What Would Saint Peter Say to Your Church? A Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-6

Introduction

I’ve always loved 1 Peter. In graduate school I took a semester-long course devoted to it; and I’d like to take another!  Except for the names, places and vocabulary it could have been written to this congregation yesterday. The world Peter describes is our world, and the problems he addresses are our problems. And his answers are still the right ones for our time.

In chapter 5, Peter calls himself an elder and addresses the elders among his readers. He tells them to “shepherd” the flock—which of course means to protect, teach and guide them. I was ordained an elder in the spring of 1995; so it’s been twenty years. And this experience shapes the way I read 1 Peter. When I read it I hear the voice of a shepherd. And it is with this in mind that I want to let Peter, the elder, the shepherd, speak to you today.

Before we examine chapter 2:1-6, we need to get before us the big picture of Peter’s message in this letter. So, I want to take on his voice to say what he might say if he were with us today:

What Peter Might Say

“Remember what you were before God called you into this new life! Don’t forget how you thought and lived. Like most people, you lived an empty life. You spent your energy in a futile search for happiness, grasping first here, then there, at things that have no real value. Your heart moved back and forth between happy sadness and sad happiness, never settling in one contented place. Orphans in the world, you searched for home but could not find it.

“Don’t forget that most people are still there, lost among idols and illusions. Their hearts are empty and restless. They boast, curse and lie. Envy, malice and greed drive them toward self-destructive behavior. They live for pleasure and will do anything for excitement. They compete with each other over looks and clothes and possessions and worldly accomplishments.  They envy those who have more and look down on those who have less. They measure everything by appearances. They think, judge and value only on a worldly scale. They barely believe in God and have no real awareness of him.

“But God delivered you from this empty life. You heard the message of Jesus Christ and believed it. You learned the truth about God; you were given a new start. It was like being born again! Jesus taught you God’s true character and will. Now you live in hope and joy. You have meaning, direction and energy in your life. No longer orphans and homeless, you have God for your father and Jesus Christ as your brother. You have many mothers and brothers and sisters.

“You learned a new way of living, not in greed, envy, competition and hostility but in contentment and sincere love; not in lust and drunkenness but in self-control and wisdom. God made you a new people and gave you a special mission: to be a living temple in dying world, to serve as holy priests in an unholy culture. You are a light in darkness, a warm place in a cold world, a harbor in the storm, hope in a sea of despair, clarity for a confused culture and a shelter of kindness in an uncaring world.

“Jesus Christ changed you so much that you feel like foreigners and exiles in your own land. You don’t wear different clothes, eat different food or speak a different language. You are not emigrants or displaced people. You would be foreigners and exiles in any land and among any people. You don’t think or judge or treated people like others do. You don’t live for what they chase after. Your bodies are temples to be used in God’s service and to his glory. You stand out in the eyes of the world because of the good things you do and especially because of the evil you refused to do. And in this you shame others and evoke their hostility.

“Yes, they think you’re strange when you refuse to join them in their drunken orgies, idolatrous ceremonies and shady business deals. You spend so much time together, love each other so much and are so free from the affairs of the world that your neighbors accuse you of being unpatriotic, inhuman and clannish. Don’t be surprised by this. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t retaliate. God has not abandoned you. Remember Jesus. The world rejected him for the same reason it rejects you. Know that the more you resemble him, the more the world will hate you. Remember that when he was cursed he blessed. He remained faithful despite all opposition. So, place yourselves into the hands of your faithful creator and continue to follow Jesus.”

I think that is what Peter might say to us. Notice how he draws bright, clear lines between the way of the world and the way of Jesus Christ, between God’s people and the people of world, between the way the world lives and the way Christians should live. Peter doesn’t mince words; he is not diplomatic or politically correct. For Peter, there is, there should be, and there always will be a stark difference between serious disciples of Jesus and those who follow the normal pattern of the world. And Peter’s one-word description of this difference is “holiness.”

I hope we will ask ourselves throughout this series on 1 Peter this question: “What would Peter say to us? Would he see a clear distinction between us and the world—or would he see a boundary fuzzy and broad? Would he commend us for carrying out our mission to be God’s holy people, holy priests who offer spiritual sacrifices to God? Would he see us doing our job of witnessing to the reality and true character of God?”

Peter is an elder, a shepherd. He’s not trying to please us. He is trying to protect us, to save us from spiritual danger and heartache. So, let’s take him seriously.

Now that we have before us the overall message of 1 Peter, let’s look a bit closer at the section chosen for today: 2:1-6.

1 Peter 2:1-6

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,     a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him     will never be put to shame.”

General Observation: Activity

Notice the activity in these words, everything is in movement: Ridding, craving, growing, tasting, moving toward, building and offering. Everything is living and moving and active. Peter sees God at work in the world and among his people, and he urges us to keep alert and active.

I used to play tennis. When you’re waiting for your opponent to serve, you get on your toes, ready to react quickly. You don’t want to get caught flatfooted or back on your heels. As an experienced shepherd, Peter knows you’ve got to be ready for whatever comes your way.

1 Peter 2:1: Things to Leave Behind

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”

He begins the sentence with the word “therefore,” which means Peter is drawing a conclusion from what he said previously. When you look back at the preceding verses in 1:22-25 you see why:

1 Peter 1:22-25

22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

“All people are like grass,     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.

We’ve been born again by the word of God. Peter doesn’t think of this word as dead letters on a page or abstract ideas; it is alive because it is God’s active presence, full of his Spirit. The word of God can change you at the center of your being. Peter is speaking here of word of the gospel, which communicates the name, character and living reality of Jesus Christ into our hearts. No wonder Peter says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” The living truth of Jesus teaches us to love each other deeply from the heart. There is no place for these things in a heart where Jesus lives.

And the more you live like this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:2-3: Growing in Salvation

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In verses 2-3 Peter builds on the metaphor of a new birth, which he used in the previous chapter. To thrive newborn babies need the right food. Being born is just the beginning. They need to grow up. The same pattern holds for the new life we have in Christ. It’s not enough just to be born again of the word of God. It’s not enough just to stay alive. We need to grow. And to grow spiritually we need the right spiritual food. As you can see in verse 3, the Lord himself is that spiritual food. And he is made real to us by the “word of God.”

Newborns crave milk. They demand it! Are we hungry for God’s word? Do we seek God and long for his presence? Do we beg God for his Spirit and yearn for fellowship with Jesus? This is the food we need to grow in the spiritual sense.

What does it mean to become spiritually mature, to grown up in salvation? The answer is obvious: it means to become like Jesus, to think with his mind and feel with his heart and serve with his hands. It means to be so changed that you pray like Jesus, love like Jesus and keep faith like Jesus. It means to rid yourself of the vices that Peter condemns and develop the virtues he praises.

And the more you do this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:4-5: Spiritual House, Holy Priesthood and Spiritual Sacrifices

The next verses continue the thought but change the metaphor from growing up to being built into a temple. Both however are processes of becoming.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

We are like the stones of which a temple is built, with Jesus as the cornerstone. But unlike ordinary stones, we are not passive in this process; we “come to him,” we move toward this living stone, who is Jesus Christ. We believe in him and put ourselves at his disposal. And he makes something of us. Peter really presses this metaphor.

Jesus is not only the living cornerstone but also the architect and the builder of this temple. We are living stones in this living temple and the priests who serve in this temple, offering spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God. Temples are holy places, where God lives and people come to meet him. But in this case we do not go to the holy house of God to have a priest offer our sacrifice for us; we are the holy house of God, we are the priests and we are the sacrifices.

A Spiritual House or Temple

Notice what is being built here: the whole is greater than its parts. Something new comes into being when the living stones are incorporated into the building. The building itself is alive. One organic molecule doesn’t make a cell, and one cell doesn’t make a living human being. One stone doesn’t make a temple, and one person doesn’t make a people. Nor does pile of stones make a house or crowd of individuals make a people.

The word “Christianity” can be a misleading term. It’s not found in the New Testament. A Christian is a real living being, a believer and a disciple. But Christianity sounds like a philosophy that could be adopted, adapted and more or less practiced by a lone individual; it could be mistaken for an ideology for culture or a therapy to help us through life.

No, that is not what it is. Christianity is always concretely embodied in a Christian, and a Christian cannot exist except in the city of God, in the kingdom of God, in a people. Christianity—if we have to use this abstract term—is a comprehensive way of life that cannot be lived except in the community created by the Word and Spirit of God.

The Rejected Stone

Notice the idea set off by dashes in verse 4, the rejected stone. It may look like an afterthought in this context, but it fits right into Peter’s overall theme that we are “foreigners and Exiles” in the world, just like Jesus was. Peter says to his readers, “Jesus was rejected by his contemporaries but he was chosen and precious to God. In the same way, you are rejected by your contemporaries but are loved and chosen by God. Don’t be surprised that you are disliked because you are a Christian, a serious disciple of Jesus. Be encouraged because this is a sign that you are chosen by God.”

Naturally, we want to please people. We want them to like us. And when people reject us it is natural to ask ourselves, “What am I doing wrong?” But Peter says, “People’s rejection of Jesus did not prove the there was something wrong with him; instead it revealed their corruption. In the same way, if people don’t like you because you follow Jesus don’t be discouraged; count it an opportunity to identify with Jesus and enter empathetically into his experience.

Very few of our neighbors would speak disparagingly of Jesus. They might even admire him. But for most of them “Jesus” is just a name, just a story. The true test of whether someone accepts or rejects Jesus is not whether they admire him but whether they trust their lives to him and follow him wherever he leads.

Holy Priests and Spiritual Sacrifices

Let’s look at one more idea in this text. As holy priests, we have work to do. We are to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What are these spiritual sacrifices?

What is a sacrifice anyway? It’s an act in which we return to God an object of value as an act of devotion. In human relationships such an act is called a gift. In both cases, the particular object that is given up is not the main thing. It symbolizes something deeper: the relationship between giver and the recipient of the gift or worshiper and God.

What is Peter doing by qualifying our sacrifices with the term “spiritual”? In calling our sacrifices “spiritual” Peter contrasts our sacrifices with those made in physical Temples, sacrifices of blood and animal bodies and grain. By calling our gifts to God “spiritual” Peter puts the emphasis on the inner, symbolic meaning of our acts of worship rather than on their external features—the real thing as opposed to its appearance to the senses.

The Greek word translated here as “spiritual” is used in the New Testament to speak of God’s nature. To say that a life or a sacrifice or anything in the world “spiritual” is to say that it is God-like, that it participates in God’s spiritual nature. It is corresponds to the character of God.

Is Worship For God or For Us?

When we hear the term “spiritual sacrifices” we probably think of what goes on in the Sunday morning worship hour. More specifically, we may think of our songs and prayers and, perhaps, our “offering.” Have you ever wondered what worship is for? Is it for God or us? A few months ago Rich Little [our regular preaching minister] played a little video clip in which Victoria Olsteen explains to her church that worship is not for God’s benefit but ours. God is pleased, she says, when we are happy. Worship is for us, to make us feel good. She says:

Realize when we obey God we are not doing it for God.  I mean that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves.  Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.  That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy….So I want you to know…just do good for your own self.  Do good because God wants you to be happy.  When you come to church, when you worship him you are not doing it for God really.  You’re doing it for yourself….Amen?

Of course, it’s easy to smile at such a careless and narcissistic statement. But let’s don’t be too hard on her because she’s half right. She’s right that God doesn’t need anything we can give him. So, worship cannot be about making God happy or propping up his ego or making him feel loved or taken seriously. If you think of worship exclusively as doing something for God’s benefit you will end up putting the focus on the external features of things, on getting it right.

And Ms. Olsteen is right that worship is designed for our benefit, in a certain sense. But if we make worship all about us, we will focus exclusively on how worship makes us feel: did I enjoy the songs, were people friendly, was the sermon uplifting, were the prayers well-worded, did the service start on time, did it end on time, and on and on. And, if we make worship all about us, we will begin worshiping worship instead of God, that is, worshiping ourselves instead of God.

By “spiritual” Peter does not mean something moving or beautiful. Of course, he is not saying that the external features and feelings that accompany them are of no importance. But they are external, superficial and momentary. By a “spiritual” sacrifice Peter means the real act that is symbolized by the external act—the God-like act that participates in the spiritual nature of God. So, what is this real act?

Peter doesn’t explain it…and this is because he expects his readers to know what he is talking about. They know about the teaching of Jesus and the example he left us. They know that they should love God above all things and love their neighbors as themselves. They remember Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They know that Jesus sacrificed his blood and returned his life in obedience to his Father. What is our “spiritual sacrifice,” our spiritual worship? It is the act of giving our lives back to God to do with as he pleases! It’s not something you do only on Sunday mornings or Thursday evenings; it is identical with our whole act of living. What we do and say ritually and symbolically on Sunday is what we should be doing practically and actually every day of the week.

Apart from this act of worship, it does not matter what words you say or what feelings the music stirs in you. So, is Ms. Olsteen wrong that worship should benefit us? No. But spiritual worship benefits us not by generating good feelings in us but by making us into good people. Week after week, year after year, a steady diet of the “spiritual milk” of the word of God, read, sung, prayed, preached, ritually enacted and practiced daily, will help us grow up in our salvation. Worship is not about our momentary happy feelings but about our participation in God’s spiritual mode of life. And this sharing in God’s life creates in us the most enduring, deepest and highest joy.

Concluding Questions

1. I leave you with a series of questions for self-examination Peter the elder might ask us:

2. Am I a serious disciple of Jesus?

3. Do I hunger and thirst for God’s word?

4. Do I feel like a foreigner and an exile in the world? Or do I feel quite at home in a pagan world?

5. Is our church a holy and living temple dedicated to making the true character of God known in the world?

6. Do we live as a community in a radically different way from the social order of the world?

7. Do we really love each other deeply?

8. Am I offering spiritual sacrifices to God or mere words and signs?

9. Do I seek momentary feelings of wellbeing or lasting spiritual transformation.

Note: I preached this sermon at the University Church of Christ, which meets on the campus of Pepperdine University, today, May 24, 2015.

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