Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sermon for May 1st: 1 Peter 1:3-9

Hope for the Future and Strength for the Present

A few years ago, as many of you know, I was in the habit of going once a month to the Edmonton Young Offender Centre to lead Sunday afternoon services. One time I was planning to do a bit of teaching about prayer, and I asked the chaplain if she had any advice. She said, ‘Remember that kids here have no privacy. The doors to the rooms on the units are all glass, and if a kid decides to pray or read the Bible, everyone else on the unit knows about it, and the kid will never hear the end of it’. Nonetheless, there were kids on those units who prayed and read the Bible every day. Furthermore, I even had times when kids were brave enough to ask for baptism, standing up in front of their peers and making a public profession of faith in Christ. Obviously what they had gained in Christ was more important to them than the persecution they were experiencing as a result of their faith.

In mainstream society in twenty-first century Canada, we don’t tend to go through a lot of suffering because of our faith. Opposition to Christianity is more subtle, like water erosion, carrying away a bit here and a bit there, until one day we wake up and discover whole chunks of the riverbank are missing. It manifests itself in things like the choice Christians have to make between churchgoing and participation in Sunday sports, or the way in which the institutional church is so often an object of scorn in the media. People are hungry for spirituality but very skeptical about the claims of organized religion. Over time, that scorn can be hard for those of us who have given our lives to following Christ as part of his church.

The First Letter of Peter was written to a group of Christian congregations in what is now northern Turkey. Let me tell you about some of the suffering they were experiencing.

In those days all citizens of the empire could be required at any time to offer worship to the emperor as a god; this was their ‘pledge of allegiance’ to Rome. But this was something Christians could never do. They believed that there was only one God, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. The penalty for refusing to worship the emperor was death.

In order to do business in those days it was almost essential to be a member of a trade guild. These guilds had their meetings in the temples of pagan gods and they usually included worship of those gods. Often, this worship included ritual prostitution. Christian businessmen wouldn’t participate in this, and so they lost business opportunities and some of them were expelled from the guilds.

Many of these cities and towns also had regular community sacrifices to the gods which all good citizens were expected to attend. Those who refused to attend were accused of not doing their part to keep the gods happy, and if bad things happened to the town, they might well be blamed for them.

And so these little Christian communities in Asia Minor were the victims of slander and ostracism. Businessmen were getting poorer. Sometimes there was mob violence, and there was always the risk of execution if the authorities decided to enforce the law about the worship of the emperor. These Christians were living in increasing fear and difficulty, and in today’s passage Peter writes to give them both hope for the future and strength for the present.

Let’s start with hope for the future. Look with me at Peter’s words in verses 3-5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Peter says that they have been given a new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of the dead had a definite meaning in the Jewish world in the time of Jesus. At the end of this present evil age God’s kingdom was going to come in power, and a new age of justice and peace would begin. When this happened, the righteous dead would be raised to participate in it. Christianity modified this view slightly; instead of a clean break between the old age and the new age, there is now an overlap. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the kingdom of God has begun, but God’s reign is not yet complete. The Lordship of Jesus is partly hidden at the moment, but one day it will be fully revealed. At the moment, as Peter says, it is being ‘kept in heaven for you’, but one day, he says, this salvation will be fully revealed as the wonderful inheritance that it actually is.

We can be sure that some of Peter’s hearers had given up their inheritances for Christ; others had lost their popularity or the respect of their communities and circles of friends. Peter consoles them by giving them a sense of hope: yes, there have been losses, but what lies ahead for them is a better inheritance. Why is it better? Because all human wealth, all youth and beauty and popularity, all power and influence, will fade away one day. But the inheritance we Christians have been promised is ‘imperishable, undefiled, unfading’ (v.4). Even from a purely pragmatic point of view, this is the wiser investment!

Some of us are putting vast amounts of time and energy into building an inheritance that will only be good for this present age. When the kingdom comes, it will all be gone. Faithfulness to Jesus is a better investment – one that lasts forever. It’s kept safe for us in a bank that never fails, that is never touched by stock market crashes, theft, inflation or rumours of war. The day is coming soon when we will be able to enjoy that investment, that inheritance, forever. This is the hope that keeps us strong when we have to suffer for our allegiance to Jesus.

How do we know that we are going to receive that inheritance? What is the guarantee that it is ours? We know it, says Peter, because ‘By (God’s) great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (v.3). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the grand miracle, bringing life out of death, but God has also done a miracle in us, causing us to be born again. You will remember from our gospel a few weeks ago that Jesus, not Billy Graham, was the one who said ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’, or ‘born again’ – the word includes both meanings. In the New Testament this new birth is often associated with baptism, but we need to remember that for most of the original hearers of this letter, baptism would have been an adult experience that was bound up with conversion – in other words, they heard the good news of Jesus, they believed it, they turned from their old way of life and put their faith in Jesus, and were baptized as an outward sign of this.

For me, as for many of us here I suspect, these different elements were more spaced out, chronologically speaking. I was baptized as a baby at the age of two months, but it wasn’t until I was a young teenager that the Holy Spirit opened my mind to the gospel message and helped me to put my faith in Jesus, to give my life to him and to receive the Holy Spirit. Still, my own ‘new birth’ included all of these elements – giving my life to Christ in faith, being baptized, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So, thinking about these words of Peter and of Jesus, perhaps we need to ask ourselves the question, ‘Have I been born again?’ Most of us here have been baptized as infants, but what have we done about our baptism? Have we consciously put our faith in Jesus Christ and committed our lives to him as our Lord? This is our response to the gift of God in baptism and completes the process, so to speak, of the new birth. And this new birth is what guarantees our inheritance in the kingdom of God, so it’s not a trivial issue – it’s vital.

So Peter is giving us hope for the future, but he’s also giving us strength for the present. What’s the nature of our present Christian experience? Well, like gourmet coffee, it’s a blend; the two ingredients are suffering and joy. We read a good example of this blend in the 16th chapter of Acts where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison for preaching the gospel in Philippi. They were stripped of their clothes, beaten with rods, thrown into prison and fastened in the stocks for the night. But then comes the surprise: ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25). Luke doesn’t record the thoughts of the prisoners as they listened! But in this passage we see this blend of suffering and joy.

First let’s think about suffering. The enemies of the gospel inflict suffering on the Church in an attempt to wipe it out. God doesn’t send this suffering, but he does subvert the plan of the enemy by using it for a good purpose in the lives of Christians. Look with me at verses 6-7:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

I read a story once about a little girl in England who was taken by her parents to attend sheepdog trials. She enjoyed watching the dogs running around and herding the sheep, but she was quite surprised to discover that there was no judge sitting with a black robe and a wig. To her mind, the word ‘trial’ always included a judge and a jail sentence! She learned that afternoon that ‘trials’ don’t always include the threat of punishment; sometimes they are about exercising our abilities and discovering what we can do when we’re put to the test. Muscles that are exercised grow stronger. Christians who face opposition for their faith, and experience the help of Jesus through it, grow stronger too; their trials have made them strong.

The other image that Peter uses is ‘refining’ – which in his time meant not the refining of oil, but the process by which precious metals were heated until all the impurities were burnt out. Peter says that persecution can have that effect on our faith if we let it; it will drive us closer to Jesus and purify us from sin. I remember reading once of the test that silver refiners used to determine whether the process was complete. When the refiner could look into the pot of molten silver and see his own face reflected back at him, then he knew that all the impurities had been burned out and that the silver was completely pure. And that, of course, is what Jesus wants to see happen in my life and yours. He wants the world to be able to see his face in us. When that happens, we won’t need any more refining, because the process of purification will be complete.

So the one ingredient of our present Christian experience is suffering for our faith, and God uses this to strengthen our faith and refine us. The other ingredient, of course, is joy. Let’s go back to Peter again; look at verse 6, and verses 8-9:

‘In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials… Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’.

Peter isn’t telling us to rejoice because of our trials, but in spite of them. Why? Because there is no trial that can sever us from our Lord Jesus Christ. True, we can’t see him with our eyes, but nonetheless he is real to us; we love him and are experiencing his salvation. This experience includes the forgiveness of our sins, healing from the hurts of the past, and the power to change and become new people through his Holy Spirit.

This joy of knowing Jesus is a golden thread that runs through the pages of the New Testament. We see it in Philippians where Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? We think of a newly married couple who are so taken up with each other; William might say, ‘for me, living is Kate’, and Kate might say, ‘for me, living is William’. And although this newly married royal couple probably aren’t going to face any issues like poverty or danger, even if they did, they might say, ‘We can go through it, because we have each other’.

And that’s what Peter is saying here: “My dear Christian friends, you are going through great suffering right now, but aren’t you finding that Jesus is enough? Aren’t you finding that knowing him and walking with him day by day is giving you a sense of joy that no trouble can touch? And if you’re not – well, you know who to turn to!”

Let me close with a few brief words of application.

First, another word about the new birth. Don’t be in doubt about this! Most of us here have been baptized, but if you are in any doubt as to your own response to God’s gift, then make it sure: get alone with God, ask for God’s strength to repent, and then give your life to Jesus in faith. It’s impossible to live without birth and it’s foolish to try it; it’s equally impossible to live the Christian life without the new birth, and just as foolish to try it.

But second, a word of warning. Jesus often told people who wanted to be his followers to count the cost. If you stand up and let yourself be counted as a follower of Jesus, not everyone is going to be happy, that’s just the way it is, and you need to be ready for it. It’s not a sign that something’s wrong; it may, in fact, be a sign that something is right.

Third, a word of encouragement. If we are faithful to Jesus as we suffer for him, this experience can make us better Christians. It can strengthen our faith, refine our lives, deepen our sense of connection with Jesus, and increase our joy.

Finally, a word of challenge. Perhaps, like me, you’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable listening to Peter today, with his assumption that Christians will suffer for their faith. After all, we in the Western church suffer so little! For so many centuries Christianity was an integral part of the worldview of our societies. This has lulled us into thinking that it will always be respected, and so will its followers. But that isn’t necessarily the case, and we need to be prepared for this and not to shrink from it.

There’s an old saying: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” So here’s my challenge: make sure there is enough evidence! Stand up and be counted for Jesus. Don’t be intentionally obnoxious about it, but be faithful, and don’t be ashamed to live and speak for Jesus. You may suffer for it in the present, but when God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness, it’ll be obvious to all that you’ve made the right choice!

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