Who are we?
Many of you have heard me say that when the early Christians went out to spread the Christian message, they always began by announcing good news, not by giving good advice. It’s not that they never gave good advice; it’s just that they were very clear about the proper order of things. Speaking grammatically, we might say that they always put the indicatives before the imperatives – the announcements before the commands. Before telling people what God wanted them to do, they first announced the wonderful news of what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Our passage from 1 Peter today contains a lot of imperatives: we have commands like ‘be holy’ and ‘fear God’ and ‘love one another’. Peter makes no apology for this, and I don’t want to apologise for it either. But what we often miss is that this text is also full of indicatives: joyful announcements of what God has done for us. I want to emphasize this today by asking, ‘What sort of a people are we - we Christians, that is? What does Peter tell us about ourselves in this passage?’ Three main ideas dominate this reading: we are a newborn people, a liberated people, and a people living in exile.
I’ve put ‘a newborn people’ first, although it comes last in this reading. I’ve done this because this refers back to something we saw last week. In 1 Peter 1:3 we read: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’. And then in today’s reading, in verses 23 and 25, Peter goes on to say, ‘You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God… That word is the good news that was announced to you’.
After Jesus’ death on Good Friday, his story was over, and his disciples were cowering behind locked doors for fear that the authorities would soon arrest them as well. It looked to them as if the power of love had confronted the power of evil and been decisively defeated by it. Rome had hung Jesus up on a cross, and as in all crucifixions the message came through loud and clear: ‘We’re in charge here, so do as you’re told, scum!’
But that wasn’t the end of the story. On Easter morning, God demonstrated once and for all that the power of love is stronger than the love of power; he demonstrated that good, and not evil, has the last word. The one who loved his enemies also triumphed over his enemies without a shot being fired. Where there was death, there was now life; where there was despair, there was now hope; where there was sadness, there was now joy. In short, God worked a miracle.
Peter wants us to know that just as God has worked a miracle in raising Jesus from the dead, so God has also worked a miracle in bringing us to a new birth. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead has now given us new life as well. ‘New birth’ is of course an image that comes directly from Jesus himself; in John chapter three, he tells Nicodemus that anyone who wants to see the kingdom of God needs to be ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’.
What the scriptures are telling us here is that the process by which you and I become Christians isn’t just about human activities and decisions. We’re not just ‘going through a religious phase’; rather, the Holy Spirit is doing something miraculous in us. Something in us that was dead has now come alive; the Holy Spirit has breathed life into us and we have been born from above.
How did this come about? Peter says we’ve been born again ‘through the living and enduring word of God’, which he says ‘is the good news that was announced to you’. (vv. 23, 25). This makes sense to me when I think of my own spiritual journey. As a child I heard the word of God – that is, I heard the gospel stories as I was taken to church week by week and as my Mum and Dad read Bible story books to me. Later on, in my early teens, I read books like The Cross and the Switchblade and Nine O’Clock in the Morning in which I heard a lot of ‘good news stories’ – stories about the power of God at work changing people’s lives. This message of good news led directly to my own response of faith on the night when I first gave my life to Jesus.
Let me give you another example of this. My friend Christobel Lines, who used to be the chaplain at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, was brought up as a churchgoer but hadn’t discovered a personal connection with God through Jesus. Then someone gave her a copy of William Barclay’s little commentary on the Gospel of Luke. She read it all the way through, and the word of God, the good news she read in that book, brought her to a personal faith in Jesus.
There are many ways in which this word of God, this good news, might come to us. It might be through a conversation with a friend. It might be through reading the scriptures or hearing a sermon. It might even happen through an experience of the liturgy! However it happens, the God who worked a miracle in raising Jesus from the dead works a miracle in us too, as the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us and brings us to new birth into the family of God.
We are a newborn people, a people who have heard the wonderful news of Jesus’ resurrection and who are being transformed by it. The second idea we see in this passage is that we are a liberated people, or perhaps we might want to say a ransomed people.
Let’s imagine a slave about to be sold in the slave market in one of the cities where Peter’s hearers were living. Perhaps this young man’s family had gotten into serious debt and was unable to satisfy their creditors. In this kind of situation, the law allowed for the debtors to be sold into slavery in order to help pay back the money they owed. So here’s this young man who may well have had glorious dreams for his future, but now he’s a slave. He’s standing naked on the auction block and the auctioneer starts the bidding off. But suddenly the young man hears a voice that sounds vaguely familiar. He looks up and sees a distant relative standing in the crowd. The relative claims the right to redeem him, a right recognised by law. The relative comes forward, pays the price of buying a slave, and then sets the young man free to go back to his own family. He has been ransomed, or redeemed.
In verses 18-19 Peter says: ‘you know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish’. The Cross, in other words, is the ransom price that has been paid to set us free.
But free from what? Free from ‘the futile ways inherited from your ancestors’. Now I don’t know about you but I’m not used to hearing the ways of my ancestors described as ‘futile’! Today in Canada we’re conscious of living in a multicultural society, and we want to show respect for the ancestral traditions of others. But Peter is reminding us that customs and traditions centred on false gods are futile – because those gods are false and so are not able to give us the help they promise.
A few years ago in the Edmonton Journal I read an interview with Jody Foster. She is surely one of the most respected actors in the world today, but in that interview she said that she couldn’t find one good thing to say about fame. If she’s right, then a lot of ambitious young actors are embarking on a futile quest, because even if they do succeed in finding fame they’re going to discover that it doesn’t deliver the satisfaction they think it will. So the quest for the false god of fame turns out to be one of those ‘futile ways’ Peter is referring to.
Someone once asked “If money can make you happy, why are so many rich people snorting cocaine up their noses?” The answer of course is that they’ve discovered that their false god can’t deliver what it promised them, so they’re now looking somewhere else. And millions make the same kind of discovery about other false gods such as sex, youth, popularity, or alcohol. When we look to them as gods, all they leave us with is emptiness. This is what Jesus has ‘redeemed’ us from. He has set us free from this futility by connecting us to the true and living God.
So we’re a people, firstly, who have been born again through the power of the resurrection of Jesus; we’ve heard the joyful news of what God has done for us through Jesus, and it’s transformed our lives. And secondly, we’re a people who have been set free from a life based on misplaced hopes; instead we’ve learned to put our hope and trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead. But the third image isn’t quite so cheerful: we’re not only a newborn people and a liberated people, but we’re also an exiled people. In verse 17 Peter tells us to ‘live in reverent fear during the time of your exile’. What’s that all about?
Let me give you an Old Testament illustration. In 597 B.C. many of God’s people were taken away into exile in Babylon. They lived there for about seventy years, and some of them did very well for themselves. People like Daniel rose in the service of the Babylonian Empire and exercised great influence on the land where they were now living. But nonetheless, they never forgot that Babylon was not their real home. They collected the writings of the prophets and historians of Israel into something resembling the Old Testament that we have today. They created the institution of the synagogue, where they gathered week by week to hear those scriptures read and to pray. They preserved their language and their faith in the one true God over against the many gods of Babylon. In short, they lived as resident aliens in a foreign land.
You and I are also called to live as resident aliens in a foreign land. God loves the world, so we love it too, but we also realize that it’s not yet the sort of place God wants it to be. We’re citizens of the kingdom of heaven; one day that kingdom will transform the whole earth, but that day has not yet arrived. So we’re like those old Jewish believers, called to be a distinct society, with our own values and customs which we learn, not from the world around us, but from the gospel of Jesus.
What are some of those values and customs? Let me briefly point out four to you. They include, firstly, longing for the right things. Peter tells us in verse 13 to ‘set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed’. In other words, don’t set your sights on getting rich or being successful or being forever young or anything like that; rather, recognise those things for what they are, ‘the futile ways inherited from your ancestors’ that we’ve already talked about. Rather, as Jesus would say, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’; long for the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, and don’t settle for anything less than that.
So we’re to long for the right things, and we’re also to copy the right person. In verses 15-16 Peter says, ‘Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct, for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy”’. The Bible words for ‘holy’ mean ‘to be set apart from ordinary use for a special purpose’. God himself is completely set apart from all evil and sin, and so God’s holy people are also set apart from evil and sin for the special purposes that God has in mind for them. So we are called to imitate the holiness of God.
For us Christians, of course, this means imitating Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the best possible picture we can have of what God is like; he models for us the characteristics that God wants to see in us – things like love for God and neighbour, single-minded determination to do what his Father wanted, care for the poor and the outcast, living a simple life uncluttered with lots of possessions and so on. To follow Jesus and put his example and teaching into practice is to walk in the way of holiness. So let’s choose the right person to copy! All our human heroes have feet of clay, including and perhaps especially the fallible human beings who we have this week elected as our new members of parliament! But Peter will tell us later in this letter that Jesus has left us an example, ‘so that you should follow in his steps’ (2:21) and the aged apostle John tells us in his first letter that ‘Whoever says, “I abide in (Christ) ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 John 2:6).
So we are to long for the right things, and copy the right person. The third of these values and customs we learn from the gospel of Jesus is to fear the right person. Peter tells us in verse 17 to ‘live in reverent fear’, and in the context this of course refers to the fear of the Lord.
I expect you’re surprised to hear Peter encouraging us to fear God. We’ve often heard that this is an Old Testament concept, which Jesus and his apostles have thrown out. But I would like to suggest to you that an enormous number of people today do live in fear – not the fear of God, but the fear of the opinions of others. We crave the acceptance and approval of others, and we dread their rejection and disapproval. When Peter encourages us to fear God, what he’s saying is ‘Decide now whose good opinion matters more to you – the world’s, or God’s’. There’s an old Anglican hymn with this line in it: ‘Fear him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear’. In other words, Peter is encouraging us to play our lives for an audience of one – God. We want to grow to the point where his applause is the only applause that ultimately matters to us.
So we’re to long for the right things, copy the right person – Jesus - and fear the right person – God. Finally, in verse 22 Peter tells us to love one another: ‘Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart’. Peter is actually using two different Greek words for love here. When he says ‘you have genuine mutual love’ he’s using a word meaning ‘friendship’ or even ‘brotherly or sisterly love’. He’s saying “You Christians are already friendly toward each other and treat each other like family. That’s good, but I want you to go further yet. I want you to ‘love one another deeply from the heart’. The word he uses is ‘agapé’ which means the sacrificial love that Jesus showed by giving himself for us on the Cross. It’s not about feelings, but actions. To us ‘the heart’ means feelings, but it didn’t to the ancient people: it meant ‘the will’, the place we make choices about our actions.
I believe God wants to speak to us, here at St. Margaret’s in the year 2011, through these ancient words of scripture. How would we describe ourselves as a parish community? What would be the most important things we would think of? Peter suggests these three images for us. God wants us to rejoice that we are a newborn people: the same God who raised Jesus from the dead has breathed new life into us as well. We are a liberated people, set free from the old ways of futility. And we are an exiled people, citizens of another place, living a distinct lifestyle in this world that God loves so much.
But we do that, not to withdraw from the world, but to transform it. God wants to colonize this world with citizens of his kingdom, so that this world will be changed by the gospel of Jesus. And when, in the here and now, we live by the values and customs of the kingdom to come, that transformation can go forward. May it be so, through you and me, as we learn to live as the people God has made us to be.