Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sermon for May 15th: 1 Peter 2:1-10

Is What We Do Important?

Let me begin today by asking you to think about this question: are the things that we do as a Christian church here at St. Margaret’s important? I don’t just mean “Are they enjoyable?” I mean, in the great big scheme of things, are they important? Or, to put it the other way around, if we weren’t here to do the things we do, would the people who are not Christians miss us? Would they notice that something important was missing in the life of the community?

I suspect not. I suspect that most people would see hospitals and schools and police and fire stations as being vital institutions making an obvious contribution to the life of their communities. But churches? Why are they important? Let’s be honest here: to most people, what we do is completely irrelevant.

Now let me tell you something that’s even worse than that. It doesn’t really matter to me, in the great big scheme of things, if people who are not Christians think that what we are doing is irrelevant. But what’s really deadly, in my experience, is when we think we’re irrelevant. It’s when we see ourselves as a marginalized community, of no importance to God or to anyone else – that’s when the battle is really lost. That’s when we start thinking of Sunday worship as something we do unless we have a better offer on Sunday mornings. That’s when we start thinking about Christian mission as something we do in our spare time, instead of something we sacrifice time and money for. That’s when we see Jesus as one of our personal growth accessories, instead of the Lord of the universe who has sent you and me out into the world to call all people to trust him and obey him.

If that’s the way you’re feeling – if you’re feeling that what we do as a church here at St. Margaret’s is unimportant and irrelevant, to God or to anyone else, than the apostle Peter has a word for you in our epistle reading for today. So please turn with me in the church bibles to page 233 in the New Testament section, very near the back, as we take a closer look at 1 Peter 2:1-10.

Remember, as we’ve said over the last couple of weeks, that this letter was written to Christians in what is now northern Turkey who were increasingly coming under fire from their neighbours because they were followers of Jesus. They weren’t just being seen as irrelevant; they were being seen as a dangerous antisocial sect who refused to do their civic duty by worshipping the emperor and taking part in the ritual sacrifices in the trade guild meetings. They were rumoured to practice incest and eat flesh and blood when they met together for their secret Eucharists before dawn on Sundays. Increasingly, they were being ostracized and pressured and arrested and even, in some cases, executed for their allegiance to Jesus. And in this situation what they needed to know, more than anything else, was this: “Is this worth suffering for? Is this worth dying for? Is this important to God?”

Look at what Peter says in answer to this question. First, look at verse 4:

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight’.

Who is this ‘living stone’, chosen by God but rejected by mortals? The answer, of course, is Jesus. In the gospels Jesus tells a story about how a landowner rents out his vineyard to some tenants, who refuse to pay him the proper rent. After sending them several messengers who they ignore or beat up or kill, eventually he sends his Son, and they reject him and kill him. But Jesus then quotes from Psalm 118:22: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. In the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, he was making a pun: the word for ‘son’ is ‘ben’, and the word for ‘stone’ is eben’.

What’s the quote from the psalm all about? Imagine a group of builders looking around a quarry for bits of stone to use in their building project. The quarry is littered with rocks, and some of them are obvious fits. But there’s one piece that they all reject; it just looks wrong, and everyone can see it won’t fit. But then along comes one builder who is willing to take a closer look; he picks up that rock and takes it to their building project, and to everyone’s surprise it turns out to be just the shape they need for the cornerstone of the building.

And that’s what Jesus is like. Jesus is God’s Son, the one God sent into the world to save us and to call us all back to him. But the religious establishment of the day didn’t like what he had to say; they couldn’t see how he fit in with the way they understood God and what God was doing, and so they rejected him and handed him over to the Romans to be crucified. However, that turned out to be the biggest mistake they ever made, because, says Peter, this ‘stone’, this ‘eben’, was ‘chosen and precious in God’s sight’. He wasn’t just a failed messianic pretender, crucified in a backwater at the insignificant edge of the Roman Empire. No; his death and resurrection were the central events in God’s plan to save the world.

And now Peter invites his hearers to put themselves into that picture. He uses three illustrations – illustrations that would have made sense to people with any knowledge of the Old Testament - to show them that they too have a vital place in God’s plan to heal the world and bring the people of the world back to him.

He starts with this idea of builders building a house. Look again at verses 4-5:

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…’

Peter is alluding here to the Temple in Jerusalem - the place where God was thought to live among his people, the place where people could come and meet with God and pray to him, and be assured that God would be present, and would hear them. But now, says Peter, you are the temple of the living God. God does not live in houses made of wood or stone. No – in our New Testament faith, God chooses to live among a community, a particular group of people who are called by the name of Jesus. ‘Do you not know’, asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, ‘that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Corinthians 3:16). The ‘you’ in that verse is plural: God’s Holy Spirit lives in us as a community.

So, you little groups of marginalized Christians on the edges of modern society: you are a community in which God chooses to live! Small and insignificant though you may be in the eyes of the movers and shakers in Edmonton society, you are in fact the royal palace of the King of the Universe. He could have had anywhere in the entire universe as his royal palace, but he chose you!

That’s great, but it’s just the beginning. The second Old Testament illustration Peter uses is the holy priesthood. Look again at verse 5:

‘…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’.

Most religions of the world have priests of one sort or another. Their job is to be a go-between: they pray to God on behalf of the people, and they speak to the people on behalf of God. People feel that God is too scary to approach, or it’s too time-consuming to get to know him, or they feel unworthy to approach him because of their sins, and so they appoint someone to do their praying and repenting and listening for them. ‘You speak to God for us, and we’ll say amen at the end of the prayer. You take the time to listen to what God is saying and pass his message onto us, and if you’re lucky we might even take a blind bit of notice of it!’

Let me tell you a little-known secret: there are no priests in the New Testament! Not, that is, in the sense of ‘professional Christians, set apart from other church members to pray to God on our behalf, and speak to us on God’s behalf’. The word ‘priest’ is used in the New Testament in two main senses. First, it’s used for Jesus, who is the mediator of the new covenant: he offered the perfect sacrifice by dying for us on the cross, he is God’s word to us, and he prays to the Father for us. Second, it’s used for the whole Christian church: we are a priestly people – all of us – you as well as me. We pray to God for the world, and we take the message of Christ to the world.

That’s what you are. You may feel unimportant and insignificant, but it is your Christian privilege to lift up the needs of the whole world to God in prayer, and it is your Christian privilege to take the words of life that Jesus gave us and to pass them on to those who do not yet know him, so that they also may become his followers. No one else is doing that; if we stop doing it, it won’t get done.

One more illustration: look at verse 9:

‘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 marvelous light’.

Who are the chosen people in the Old Testament? Israel, of course. But why did God call them? Was it because he only loved them and no one else? Not at all – he called them to be a blessing to all the nations. Way back in Genesis chapter 12, when God calls Abraham and his family to be his chosen people, he says to them, ‘in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). And in Isaiah this imagery of light and darkness is used to describe the way that Israel will spread God’s light to the nations around them: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6b).

Now, you little scattered communities of Christians in northern Turkey and southern Edmonton, you have been included in that job description. Jesus is the light of the world; he has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. What’s your job now? To tell others about that; to ‘declare God’s mighty acts’, as Peter says. No one else is doing that, and if you don’t do it, it won’t get done, and a whole generation will spend their lives without ever discovering the light of Christ.

What do these Old Testament illustrations say to us today?

First, they tell us that Jesus is central in what we are doing here. Many people would like us as Christians to shift our emphasis to what I call ‘No-name spirituality’. My friend Harold Percy was leading a Christian Basics course once and a woman in the group made this comment. “I don’t like it when Harold talks about Jesus. I don’t mind it when he talks about ‘God’, because that’s inclusive; I can make that word mean whatever I want. But Jesus is too specific”.

Yes, many people in our society would feel a lot better about what we were doing if we’d just stop talking about Jesus and concentrate on no-name spirituality. But we can’t do that and be faithful to the call God has given us. We believe that Jesus is not just a prophet or a great religious teacher. We believe that he is the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, who existed from all eternity with the Father and came to live among us to save the world. The New Testament does not teach that Jesus is just an optional extra who we can leave out without affecting the program too much. No: he is the stone the builders rejected who turned out to be the cornerstone, the most important stone in the building. Reject him, and the whole building comes tumbling down.

So these Old Testament illustrations tell us that Jesus is central to what we’re doing here. Second, they tell us that Christian community is vital. What use is a brick if it’s not part of the wall? If it’s lucky it might get used as a bookend on someone’s desk! But the reason Jesus is making us into living stones is so that we can be ‘built into a spiritual house’ (v.4). Staying away from the community is not an option. In the New Testament, there’s no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t participate in the life and work of the Church.

Did you notice the sins that Peter told us to leave behind at the beginning of our reading today? Look at verse 1:

‘Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander’.

Let me ask you: what do all these sins have in common? The answer is, these are the sins that destroy community. Malice towards one another, deception, pretending to be what you’re not, being jealous and envious of one another, slandering one another – this is the poison that kills community. And when the world is ignoring you and marginalizing you and even trying hard to destroy your community, you don’t need to help them do it! What we need from one another in times of hardship and discouragement is love and support, not malice and slander and envy and deceit. So turn from all this, says Peter, because that’s not what this new community is all about.

We’ve seen that Jesus is central in what we do here, and that community is vital. Lastly, let me point out to you that a personal response is called for. We are invited to be part of God’s temple, to be a member of the royal priesthood, to be one of God’s chosen people. What’s our response? It’s to ‘come to him’, as verse 4 says, and in verse 2, ‘Like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation’.

To be properly related to Jesus is to be properly related to the Temple, because he is the cornerstone. The most important question in scripture is the one that Pontius Pilate asked the people in Matthew’s Gospel: “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (Matthew 27:22). One day, Paul tells us, every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus and every tongue confess that he is Lord. But we Christians don’t wait for that day; we do it now, putting our trust in him as our Saviour and giving him our allegiance as our Lord. That’s how we ‘come’ to him; that’s how we are transformed into living stones in the temple of God.

And we don’t stop there; we grow up in him. We start as newborn babies in Christ, but he wants us to grow into mature adults, and so we’re told to thirst for the pure spiritual milk, which is a metaphor for the Word of God, the message of Christ. In other words, we feed our minds on the Christian message, meditating on it and dwelling on it and thinking it through and putting it into practice in our lives. That’s how we grow into our new role as part of God’s temple, as members of God’s priesthood, God’s chosen people.

Let me close with this well-known imaginary story.

It’s said that when Jesus ascended into heaven at the end of his mission he was met by Gabriel and the other angels. “Lord”, they said, “what you’ve done is amazing – teaching, healing, giving your life on the cross for the sins of the whole world, reconciling the whole human race to God, rising from the dead victorious over evil. It’s truly amazing! But what’s next? What’s the next stage in the plan?”

“Ah”, said Jesus, “Didn’t you notice? I spent a lot of my time down there gathering a few people together and teaching them what the kingdom of God is all about. Now I’m going to send the Holy Spirit on them and they will go out into the whole world and spread my message so that everyone in the world can have the opportunity to turn to me and be saved”.

Gabriel frowned. “Far be it from me to criticize, Lord’, he said, ‘but have you noticed that the track record of the human race isn’t very good? Surely you must have a backup plan?”

“No”, Jesus replied; “there is no backup plan”.

And that’s why what we do as the Christian community of St. Margaret’s is important.

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