A People of Grace

The NIV’s translation of verse 5 is a little unfortunate.  Peter has been talking about elders in the church, and he still is here; the distinction in this first sentence isn’t between younger people and older people, but between those who aren’t elders and those who are.  It’s quite clear from the way he continues that he’s addressing the believers as a whole at this point, not just one subset of them.  What he has to say is important, because if the temptation of leader­ship is to dominate and demand, servant leadership creates an equal temptation among those who are being served.  It’s easy to mistake humility for weakness and a servant’s heart for a servile spirit, and start to think of a servant leader as “the help.”

I first understood what that means on the occasion of a wedding I did for a couple who came from wealthy families.  They appre­ciated all I did for them, but when the service and reception rolled around, I realized that their families didn’t.  They saw me the same way they saw the people bussing the tables:  as little more than animate furniture.  That sort of attitude is the result of arrogance, and breeds arrogance—the same arrogance we were warned about last week.  In that, we can see that these two temptations, that of the leader and that of those who are served, are really one:  the temptation to arrogance instead of humility and a spirit of entitlement instead of a spirit of grace.  As such, they stand in complete opposition to the life which Christ has given and invited us to live.

Peter brings his letter to a close by telling his readers how to live that life in the face of persecution and suffering.  What he says amounts to this:  we are to be a people of grace.  He lays this out in three ways.  At the center of this passage, he calls us to live by grace toward God.  “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God,” he says, “and cast all your anxieties on him.”  Set aside the pride that says that you can do it on your own, that you’re good enough just the way you are, that you deserve to get what you want, that you deserve better than what you’re getting.  Give up the desire to run your life and the insistence on making it all happen yourself—that’s the only way you can cast your anxieties on God; as long as you’re trying to keep control, the anxieties will come with it.  To cast your anxieties on him, you must give up control to him.

This is an invitation to entrust ourselves and our lives totally to God, because he cares for us—much better than we do for ourselves, in fact.  I love the way theologian Douglas Harink puts it:  the Christian life is only possible if

we trust God absolutely in every circumstance. Only such trust will free us from the constant and normal temptations to assert our own power in circumstances, to take down the enemy or oppressor, to seek our own good, to establish our own rights, to attain our own position of honor, or, most basically, simply to defend ourselves and secure our own safety.  Without humble trust in “the mighty hand of God,” how would we be able to follow the way of the Messiah, who did not do any of those things, but rather, “entrust­[ing] himself to the one who judges justly,” walked the journey from divine glory to the cross?

As Dr. Harink continues, “a mere imitation of Christ carried out by the sheer power of human will” is not the Christian life.  You can live an impressively moral life that way (on the outside, at least) and convince a lot of people you’re a godly person, but you won’t be.  That’s a life lived apart from God, because it’s a life lived to impress God (and other people).  Following Christ begins in truth with the admission that wecan’t actually follow Christ at all.  All we can do is lay ourselves at his feet in abject humility and admit our utter inability to do what he commands us to do, and let his Holy Spirit pick us up and carry us.  It’s only as we are in Christ by the power of his Spirit, only as we’re completely surrendered to him and our own pride is completely abandoned, in total dependence on his grace, that we can live his life.

The other two points flow out of this reality.  One, Peter says in verses 8-9 that we’re to live by grace against sin.  It’s easy to miss that because it’s easy to miss that Peter isn’t talking about human opponents here.  If you look back at the rest of the letter, he never tells his readers to resist those who persecute them; quite the opposite.  Thus, when he says to resist the Devil, he has something very different in mind.  This is important.  As Dr. Harink points out, when we focus on “apparent flesh-and-blood enemies, we . . . miss the sneak attack of the real adversary—the devil—the one who has already devoured ‘them’ and now seeks to devour ‘us,’ exactly by setting us in warfare against them.”  When this happens, “the defeat of the messianic people [is] total, because the very messianic character that defines them [disappears].”

Our enemy is the Devil, not other people, not matter what other people might do to us, and we cannot resist him by our own strength or force of will.  We can’t, because he will turn those against us.  Our enemy doesn’t only seek to destroy us through our temptations, he seeks to destroy us through our highest goals and most noble motivations, by corrupting and twisting them and by teaching us to use them as excuses for sin.  We can only resist him by putting our faith entirely in Christ and resting wholly on his grace.  We can only resist the Devil by turning at every point to Jesus, entrusting ourselves as he did to the one who judges justly.

Finally, Peter commands us to live in grace toward one another.  Not for us the pride that presumes to look down on others; God opposes the proud.  Rather, the more we humble our­selves before God and confess our total dependence on his grace, the more this will determine how we regard and treat one another.  There are two aspects to this.  First, if the Lord himself didn’t come to be served but to serve, how much more should this be true of us?  He calls us to give up our lives in service to each other, not for a little while, not so that they will serve us the way we want to be served, not until they realize we’re too good for that, but in total, with no expectation of any earthly credit or reward.  He calls us to give up our agendas and our insistence on having things our way, not as a sneaky strategy for getting our way in the end, but as our sacrifice of worship to him.  He invites us to cast our anxieties on him and pour ourselves out in service, holding nothing back, trusting by his grace that all will be well, and all will be good.

Second, if we’re sinners who are utterly dependent on the grace of God for our own salvation—and we are, every one of us—and we’re grateful to God for his mercy when we sin against him, how can we not show that same mercy to those who sin against us?  None of us has standing to assume the posture of the judge, looking down on others from a height of moral superiority; measured against the goodness and holiness of God, the greatest height of moral superiority any of us can claim is no more than an anthill.  When others sin, it isn’t our place to decide what justice should be done to them, much less to impose it.  Rather, our proper place is to come alongside them in humility, on an equal footing with them as fellow sinners saved only by grace, and strive gently and kindly to teach and encourage them to resist the Devil.  In this, too, we are to serve regardless of any hope of reward.  Jesus commands us to forgive each other until we’ve lost count of how many times we’ve done it, then keep forgiving.

All of this will mean suffering.  It will mean suffering from the world, as we set an example that makes our society uncomfortable, and as God allows us to suffer so that he can use it for our growth.  It will mean suffering from the Devil, both the pain of conviction for our sin and the pain of resisting temptation.  It will even mean suffering from the church, as there will be times that others will take advantage of us.  To this, as he has all the way through the letter, Peter encourages us to trust Jesus.  Trust him, and after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  This is the true grace of God.  Stand firm in it.

Servant Leaders

The NIV is missing a key word in verse 1:  “Therefore.”  It is time for judgment to begin with the house of God, suffering is coming to separate the wheat from the weeds—therefore, Peter says, I appeal to every elder in the church.  What he’s going to say would be true and important regardless, but when times are peaceful, the church can survive, and sometimes grow, even under un-Christlike leaders.  It may not be all that strong spiritually, but competence in worldly matters can at least keep it muddling along.  When suffering and judgment loom on the horizon, that’s no longer the case, and the need becomes critical for those who lead the church to do so as Christ does.

Note how Peter frames his appeal to church leaders.  He doesn’t say, “I appeal to you as an apostle,” putting himself above them and asserting his authority.  He could have, as he established that in the very first line of the letter, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he says, “I appeal to you as a fellow elder,” putting himself on the same level as them.  What matters isn’t positional authority—I have this position or this office, so I have the right to instruct you or to give you orders.  What matters is their common position under authority, as servants of Christ and his church.  This is important:  Peter is modeling for these elders the attitude he wants them to have toward their churches.

He’s calling them to turn away from their culture’s common understanding of leadership, which Jesus summarizes aptly.  “Those whom the Gentiles regard as their rulers lord it over them, and their high officials make them feel the weight of their authority.”  It was all about positional authority with them:  my position gives me the right to get what I want, to have things my way, and to force you to comply.  It’s the leadership approach we saw with the President five years ago when he met with Republican leaders to discuss his proposed economic stimulus plan.  When they started pushing him to structure it differently, he responded, “I won.”  I won, I’m the guy who has the desk with the red phone on it, so I get to do things my way.  I don’t have to listen to you if I don’t want to.

Now, this is not to say that just because Republicans disagreed with him, the President should have given in.  There will always be disagreement, and leaders have the re­sponsibility to chart the best course they can according to their best judgment, not to try to make everyone happy.  You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, all you’ll manage to do is jam the rudder.  The problem is the attitude:  I won, you lost, so either go along with me or go fly a kite.  There’s no humility in that, no respect for those who dis­agree, and thus no willingness to learn anything from them.  Indeed, there’s no sense that there might be anything to learn from them.  The assumption is, “I have the authority, therefore I have the right, therefore I amright.”

Peter tells us that in Christ, we need to lead very differently:  we need to lead as shepherds.  We tend to collapse the shepherding metaphor into pastoral care—which then often means we only apply it to pastors, and let the rest of the elders of the church off the hook.  Peter’s point is much bigger.  Shepherds put their lives at the disposal of the sheep.  They lead the sheep, but they don’t set the agenda—the sheep do.  The sheep are concerned about having good grass, good water, and a safe place to lie down, and they aren’t going to change that for anybody.  The shepherd leads the sheep, but that only means his job is to figure out how to get the sheep where they need to be, and then to do what it takes to make that happen.  If that means going without sleep to find a missing lamb, he goes without sleep.  If it means risking his life to protect them, then so be it.

The shepherd is entirely the servant of his sheep, with no hope that they will ac­commodate his wishes, or let him get comfortable, or even express proper appreciation for all his sacrifice on their behalf.  They’ll certainly complain if they don’t like the grass or the water, but they aren’t going to tell him he’s wonderful when he leads them to good pastures.  They won’t make him rich, either, because most of them aren’t his sheep; one or two may be, but the rest belong to someone else, and so too will the profit.  He’s just a laborer working for his daily bread.

Peter speaks to us as a fellow elder—as one who knows this work from the inside out.  As a fellow elder, he tells those of us who are elders that this is who we are and how we’re called to lead.  This is the model for anyone who would lead the people of God, no matter who you are.  If it was true for Peter, who had about as much claim to importance as anyone in the history of the church, it’s true for all the rest of us.  As Jesus said, the world thinks leaders are people who exercise power to make things happen the way they want them to happen, but those who would lead his people must be a very different kind of leader, with a very different heart and mindset.

If you want to be a leader in the church, you need to be all about serving others—not putting yourself first, but putting yourself last.  Leadership means laying down your life for the church.  And note this:  this is addressed to us to apply to ourselves.  As leaders, we have the responsibility to convict ourselves before we presume to criticize others, and to challenge ourselves harder than anyone else.

Thus Peter tells us how and why one ought to be an elder in the church:  not out of any sort of compulsion, not for money, not to dominate others or serve our own agenda, but freely, out of a desire to serve and bless the church as a whole.  In this, he says, we are to be examples to those whom we lead.  I’ve talked about this before:  this is the heart of Christian leadership.  The essence of the calling is to say to the church with Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”  This is critically important because of what we’ve seen all the way through 1 Peter:  being a Christian doesn’t just mean following a different set of rules from the world, it means we have a whole new identity apart from the world, because we are now in Christ.  This isn’t something you can just explain to people; they have to be able to see it lived out if they’re going to understand it.  It has to be modeled.  It can’t be taught unless it’s also caught.

The church is the body of Christ, alive by the life of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us.  He calls us to live as a people who do everything we do not to be served but to serve, and to give our lives for others—for enemies and opponents as much as for friends and family.  This means that the primary duty of elders is to be examples of the life of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us.  To lead as servants isn’t a strategy, or a method, or a program, it’s the essence of the work of Christian leadership, because we can only teach others to live this way if we’re living this way ourselves.

The House of God

Our passage from 1 Peter this morning brings the main body of the letter to a close.  The apostle’s primary practical concern as he wrote was to help these believers understand and respond in a Christlike way to the present reality and future prospect of suffering for their faith.  As we’ve seen, he approaches this by focusing them on their identity in Christ, for two reasons.  One, they need to realize that if they live as committed followers of Christ, suffering is unavoidable.  The world will try to force them to change, and punish them if they don’t, for being who they are instead of who the world thinks they ought to be.  As the Japanese say, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  Two, they need to believe that following Christ is worth the suffering, that the rewards are and will be worth the pain, so that they don’t lose heart and walk away.

Here, as he wraps up all that he’s been saying about suffering, he brings in one more idea which serves to land the whole section.  After all, even if you buy in to every­thing Peter’s had to say to this point, you might well still be thinking it isn’t fair.  Sure, no one ever said life is fair, and I believe that Jesus makes it all worth it, but we shouldn’t have to suffer for our faith in him, and why doesn’t God protect us from it?  He could, after all—he’s all-powerful and all-knowing, and he could do it if he wanted to.

Many answers have been offered to that question.  One that I keep coming back to is the reality that if we were miraculously protected from all suffering, we would quickly lose our ability to relate to, much less to minister to, people in pain.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “The man who has not suffered—what does he know, anyway?”  That’s an approach, one of many, which points to the usefulness of suffering—which means, while I believe it to be true, it is nevertheless an attempt to soften the question a little bit by making it seem like not quite such a bad thing.

Peter is bolder than that; in this passage, he strikes deeper than we ever really want to go.  In verse 16 he says, “If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed, but praise God that you’re known as a Christian.”  OK, that’s nothing new for this letter.  Then comes verse 17.  “For”—which is to say, this is why you should praise God if you suffer as a Christian—“it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God.”  In other words—at least, this is what it sounds like—praise God if you’re suffering for his sake, because this is his judgment on you.  What on earth do we do with that?

There are three things that need to be said here.  First, while Peter doesn’t use the word “family” here, if we think of this in a family context for a minute, we begin to get a handle on it.  I discipline my children, but I don’t discipline other people’s children, because it’s not my right to do so.  That would make me a meddler or a busybody, which Peter tells us not to be in verse 15.  When I discipline my kids, they may perceive it as suffering—Iain certainly does—but it isn’t that I want them to suffer.  I want them to turn away from their sin rather than continuing in it; I want them to grow in godliness rather than in sinfulness.  It’s better for them to suffer sooner under discipline than to suffer later under judgment, for the latter is far worse, with far greater consequences in the long term.  So it is with us under God.

Second, what Peter has in view here is God’s judgment on the whole world, which will come to its fulfillment at the return of Christ.  He isn’t talking about God judging you or me as individuals; this is the judgment of God in the big picture, sorting out the world into those who have come to Christ and those who have rejected him.  That’s why he says specifically that it’s time for judgment to begin with the houseof God, with God’s temple on earth—which, you may remember, he defined back in chapter 2.  God’s spiritual house, the place where he is worshiped on earth, is the church, and we are the living stones out of which he is building it.

Why does this matter?  Well, it shifts the picture.  Peter isn’t actually saying that if I suffer for my faith, that it’s God’s judgment on me personally—presumably for my sin, which wouldn’t make a great deal of sense in this context.  Rather, he’s saying that if suffering comes on the church, that we need to recognize that as the beginning of his judgment on the whole world.  His judgment on the world is the separation of the wheat from the weeds, to borrow from one of Jesus’ parables.  When the church suffers, that separation is made within the church; those who aren’t truly disciples of Christ, and thus would lead it away from him and bring it under judgment for sin, are weeded out.  If you suffer as a Christian—if suffering for your faith doesn’t drive you away, but drives you to Christ—then, Peter says, you should praise God for that.

There has been a long season in this country for the wheat and the weeds to grow up together, but I think we’ve seen that judgment beginning in the American church.  A lot has been written about the “rise of the Nones,” as the fastest-growing religious category in the census is those with no religious affiliation; many have taken this as a major change in American society, and either lamented or celebrated it, depending on their point of view.  It isn’t really a change at all, though, just a symptom of change.  Most of those folks used to describe themselves as affiliated with one church or another because this is America and that’s what you do, even if they only ever went for Christmas, Easter, and weddings.  Now, increasingly, that isn’t what you do anymore, and so people who don’t go to church and don’t really care about church have no reason to say otherwise; they aren’t really changing their religious position, just being more honest about it.

Beyond that, whenever Christianity is socially approved, there will be many who will go to church for reasons that have little to do with God—for the sake of their reputation, or their business dealings, or what have you.  As traditional Christian faith falls out of favor, that creates a problem for them:  they don’t want to lose the connections they’ve made in the church, but they don’t want to be associated with something which is unpop­ular in their social circles.  Their usual response is to try to drag the church along with the culture, and thus we see many in the American church changing historic Christian teaching to conform to what elite society tells us all the right-thinking people believe.

That’s been going on for a long time in the Protestant mainline, such as our former denomination, but it isn’t just there; we also see it happening now among many who would call themselves evangelicals.  The church is being divided out.  If we refuse to go with the flow, if we stand for Christ against the desires of the world, we need to realize that we’re in for trouble for it, and we need to accept that in advance.

Third, if we do, it matters.  It matters tremendously, because this is about the cleansing of the temple.  The house of God is the place on earth where God is worshipped; it’s the access point for all those in the world whom he draws to seek him.  He made many promises through the Old Testament prophets that the time would come when all nations would come to Zion, to the mountain of God, to his temple and his city, to worship him and to bow before him; the church is the spiritual Zion and the inheritor of those promises.

One that we should especially remember is God’s statement in Isaiah 56, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  I say we should remember it because of something Jesus didtwice—which I’m sure Peter never forgot.  The high priest set up a religious marketplace in the Court of the Gentiles; it probably made him a lot of money, but it also made it impossible for Gentiles to worship in the Temple.  They probably couldn’t even hear what was going on in the inner courts over the sounds of animals and money and business deals.  When Jesus saw this, he flipped over the tables and drove out animals and moneychangers alike, denouncing the whole thing in the words of Isaiah 56:  “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

The worship of God had to be pure because those whom God was calling needed to be able to answer that call.  It wasn’t, so Jesus purified it by driving out those who weren’t in that courtyard to worship.  God’s judgment on the church is the separation of those who are focused on worshipping him, who are learning to love to worship him, from those who, in the last analysis, are really worshipping something else.  It’s God renewing his church as a people who worship him in spirit and in truth, and whose worship is pure—as pure as we ever manage, anyway—so that those who come are led and taught to turn away from the idols of our culture and worship him alone.

Faithful Stewards

(Proverbs 10:8-12Luke 19:11-271 Peter 4:7-11)

We seem to have finally shaken ourselves free of the grey skies and cold winds of winter; but even if the sun is finally shining, there is heavy weather ahead.  When the news came down that Zimmer had bought Biomet, the horizon turned black and ominous for a lot of people in our community.  A lot of them are afraid of being laid off, and a lot more are talking about leaving.  It’s the end of an era, and it could take far more than just the era with it.  A storm is coming, and the skies are dark.

It isn’t just here, though; look to the world’s horizon.  If Iran wants to develop weapons of mass destruction, we can’t really stop them, and we don’t know how close they might be—and the government of Iran is the geopolitical equivalent of a homicidal sociopath.  North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and I’m not even sure what you’d compare them to; that may be the most fundamentally deranged government and political culture in human history.  The skies are dark; a storm is coming.

And our nation?  “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven”; and unlike Tennyson’s Ulysses, we cannot claim to be “One equal temper of heroic hearts / . . . strong in will / To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield.”  Our culture is collapsing back into a class system; the real divide isn’t between Democrat and Republican anymore, but between the elites and the plebes, and they’re beginning to separate like bad veneer coming off cheap particle board.  That separation is sapping the life from our political system.  Increasingly, our elites are too focused on playing their own power games and enabling their own self-interest—particularly with regard to sexual politics—to take the problems of the world around them seriously on their own terms, rather than as opportunities for political gain.  And sacrificial leadership?  Forget it.  The skies are dark, the wind is rising, and the captain is down in the hospitality suite.

Now, perhaps you think I’m being far too grim, and painting far too black a picture.  I believe there’s an end looming—not the end of the world, but at least the end of the world as we know it—and maybe you don’t see that.  But even so, squint a little, and listen closely, because this is the horizon that frames both Peter’s instructions and Jesus’ parable.  Peter’s audience could see it:  unofficial persecution was rising, and Nero was unstable.  Those who stood around Jesus couldn’t; but forty years later, Jerusalem would burn, and the Temple would be dismantled down to the last stone.  Whether they realized it or not, the end of the world as they had known it was around the corner.

In truth, it always is, even in the best of times.  We cannot control the future, and we can never be sure what’s going to hit us next.  I don’t expect any of us to be dead by tomorrow, but any of us could be.  One moment’s distraction, at just the wrong time, and you could be hit by a bus, or a train, or lose control of your car.  Or something weirder could happen.  Our oldest and most beloved member in Grand Lake was walking to church one morning when an enraged bull moose charged down the alley behind our house and killed him.  Between one moment and the next, everything can change forever.

Therefore, says Peter, be faithful stewards of all the diverse forms of God’s grace, to the purpose that God would be glorified through Jesus Christ.  There are a few things to say about this.  First, “speaking” and “serving” means all our words and all our actions, everything we do in every part of life.  Paul says much the same in Colossians 3:  “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Peter elaborates:  if God has given you breath to speak, he has given you breath to speak his truth, every time you open your mouth.  If he has given you strength to act, he has given you strength to use to serve others.

Second, everything we have is God’s gift to us by his grace; there’s nothing that’s purely ours to use for our own purposes.  Your riches, your brilliant mind, your gentle personality, your great athletic ability, none of these are truly your possession.  All of them are gifts from God, given to the church in your person to be used for his work.  And for those of us who have none of the above, well, we bear other gifts from God to the church.  Nor is our time our own.  God gives us every moment, and he measures out the length of our days on this earth; we have only the time he gives us, and he gives it to us to serve him, including by serving one another, not to serve ourselves.  None of us can say “my time,” “my money,” or “my life” as the one who owns any of those things.  We’ve been loaned them for a little while; in the end, we’ll be judged for how we’ve used them.

Third, it’s even truer to say that none of us can say “my church” as the one who owns it; none of us have the right to say, “This is my church, so it should be what I want it to be.”  We are God’s church; he owns us, and this is where he owns us.  On earth, this is my church and your church because we belong to it, not because it belongs to us.  God calls us to the church in much the same way Jesus came into this world, not to be served but to serve, and to give our lives for the sake of the many.  This isn’t the church where any of us is allowed to insist on what we want or demand our own way; this is the church where each of us is called in the love of God to give up what we want and sacrifice our own way so that our brothers and sisters in Christ will grow in his love and his grace, and so that those who are estranged from him will come to know and love him as we should.

Fourth, as individuals and as a church, good stewardship doesn’t mean making sure we have enough in the bank to give us financial security.  It doesn’t mean using God’s gifts for our own benefit, or for our own support.  The goal of our stewardship of all our possessions and talents and time is not worldly success, or a comfortable retirement, or even to keep the lights on and the doors open.  When God comes to ask us if we’ve been faithful in our use of everything he’s given us, there will only be one criterion:  did we use it all to the best of our ability to serve and glorify him?

In our parable from Luke, a nobleman goes off to the imperial capital to receive a kingship, but some of his subjects send a delegation after him to oppose him.  If he gets his way, he’ll come back with even greater power.  If they get theirs, he’ll be exiled and replaced.  While he’s gone, his servants are in a somewhat precarious position—he’s gone, but most of his enemies are still around, and when the cat’s away, the mice will play.  He leaves each of them with money and a choice:  will they stake everything on his victorious return—because obeying their master’s command will earn them the hatred of those who hate him—or will they act as if he isn’t coming back?  When he returns, he judges them not on their financial acumen, but on their faithfulness:  did they continue to represent him and do his business while he was away, or not?

And what is the king’s business?  To what should we give the time we have left as the end draws nearer?  “Above all,” Peter says, “love each other deeply.”  When Jesus returned to the Father, he gave us the gift of his love, making us free to love each other humbly and sacrificially; but if we don’t make the decision to do so, then hatred will creep in, through its various guises—dislike, mistrust, bitterness—and sow conflict, gossip, backbiting, and undermining of leadership.  Love, however, buries those plants whenever they begin to grow, before they can bear fruit.  It breaks the cycle of sin in the community.  As the British pastor N. J. D. White put it,

a man who puts himself under the control of the love God acts, when a private personal injury has been done to him, as though nothing had occurred. In this way, by simply ignoring the unkind act or the insulting word, . . . he brings the evil thing to an end; it dies and leaves no seed. . . .  This consideration gives dignity and worth inestimable to the feeble efforts of the most insignificant of us to make love the controlling principle in our daily lives.

However feeble our efforts may seem to us at times, that we make them sincerely is what matters to our Lord; he asks us not, “Have you been successful?” but “Have you been faithful?” When he comes, may he find us faithful to the end.

Under New Management

(Proverbs 23:19-211 Peter 4:1-6)

You may have heard of the Presbyterian pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian; he’s Billy Graham’s grandson, and the successor to D. James Kennedy as the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church down in Fort Lauderdale.  I haven’t read a lot of his work, but he wrote a remarkable little essay last fall called “Church, We Have a Problem” that I’ve been mulling ever since.  In it, he writes this:

Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid.  Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. . . .

It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms.  Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”).  Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . .  Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . .  We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.

This is a profound insight.  Rev. Tchividjian goes on from there to talk about the importance of preaching grace, which is indeed the main point at issue.  I want to take his comments in a different direction, though, because I think he highlights something important about the world.  The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind.  Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists.  Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken.  What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.

This is important to recognize when we talk about our individualistic culture.  It is indeed individualistic in the sense that it values the desires of the individual above the well-being of the group (hence no-fault divorce laws, for example).  It’s quick to praise self-expression and denounce “conformity”—by which it means keeping the standards of previous generations, which are now hopelessly passé.  But have you ever noticed that non-conformists run in packs?  It’s great to be an individual and chart your own course, as long as you’re an individual just like everyone else.  Be “different” in one of the approved ways, and you’re golden.  If you’re actually different from the world, you’ll be attacked—as, among other things, a conformist.  And no, no one will see the irony.

Obviously, the world isn’t monolithic.  It has factions—different groups that want different things and approve of different things.  They’re rather like political parties.  But just like our political parties, they only fight each other when there’s no common enemy.  Introduce a threat to the system and the existing power structure, and they band together to defeat it.  We see an example of this in the gospels.  The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated each other, but they teamed up willingly to kill Jesus because they hated him even more.  As long as you’re in the system and belong to an accepted group, you might get flak from other groups, but you’ll be okay.

The key question from the world’s perspective is, are you a part of the system?  Do you follow its rules and honor its priorities?  If so, you might think you’re the one calling the shots, but it’s the world that’s running your life; you’re under its management, in its employ.  For example, you might be a spender or a saver; you might believe in working hard and living frugally, or you might live one paycheck behind and borrow from everyone in sight.  These are different factions which honor money in different ways, but they agree on its importance.  That’s what the world really cares about.  Even as Christians, it’s easy to fall into these patterns, thinking and acting much like everyone around us does—acting as if the world owned and ran us, too.

Now, on a quick read of 1 Peter 4, it looks like the apostle is only concerned about obvious bad behavior, as he seems to be describing an extreme group of sinners—acts of lawlessness, lust, orgies, drunkenness, carousing, and so on.  There are two points to consider, however.  First, with the exception of the final item on his list (idolatry), every­thing he’s denouncing was also condemned by pagan writers.  These were vices that society recognized as vices.  Second, I don’t think we can assume that the Christians to whom this letter was written had all been addicts of the worst sort.  It’s probable that most of them had lived reasonably respectable lives before their conversion.  And yet, Peter tars all of them and their whole society with this broad brush.  Why?

I think the answer lies in the fact that this list ends with the condemnation of idolatry.  Most if not all of the rest of the terms in verse 3 refer to behaviors which, though generally recognized as wrong most of the time, were practiced every year at some of the Greek and Roman religious festivals.  If you participated in the religion of the culture, however upright and upstanding your daily life may have been, there would be times you would abandon self-control and any sort of moral constraint as a part of your worship of the gods of the culture.  To refuse to do so was to mark yourself off as someone who followed a different Lord than the world around you and gave your alle­giance to a different authority—and thus as someone not properly under control.

That’s what it’s all about.  The world always talks about morality—even those who denounce traditional morality speak in moralistic terms—but the underlying theme and purpose is control.  Remember, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this present darkness, as Paul says in Ephesians 6.  The world wants to make us legalists, either striving to use law to control our desires or letting our desires determine our law; either way, it has us in its grip.

Peter reminds us that we’re free of that grip, and calls us to live free of it.  Christ suffered in this world, the perfectly just bearing the weight of all our injustice, to buy us out of our slavery to sin—and he is now done with sin.  He came into this world resolved to defeat sin, he carried that through and broke its power by his death and resurrection, and he has now left it forever behind him, passing through and returning to the presence of God the Father.  Because of his work, we no longer belong to this world, and we are no longer slaves to sin and death; instead, we too look forward to the day when we will leave them forever behind us, passing through them to live with God, in whom there is neither sin nor death, eternally.

Peter says, fix your eyes on that, and arm yourselves with the same resolve to live your life to do the will of God.  We are no longer slaves to this world, we are slaves of God; we’re under new management, accountable to a new master.  We need to set our hearts and minds to live in that freedom, even though it will mean suffering abuse from others, and possibly worse.  We need to steel ourselves to bear that suffering as Christ did, neither running away nor fighting back, but trusting in the justice of God the Father and accepting suffering as an opportunity to bear witness to the love and the grace of God.  As that translator said in the video of the Masterworks China trip from a couple years ago, “Don’t pray that we will not have persecution, but pray that we will prevail and stand throughout persecution.”

Nonviolent Protestors

(Isaiah 8:11-151 Peter 3:13-22)

Peter has exhorted his readers not to fight fire with fire, but rather with blessing, offering the assurance of God’s word that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”  He follows that in verse 13 with a proverb:  “Who’s going to persecute you for being eager to do good?”  The implied answer is “no one,” and in general—which is the level on which proverbs work—that’s true.  In the normal course of events, if others see you doing things they consider to be good, they aren’t going to attack you for that.  Peter’s ap­pealing here, as he has at earlier points in the letter, to the fact that even a corrupt society recognizes much of what is truly good, and appreciates it as such.  As a general rule, people who do evil are punished, and those who don’t, aren’t.

Still, that’s only generally true.  It doesn’t always hold, and Peter knows it.  Some people hate what is right, and enjoy tormenting “do-gooders”; others feel threatened by those whose example makes them look bad.  Then too, there are those for whom it’s strictly business.  Nothing personal, but the morally upright are just easier to rip off and abuse, that’s all.

Beyond that, while there is much that God calls good with which the world agrees, we know the world is in rebellion against God; it seems each culture and every generation rebels in different ways, but there are always aspects of his righteousness which the world declares evil rather than good.  As we saw in the Beatitudes, anyone who hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of God will end up being persecuted sooner or later.  If you hunger and thirst for his righteousness, then you aren’t hungry and thirsty for the bill of goods this world wants to sell you, and you aren’t aiming to go where it wants you to go.  Instead, you will find yourself a walking contradiction to beliefs and commitments which the culture declares self-evident and non-negotiable, and the world will find it has no hold over you; that makes you a threat.

Instinctively, the fight-or-flight reflex drives us to react to worldly opposition by either backing down or going to war.  Large sections of the church in this country have taken the latter course as official policy, whether by trying to wall the world out or through political and cultural offensives.  Tellingly, their efforts do little to convince the culture of the love and grace of Jesus, and too often they end up being of the world even though they aren’t in it.  But for the rest of the church, which seeks to remain engaged with the world, compromise is a constant, insidious temptation.  There’s always the pressure to conform to the world—to look for some way to justify telling our society what it wants to hear.  Though we learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness, the hunger and thirst for the approval and applause of those around us never quite goes away.

Neither combat nor compromise is the right course.  As Peter tells us, we’re called to a third way:  to oppose without fighting, to stay connected without compromising.  Our job is to be different from the world—conspicuously, but not combatively, assertively but not aggressively.  On the one hand, we need not fear what the world fears—and fear drives the world as much as anything does.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures tell us, in part because it puts every other fear in perspective:  compared to him, every earthly threat is insignificant.  If we fear God, we can be fearless with the world, and thus free to proclaim our faith boldly without feeling the need to protect or defend ourselves from anyone or anything around us.

Thus, on the other hand, we don’t actually need to fight for our faith.  We’re to contend for it, yes, but not in the world’s way.  It’s not our job to defeat others and win arguments, and nothing justifies tearing other people down or belittling them.  You’ll notice Peter says in verse 15 that we should always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks the reason for our hope.  We’re supposed to preach the gospel, yes, and do it without compromise, but Peter doesn’t tell us to push that conversation.  Rather, he envisions us living in such a way that other people ask usabout our faith.  What we say about Jesus ought to be credible, whether they want to accept it or not, because it’s backed up by what they’ve already seen in our lives.  If people haven’t already seen the sermon, they aren’t going to want to hear it, or be likely to believe it if they do.

Toward the powers of this world, then, we are to live as nonviolent protestors, actively resisting without fighting back.  Our strength is the strength of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who suffered without even threatening to retaliate, and died to save even those who were killing him.  In a culture which is increasingly convincing itself that orthodox Christianity stands against progress, we must stand firmly against what this world thinks is progress, but do so with only gentleness and respect.  If we do so, there will be loud voices that will slander us in every way they can think of, and many will believe those slanders because they want to; but those who take the time to look at us will see them for the lies they are, and that will be a more powerful witness to Jesus Christ than anything we could devise.

Our culture, for all that it’s running on the fumes of the faith of generations past, still has a deeply-ingrained belief that love is the best thing there is—a belief which really didn’t exist apart from belief in the God of the Bible.  This society has divorced that belief in love from any belief in God, but for now, that belief in the idea of love remains.  As a result, we have a culture which loves to talkabout love, but is losing any sense of any obligation to show love, especially if that would require any sort of self-sacrifice.  “Love” has become a weasel word, used to justify whatever the powerful and the fashionable want to justify.

>We can’t out-argue that.  It’s hard to argue someone into believing what they don’t want to believe, and at this point, the cultural headwind makes it impossible.  Even if that weren’t so, the best an argument could win us with most people would be intellectual agreement, and that isn’t our goal; that doesn’t change people’s hearts.  Indeed, it often doesn’t even change their behavior, unless you have the power to require the behavior you desire—which only hides the fact that their hearts haven’t really changed.

But then, we can’t change other people’s hearts, no matter what we do.  Only God can do that, and he does it through his love.  We can’t argue the world into believing its view of love is wrong; we can only show it to be wrong by loving the world as God loved the world.  We can only show the world the love of God by loving one another, and by loving our families, and by loving our neighbors, and by loving the desperate, the powerless, and the outcast—and by loving our enemies, and seeking to bless them rather than insult them or condemn them.

This is hard; and for a long time in Western culture, the church could believe it didn’t have to do that, because the cultural authorities were outwardly friendly.  But now, even in America, we are riding out of Palm Sunday and toward the cross.  We’ve been accustomed to the praise, and we’ve taken it as our due, expecting it to continue.  Jesus knew better.  He knew the crowd’s allegiance was shallow and fickle, and that they would soon turn on him; and he knew he wasn’t there to receive their praise, but to suffer and die for them.

A Colony of Heaven

(Psalm 34:11-182 Corinthians 5:16-211 Peter 3:8-12)

I mentioned a few weeks ago my euphoria when Seattle won the Super Bowl; of course, as any Ravens fan could tell you, after you win, you lose a lot of your players, and so it has been for us.  Some of those departures won’t hurt us much; others will be harder to replace.  Kathy, you can tell your mother she’s going to love Golden Tate for the Lions.  The only two who really stung, though, were a couple of defensive ends who we cut to save money, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons.  Big Red especially, because he’d been the emotional leader of the defense for years.  He gave the team its rallying cry through the past two seasons:  “We all we got—we all we need.”
It’s a great line; and while the line has departed with Big Red, I hope the spirit lives on in that locker room, because that’s the attitude and approach that builds a cohesive team out of a bunch of very different people.  “We all we got,” so we have to depend on one another—no one else is going to show up to help us out if we don’t.  “We all we got,” so we need to build one another up, not tear each other down—we can’t strengthen the team by hurting one of its members.  Any harm we do to another, we do to all of us, including ourselves.  “We all we got,” so it’s up to us to take care of each other and be there to support one another—if we don’t, who will?  And if we take that approach and treat each other that way, then truly, “we all we need.”
This isn’t just true in football, either; in fact, it’s a pretty good one-line summary of Peter’s commands in this passage.  The bookends to verse 8, which NIV translates as “live in harmony” and “be humble,” could more literally be translated “of one mind” and “humble of mind.”  Peter’s point isn’t that we’re all supposed to hold identical opinions, of course.  Rather, he’s saying the same thing Paul says in Romans 12:  we should all have the same mindset as one another, because all our minds are to be set on the things of the Spirit of God.  It’s the mindset Paul describes in Philippians 2:  “Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who didn’t insist on his rights or cling to his prerogatives, but opened his hands and let them all go to serve us, humbling himself in obedience, even to the point of death on a cross.”
Yes, we disagree on many things, but we share one salvation in one Lord through one faith by one grace, and none of us has any claim to stand above anyone else.  The more we appreciate our own desperate need for grace—and even the best of us stands in desperate need, make no mistake—the less we will be inclined to look down on others for their need.  The more we see one another as the beloved of Christ, for whom he died and rose again, the less free we will feel to beat one another up to get our own way.  If our focus is on Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit, we will be of one mind and spirit where it matters.  We will be humble toward God and one another, and we will treat each other with love, compassion, and understanding, because we will see ourselves in the light of God’s grace, as people who need love, compassion, and understanding.
This is important for many reasons, both spiritual and practical, and the practical reasons are very much on Peter’s mind here.  He’s still focused on the reality of their lives as outlanders in a suspicious and increasingly hostile world.  He says in verse 9, “Don’t return evil for evil or insult for insult”; the word for insult rarely appears in Scripture, but one of the few places either this noun or its verb form is used in the New Testament is by Peter in 2:23, talking about Jesus.  He’s tying this in to his broader theme:  when we’re treated unjustly, we need to have this mind in us which is ours in Christ Jesus, to trust in God’s justice and not return fire, and to be more concerned for the good of others than for our own pain.
Part of the reality of that is that we can’t do it on our own—we need the support of other believers.  We need the church, and we need it to be functioning as the church.  We’re not going to find help in thinking like Christ and living like Christ from the world; the church is all we have.  We all we got, and we need to treat each other accordingly.  We’re vulnerable, and all the more so if we don’t support and build up one another.  The church in this country has been able to ignore that reality for a long time because we’ve been used to having the support and protection of the powers that be, but that’s going away, ever more quickly.  We’re being reminded that we aren’t a powerful nation on this earth in our own right, but a colony of heaven, dependent on the power of God.
That colony language doesn’t come from Peter or from 2 Corinthians, but from Philippians 3, which we read a few weeks ago.  Philippi was a Roman colony, established to help secure Roman power in that region, and so all the freedmen of the city were given Roman citizenship.  They took great pride in that fact.  When Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” he was calling them to radically rethink their whole identity—to see them­selves not as a colony of an earthly power, but as a colony of the power of heaven amongthe powers of this world.  Peter here is calling his hearers to the same thing.
Of course, like Philippi, we’re a colony with a purpose beyond merely making money.  We’re here to be the physical representation of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  We’re here to carry forward Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, calling people to be recon­ciled to God through him.  We’re a diplomatic colony to bear witness to the gospel, that there is salvation in Jesus Christ by grace alone, and that no matter what you’ve done, Jesus loves you enough that he died to save you.  We cannot carry out this mission if we don’t show each other the love and the grace of Christ.
We can’t because we’re a colony.  We’re an outpost.  We can’t appeal to the powers of this world to protect us or to do our job for us.  Not any more.  We all we got in this world.  To borrow from Ben Franklin, we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.  But God provides and the Spirit is with us, and in his Spirit, we all we need, just as we are.

More than that, we can only carry out our mission if we live with each other in love and grace—to frame it positively—because how we live with each other is how we earn credibility to preach love and grace to those around us.  Why should anyone believe in the sacrificial love of Jesus if they can’t see us laying down our lives in love for one another?  Why should anyone believe that our God is a God of grace if we aren’t a people of grace?  We can only teach people that Jesus lives if they see him living among us.  The only way we earn any credibility to tell them Jesus saves is if we live together as people who have been saved.  May we ever be so, to the glory of God.

Free to Serve

(Isaiah 52:13-53:121 Peter 2:18-3:7)

One of the biggest things that trips us up as we try to understand the Bible is our habit of treating it like a plate of monkey bread.  We come to it, and it’s all in one piece, but we figure that it’s really a bunch of little pieces stuck together; and we don’t want a whole lot of it, we only want a snack.  We only want to know what the Bible says about this one thing, or maybe we just want something to comfort us or encourage us; and so we pull it apart.  We treat it like a lot of small pieces stuck together for convenience, rather than as all one book that we need to understand as a whole.

The tendency with this section of 1 Peter is to look at it and say, “Here, Peter’s talking about slaves, and here he’s talking about marriage,” and then go off and talk about the husband as the head of the household and the importance of female modesty and never actually come back to the book at all.  That misses the heart of this passage.  For one thing, look at verses 18-25 of chapter 2.  Peter begins, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect,” but then he doesn’t actually say very much about slaves at all.  He spends more than half those verses talking about Christ and his suffering, and most of what he says applies to everyone in the church, not just slaves.

For another, context matters.  What do slaves and married women have in common?  Under Roman law, both were completely under the authority and at the mercy of another person.  What has Peter just been talking about in verses 13-17?  As slaves to God, we are to defer to other people and respect those who are in authority over us.  Is that always going to be a positive experience?  Will those authorities always treat us justly?  No.  And if they don’t, where is that going to bite?

The fact of the matter is, it probably won’t be from the emperor first.  Governments may be unjust, and even the best of them create a lot of injustice along the way, because this world malfunctions all over the place; but except in times of all-out persecution, it’s rare that any government deliberately does as much damage to any one person as an abusive husband can.  Slaveowners could be even worse, for obvious reasons.  It’s all well and good for Peter to say, “Respect the emperor,” even when the emperor is Nero or Caligula; but what if you’re a slave and your master is a mini-Nero?  What if you’re married to Caligula’s evil twin?  What are you supposed to do about that?

American society being what it is, we instinctively analyze and respond to these questions in terms of legal rights and political power.  We want Peter to say, “Rise up and demand justice”—but he couldn’t, because the people he’s addressing have no ability to do that.  They’re powerless.  Outside the very rich, if a man killed his wife, unless his wife’s family had a powerful patron, the authorities didn’t care.  If he killed his slave, nobody cared.  Other slaves might, but they didn’t count, and didn’t dare say anything.  Legally speaking, you’re going to submit—or else.

Peter’s answer is spoken into this reality, and the heart of it is an application of verse 16:  “As free people, but as slaves of God.”  You’re not free by the law of the world, but you are free in the spirit.  If you’re a slave, if you’re a married woman under Roman law, you’re going to submit; you can’t control that.  But you can control why you submit.  Do you submit resentfully, because you have to—perhaps because you’ll be beaten if you don’t?  Peter says, look to Christ, and do it for him.  Do it because he submitted to far worse for you, so that he might heal you and give you new life in God.

For slaves whose masters are cruel and unjust, the reality is that they will suffer unjustly.  Peter acknowledges this, and asks, “Is it really any better if you suffer because you deserve it?”  The answer is, of course, no.  If you suffer for doing good, he says, look to Jesus and endure it without fighting back.  He did that for us, because he trusted that the injustice of his earthly judges would not stand; God the Father and his justice would have the last word.  If we do the same, bearing undeserved suffering patiently because of Christ, because we trust in the Father, then our suffering isn’t pointless—we’re suffering for God, as an act of service to him, and this pleases him.

As Peter says this, he starts off talking to slaves, but he isn’t only talking to them—his words are for the whole church.  If we’re all slaves to God, and if we’re all exiles and resident aliens in a world where we really don’t quite belong, then what’s true of those household slaves is in fact true of all of us.  For one, if we live faithfully with the Lord, we’re all likely to suffer unjustly; that reality was just more obvious in their case.  And we’re all every bit as indebted to Jesus, who freely allowed himself to be tortured to death when he never deserved it.  If he’d insisted on his rights and demanded justice, we’d all be damned.

For another, we’re all going to have to submit to others, and not just the government.  No, we don’t have legal slavery; but the critics of capitalism have long denounced it as “wage slavery,” and they’re not entirely wrong.  Just ask the Man in Black. . . .

Obviously, there’s a difference between being beaten for praying and being taken advantage of at work because you have a selfish, unjust boss who knows you can’t afford to quit.  Employees have options and recourse that slaves didn’t.  But if you’re in a position where those options are all theoretical and there’s no better job in sight, you’re just as caught.  Bad economies empower bad bosses, and it comes down to the same two choices in the end.  If you’re being treated unjustly, you can resist in some way, even if all you do is complain, or you can look to God and bear the injustice with patience and grace for Jesus’ sake.  Put another way, you’re going to be a servant regardless; the choice is yours either to serve grudgingly, kicking and screaming, or to serve freely and graciously in the name of the Lord.  The work is the same in either case, but the heart is completely different—and it’s amazing how much that difference can mean.

When Peter speaks to wives, we see his concern for the witness of the church come into play again.  Women married to unbelievers were in a difficult situation.  The Roman writer Plutarch declared, “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.  The gods are the first and most important friends.  Wherefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in.”  The women Peter’s addressing were violating that completely, and so they had to be very careful; they could easily endanger both themselves and the church.

This is why we have the injunction against fancy hairdos, jewelry and clothing, because they were commonly seen as signs that a woman intended seduction.  To quote the Roman satirist Juvenal, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”  It was already questionable for a married woman to go out alone to meet with a lot of men her husband didn’t know; if she went out dressed to the nines, her husband and their society would likely assume the worst.  By contrast, if she lived in such a way that the goodness and holiness of God could be clearly seen in her life, that would allay his concerns, and perhaps draw him to Christ as well.

There’s a lot we could say here about how Peter is subverting the Roman social order, but most of it is outside the scope of this sermon.  I do want to look at verse 7, however, which brings the point of this passage—that in Christ, we’re called to choose freely to serve others—home to husbands, who weren’t legally obliged to submit to their wives.  He says to them, “Husbands, don’t you get any ideas.”  The culture of the time thought women were inferior and rendered them powerless, and Peter’s been talking to wives about how to live out their required submission to their husbands; now he forbids married men in the church from taking advantage of that.  As Karen Jobes puts it, “Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God.”

Remember, in verses 13-17 Peter tells Christians to live with deference and respect to every person; this played out in particular ways in the Roman house­hold, but that didn’t let husbands and masters off the hook.  Nothing in this passage in any way justifies any sort of abuse of power; indeed, we are grateful that thanks to people like Mary Ann Cox, women with abusive husbands have options now that their Roman counterparts didn’t.  Whatever position of authority you may have, you have it only because of God, and under hisauthority, as his slave; he will judge you on whether or not you’ve used it in accordance with his will and his character.  Jesus suffered injustice, trusting in the one who judges justly; you don’t want to be on the other side of that equation.  Whether you are powerful or powerless, you are a slave of God; you are free in Christ, which means you’re free to serve.

Free Slaves

(Jeremiah 29:1-71 Peter 2:13-17)

In 1984, a Nigerian man named Umaru Dikko found himself in a bit of trouble.  He had been his country’s Minister for Transportation from 1979-83, but then a coup took down his government and he fled to exile in London.  Once there, understandably enough, he took every opportunity to attack the new government back in Lagos.  He also became a vocal critic of Israel, perhaps because the Israeli government bought a lot of Nigerian oil and sold the Nigerian government a lot of weapons.  That may have been understandable too, but it wasn’t wise, because Israel has the Mossad, and you never want to get on their bad side.

In July of 1984, a joint Nigerian-Israeli operation kidnapped Dikko, drugged him, and stuck him in a wooden crate (together with the Israeli anaesthesiologist whose job it was to keep him unconscious).  Crazy?  Not exactly.  Legally, any sort of bag, box, or other container which is properly labeled as a diplomatic bag is protected under the Vienna Convention and completely untouchable by local law enforcement.  It wouldn’t have mattered if Dikko had woken up and started yelling—there would have been nothing anyone could do.

Except for one thing:  that bit about “properly labeled.”  As it happened, someone in the Nigerian embassy forgot to do the paperwork.  Customs officials at Heathrow received word of the kidnapping while the crate was being processed; understandably, they thought it might be a good idea to check out that crate that was headed for a Nigerian airliner.  Since the crate lacked the necessary documentation, there was no label to keep them from searching it.  Dikko was freed, and four of his kidnappers ended up in a British prison.

As abuses of diplomatic immunity go, that one’s pretty extreme; we tend to associate it more with such things as the $17.2 million owed to New York City as of 2011 in unpaid parking tickets by members of the various UN delegations.  Still, the extreme case makes the point well:  if you tell a group of people they aren’t bound by the government of the nation in which they live, some of them will take advantage of that.  It doesn’t take many bad actors before the group as a whole develops a reputation for antisocial behavior.

Now, when you’re talking about recognized diplomats under international law, that reputation might not cause any real problems.  Being unpopular won’t hurt them, and they’re protected by treaty from anything worse.  The early church, however, was a small minority with no legal recognition or protection, and their mission was to be a witness for the gospel to the com­munities in which they lived.  A bad reputation could cripple their efforts, and if the government decided to go after them, they were defenseless.  Peter’s been very clear that Christians need to see ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God who live among the nations of this world; but that doesn’t give us the right to misbehave, much less any protection if we do.  It means we’re held to a higher standard than the laws of this world, not an easier one.

This is the issue Peter begins to lay out in our passage this morning.  The crux of his argument, and the key point for this whole section of the book that extends through 3:7, is found in verse 16:  “As those who are free . . . yet as God’s slaves.”  The world defines being free as having freedom forthis world—freedom to do what the world teaches us to want to do.  It’s freedom to be ruled by our desires without anyone telling us “no.”  What Peter’s talking about, what God offers us, is freedom from this world.  It’s the freedom to step outside our desires and outside the roles and expectations the world lays on us, and to choose to do and to be something else.

Which is to say, the world thinks freedom is being able to do what we want with nobody stopping us.  The freedom of God is the freedom to stop ourselves.  It’s the ability to pull free of our desires and fears and think clearly rather than just reacting to them.  It’s the liberty to choose not to do what we want because we understand that what we want to do isn’t what we ought to do or what’s best for us.  It’s freedom from the world, from ourselves, for God.

Peter invites us to act as free people by turning away from that slavery which the world mistakes for freedom.  He summons us to freely choose to live as what we already are in Christ, as slaves to God.  If that doesn’t sound like freedom to you, consider this:  the way of the world is the way of anxiety.  No matter what, there’s always that crawling uncertainty, doubt, and fear at the heart of life.  The most you can ever do is bury it.  If you’re really good at what you do, you may be able to keep it buried for a long time, but you can’t change this fact:  much of what’s good in your life and your world is utterly dependent on things you can’t even understand, much less control.  That’s even true for the most powerful people on this planet.  Eventually, things will go wrong, and you won’t know until they happen, and you won’t be able to do anything about it—but it will all be on your head anyway.

Not so for the people of God.  Our dependence is no less, but we know the one who controls all the forces and events no human can even understand; we know the one on whom we depend, and we love him, and we know he loves us and takes care of us.  That’s why the word of God tells us over and over again not to worry and not to fear, and why Jesus promised us a peace that passes all human understanding—it’s the peace of not having to fear those things which pass all human understanding.  Being slaves to God means freedom from the anxiety that comes with being slaves to ourselves, and thus being free to live as people who are whole and well.

Of course, as we’ve already noted, Peter isn’t just talking about this to make his readers feel good, or to give them a theological education:  he wants to apply it in a particular way.  If we live as slaves to God and owe our allegiance to him above any human authority, how then do we relate to those human authorities?  Is this an excuse to assert our independence from them and do whatever we want?  Peter says, firmly, no.  We are not to use our freedom as an excuse to cause trouble.  That’s not what it’s for, and not what we’re for.

Instead, because we revere God and love his people, we are to treat everyone else (and especially those in authority) with respect and consideration, so that those who attack the church will only make themselves look foolish and ignorant for their efforts.  Peter tells us to defer to our fellow human beings, because they are God’s creations just as much as we are.  Here again we could look to Philippians, this time chapter 2:  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility put others first, ahead of yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.”  Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon to whom Jeremiah wrote, our job is to pray for the community and the nation to which God has sent us, and to do whatever we can do to bless it, and partly for the same pragmatic reason.

As part of that responsibility, Peter emphasizes something which I think we really need to hear:  he commands respect and deference for the emperor and the other ruling authorities.  I don’t hear much of that in this country these days.  I hear a lot of disrespect, contempt, and abuse directed at the President, at Congress, and at politicians and government figures all down the line, and it’s just wrong and ungodly.  There’s no excuse for it, and don’t try to tell me there is.

Peter wrote during the later years of Nero’s reign, when he’d already started executing anyone who displeased him.  Nero had had Paul put to death in AD 62, and would ultimately have Peter crucified.  In 64 AD, he made Christians the scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome and had them burned as torches in his gardens to provide light for his parties.  This is the emperor for whom Peter commands respect.  Nero’s uncle and predecessor, Caligula, once had an entire section of the stands in the arena thrown to the lions because he was bored.  Peter commands respect for the emperor anyway, and doesn’t offer exceptions.

We need to listen to him, because quite frankly, we’re spoiled.  We have yet to see the President burning Christians as torches on the White House lawn; if we did, Peter would still tell us to treat him with respect.  Anything else dishonors God.  Anything else is a sign that we’re still too caught up in this world, and pinning too many of our hopes on it.

Ambassadors for Christ

(Isaiah 10:1-4Philippians 3:17-4:11 Peter 2:11-12)

Michael Card tells a remarkable story in his book Immanuel (read here by John Piper):

That’s what Peter’s talking about in this passage; that’s the goal of his instruction.  He tells us we’re exiles and resident aliens in this world.  He’s used each of these words before, but now he puts them together to multiply the effect.  Then he takes it a step further, adding in the point he’s just made in verse 9:  we have a purpose in this world that goes beyond just getting through the day and making a living.  We aren’t supposed to just blend in with everyone else, as if we were citizens of this world right along with them.  Our citizenship is somewhere else; we’re here on a mission from God.

Let’s unpack that for a minute.  Peter doesn’t explicitly use the language of citizenship, but coming hard on the heels of verses 9-10, his point here is right in line with Paul in Philippians 3.  It isn’t in the way you probably think, however.  The NIV reads, “sinful desires,” but a more literal translation would be “desires of the flesh.”  Peter isn’t just talking about things which are obviously sinful—and neither is Paul.  The point is broader than that.  The desires of the flesh are those desires which are natural to those whose minds are set on earthly things.  Yes, obviously, many of those are clearly sinful; but many of them aren’t.  There’s nothing wrong with our instinct for self-protection and self-preservation, or with our desire for material comfort and prosperity.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience pleasure, or to have a good reputation.  They’re just earthly, worldly, of the flesh, and so by themselves, they point us away from God.

Now, does this mean that we shouldn’t have any desires at all?  No.  We’re not supposed to be enemies of pleasure, as if we worshipped a cosmic killjoy; I’m not going to tell you to put on a hair shirt and go out and sleep in the snow on a bed of nails.  We need to understand that Peter was using typical language from both Jewish and Greek moral and ethical teaching, which would have been familiar to his audience; where the NIV reads “desires,” we should understand that to mean unrestrained desires or impulses.  The point isn’t that it’s wrong to have desires, but that it’s wrong to just give in to them and let them run the show.

It’s natural to desire pleasure, but that desire needs to be under control.  If it’s starting to get away from you—maybe you’re starting to drink a little too much, or your eyes are starting to wander once in a while—then you need to abstain.  You need to cut yourself short.  It’s normal to want financial and material security, but if you find yourself making all your decisions on that basis—if that desire is running your life—then you need to set that aside, because that way of life doesn’t bring glory to God.  It’s perfectly understandable to want a good reputation, but if you catch yourself shading the truth, or maybe spinning things a bit, to make yourself look good, then you need to sacrifice that desire to God, because he’s a God of truth, not of the lie.

We’re called to be a people who respect our earthly rulers, but who fear God alone—not any person around us and not any human power.  We’re an organized com­munity of resident aliens in this world, members of another nation living in the midst of this one, owing our allegiance to a greater King, for the purpose of declaring and displaying the character and the glory of that King in the earthly community in which we live and work.  Like Joseph, we’re here to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ with such persistent love and such humble grace that even when people attack us and beat us for it, our example will move them to repentance and faith.  We’re on a mission from God, alright—a diplomatic mission.  We’re his ambassadors to Winona Lake and Warsaw, to Kosciusko County, to Indiana, to America.  We’re the designated representatives of the kingdom of heaven to this community and this nation.

As some of you probably know, I’m pulling that language (and the title of this sermon) from 2 Corinthians 5, which we didn’t read this morning.  In verse 20 of that chapter, Paul describes himself and his colleagues as ambassadors for Christ because they’re speaking on behalf of Christ, carrying forward his ministry of reconciliation which God has entrusted to them.  It isn’t only a ministry for Paul and other special people in the church, however.  It’s been given to all of us.  Paul implores us to be reconciled to God so that we would then turn and do the same for others, leading them to find the peace with God which we’ve found.

This is who we are.  We are God’s people put here as his representatives to this nation and this community to declare his praises by our words and our actions, whether the world wants us to or not.  We are a new kind of people who don’t exist for ourselves, for God has formed us for himself to be his diplomats, helping lead those around us in the fine art of having his way.  We are his ambassadors bringing the good news that the God of heaven has made a peace treaty with the people of this world, and inviting them to sign it.