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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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The Resurrection Revolution: An Early Easter Sermon

Introduction:

When Christians get together they sometimes speak a language no one else can understand…a kind of Christianese. Sometimes I wonder whether even we understand it. When we sing, “Praise God” or “I love you Lord” or “you are worthy” or “I give myself to you,” do we know what the words mean? Or when we say, “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” could we explain what we mean?

But in this post I want to consider an expression we may hear on Easter Sunday. The leader will say, “He has risen.” And the church will say, “He has risen indeed.” Do we know what we are saying? Do we know that we are speaking about the most revolutionary event since the creation of the world? Do we feel its power and truth? And do we live lives that correspond to this assertion? Or is “He has risen. He has risen indeed” just another expression in Christianese. Just something we say on Easter Sunday?

I want to give you 6 points about the resurrection of Jesus to help us break free of Christianese into the reality about which it speaks.

Apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christianity would not exist. We read the story of the two sad disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24. Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. As they talked they expressed their disappointment: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They “had hoped,” but their hope was gone.

Paul is also clear that Jesus’ resurrection is the “make it or break it” fact of Christianity. He says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

If Jesus had not risen, the world would be very different! There would have been no apostles, no church, and no world mission. We would never have heard of Jesus or Paul or John. Rome would have remained pagan. The French, Germans, English, Russians, Greeks, and hundreds of other nations would have continued to worship their gods. There would be no Chinese, Indian, African or Korean Christians. Every moral principle, religious belief or rational idea that Christianity gave to the world would be missing. There would be no Harvard, Princeton or Pepperdine. And you and I would not be standing here this evening. Indeed, most likely we would never have been born.

The Resurrection of Jesus is a real event that happened in our space and time. Christianity is not based on a philosophy derived from observing the repeating patterns of nature. It is not based on the secret revelations to a self-proclaimed prophet. It is not derived from speculations about the divine world that appeal to your pride or fancies. Christianity is based on a historical event. It either happened or it didn’t. It could have been refuted. To believe in the resurrection is to believe those witnesses who tell us that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death and burial.

The Resurrection of Jesus reveals the goal of creation and all history. The meaning of any historical event is determined by its context and what flows from it. There are three contexts that are especially important for determining the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus: the life, teaching, actions, and death of Jesus; those religious and theological speculations about the end of the world that were held in Jesus’ day; and the experience and reactions of the disciples of Jesus to his resurrection appearances.

Had it been someone other than Jesus, the meaning of the resurrection would have been different. Perhaps it would be simply an amazing event testifying to the power of God but without further implications. But it was Jesus! Jesus came preaching the coming kingdom of God, he cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, taught with authority, spoke about God as his Father, called himself the Son of Man; he predicted his death, and instituted a new covenant at the Last Supper. And he was crucified as a blasphemer of Israel’s God and a rebel against Imperial Rome. For God to raise this man from the dead would be to confirm God’s approval of all he said and did. It would be to reverse completely the charge of blasphemy and unlawful rebellion.

As for the religious and theological context, most Jews in Jesus’ day hoped that when God defeated evil and established his everlasting kingdom, he would raise the dead so that they could participate in the kingdom. The resurrection of the dead to eternal life was supposed to happen only with the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom of God. So, when Jesus was definitively saved from death and his human body was glorified and made immortal, the disciples concluded that the kingdom has come. It is the beginning of the end. And Jesus is the first of many!

The original disciples and Paul experienced appearances of the resurrected and glorified Jesus. And they were completely transformed. Paul was changed from Rabbi and Persecutor to Apostle, Missionary and Martyr. They feared neither death nor the devil. They desired neither money nor fame. Paul summarizes well the resurrection lifestyle: “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Or “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

The Resurrection of Jesus Really Happened. How do we know this? We know in the same way we know any event in the past: either we remember our own experience of it or we believe the word of someone who did experience it. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the decisive issue is whether or not we believe the testimony of those first generation Christians who tell us they saw and heard the resurrected Jesus. We have the witness of gospel accounts, Acts, 1 Peter and the letters of John. But the testimony of Paul, from a historian’s point of view, is the strongest and most direct testimony. We can listen to his own words from his letters, and no one doubts that 1 Corinthians and Galatians were written by Paul within about 20 years of the resurrection and about 17 or 18 years of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.

1 Cor 15:3-8

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

And according to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul met Peter and stayed with him 15 days and he also met James the Lord’s brother. So, what Paul’s says in 1 Corinthians about Jesus appearing to Peter and James is not hearsay. He heard their stories from their own mouths.

We can believe them or not, but there is no doubt about what they claim.

Accepting the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus establishes their authority for us. The Lord Jesus chose to reveal himself to the apostles. They are special. When we come to faith in Jesus through their words, we simultaneously acknowledge our dependence on them. We naturally want to know everything they can tell us about Jesus and about how to become his disciples and live as Christians. This is why the church accepts the authority of the NT. We don’t believe the resurrection because of the authority of the NT, we accept the authority of the NT (and the whole Bible) because we believe the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection. Keeping this order in mind will answer many of the questions and solve many of the problems nonbelievers and believers alike have about the Bible.

Believing—really believing—the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus will revolutionize your life. Think about how their experience of seeing and hearing the resurrected Christ changed Peter and Paul’s lives. In fear, Peter denied Jesus three times. But after the Jesus’ resurrection he stood before the same Sanhedrin Council that condemned Jesus, headed by the same high priest, Caiaphas. But this time he boldly proclaimed to the Council the name of Jesus “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10).

Meeting the resurrected Jesus changed Paul from persecutor to preacher and missionary to the world. As soon as you have the chance, turn to Acts 26 and read Paul’s speech to King Agrippa. There he tells the story of his conversion. These people no longer feared death or kings or emperors or the devil. They no longer desired riches or fame. They no longer sought pleasure or comfort. This revolution happened not only to Peter and Paul but also to Stephen and Phillip, James and John and many others. And it can happen to you as well.

But we have not experienced the risen Jesus in the same way they did. So we have to experience it in faith. How do we do this? It might help us to remember that as far as we know they did not continually experience appearances of Jesus their whole lives. Even they had to remember what they saw and heard. We don’t have those memories as our own. So we can’t imagine it or remember it for ourselves. But we have their memories! So, we need to listen to their testimony, enter into their words and let their words enter into us; and through their words we enter into their experiences.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the church and for gathering together as a church is to enter into these memories. Symbols and sacraments and teaching and singing brings these memories to life again. As we read their words, we realize that they had no doubts about the reality of the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus was as real to them as you are to me, and their memories of his appearances were as real as our memories of yesterday. And as we continually let their words dwell in us, we will begin to experience their confidence in the reality of the resurrection; and you may find yourself acting with their boldness in living.

Conclusion

So on Sunday when the worship leader says to you “He has risen” and you say in return, “He has risen indeed,” understand that these words are not originally your memories, not your feelings. You can’t assert them on your own authority. And they are not empty Christianese code words. These are the words the angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb. But if you are clear about who said these words first and why, you can experience something of the joy, confidence and boldness of those who first heard them.

Note: This talk was delivered to a student gathering at Pepperdine University on Thursday, April 2, 2015.