost always used for people. We, as members of this congregation, are a consecrated people. We don’t belong to ourselves or to the world any more; we belong to God, and have been set aside for his purposes.

And what are those purposes? That’s the third thing we can say about ourselves from these verses. Peter tells us the reason why God has set us aside; it is ‘in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (2:9b). In other words, we are a people with a message for the world.

According to Peter, the reason we exist as a church is because God needs evangelists. An evangelist is someone who announces good news, and as Christians we announce not just any good news but ‘the Mother of all Good News’ - the mighty acts of God for us in Jesus. He has died to bring God and human beings back together again; he has been raised from the dead and is alive and active in the lives of people today. As Peter said in another context, “He is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

So what does success look like for a church? It’s not about financial prosperity or impressive looking buildings; it’s not even necessarily about huge overflowing congregations, because there are all sorts of reasons why people might choose to come to a church, not all of them good ones. No – God wants a people who will go out in mission for him, spreading the light of Jesus to the world around them. Part of that process, of course, involves being willing to serve the world by acts of compassion. But the part that Peter stresses in this reading is that God wants people who have not yet found a personal connection with Jesus to be able to find it through the ministry of his church. He wants people to come ‘out of darkness into his marvellous light’, and he wants to use us to make that happen.

No group in the modern world is doing that job, except the Christian Church. Lots of other groups are renting out their buildings to community organisations. Lots of other groups are working on ways to make their communities nicer places to live. Lots of other groups are hosting Scout meetings and A.A. gatherings. These are all excellent causes, and I don’t have a word to say against them; they are wonderful ways of engaging with the community around us. But there’s only one group in society that is working to spread the message that Jesus died and rose again and wants to change the world one life at a time. That group is the Christian Church.

And that’s why God needs congregations like St. Margaret’s. He needs a group of people who will show the world by their life together what his plan is all about, and then go out and spread the message and call other people to faith in Jesus. The world may think that we are non-essential, but to Jesus we are absolutely essential. The world may not cheer when we are faithful to our mission, but God will rejoice over us.

For twenty-seven years this congregation has met for worship on the south side of this city. Today, in this beautiful building, we are in the middle of a rapidly expanding neighbourhood, with new housing going up all around us. In this context, our commission is clear. In a similar situation Jesus told his disciples “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (John 4:35). Our congregation has been amazingly successful in reaching out to the poor in inner-city Edmonton, and to families who benefit from Habitat houses, and to villagers in Africa who need fresh water in their communities. Our challenge now is to reach out to the people in our own neighbourhoods, people who look successful and wealthy on the outside but who have not yet discovered the light of Christ. God wants those people to hear the gospel and become followers of Jesus. And the commission to make this happen is not just given to me as a minister; it’s given to every member of the people of God. When Peter says ‘you’ in verse 9, he’s not just referring to religious professionals but to all Christian people; God has chosen you, all of you, ‘in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (v.9). That’s not an optional activity for people who like that sort of thing; on the contrary, it’s the very reason we exist as a church at all. May the Holy Spirit lead us out of our religious comfort zones, so that we may go about our daily lives as people who have been transformed by the good news, and have been given the privilege and responsibility to share it.

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