Our morality is to be not a matter of duty, but an offering of worship to God. Our politics should be not about power and self-interest, but an offering of worship to God. Our identity is truly found not in what the people of our town or in our broader culture see when they look at us, but in our worship of God. And our witness to our world, our outreach and evangelism, aren’t things we do because we want the church to get bigger, but expressions of our worship of God. We worship God, we learn to see how good and great and marvelous he is and how wonderful his grace, and so we talk about him wherever we go. That’s the idea.
Government will remain in bounds only to the degree that it meets resistance, and the historic sources of resistance—faith and family—are in decline.
As he goes on to say, these have historically been most people’s two primary loyalties, their two primary sources of guidance, and their two primary forms of support in times of need. As such, they have long been the two major restrictors on the growth of government, and thus the two primary things which metastasizing regimes of whatever type have sought to control, subvert, or supplant.
Faith makes a claim—the claim—on our loyalty. As an institution that nurtures and expresses faith, the church or synagogue or mosque is a sacred community with a law of its own. When Caesar’s laws contradict the laws of God, divine authority trumps.
[The French philosopher] Rousseau saw how Christian faith divides our loyalties. We can be citizens, yes, but we must be disciples first. Our highest loyalty is to the City of God, not the city of man. He rejected this divided loyalty as a threat to genuine freedom, which to his way of thinking requires an integral and all-powerful government . . . Therefore, he insisted, true religion is a natural and ennobling piety that has no creed or church and, consequently, does not involve a system of authority to rival the state.
Rousseau’s vision has gained ground. Atheism is rare, but many who believe in God don’t like “organized religion.” They describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Disorganized religiosity cannot limit government.
Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, has said that exiles are people who know where home is—they just don’t live there. The German mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “God is at home. We are in the far country.” Put the two statements together, and you see our position. We are exiles in the far country, living under a foreign government—one which we can influence, but which isn’t ultimately ours—holding to a different allegiance than the world around us, obeying a different authority.
Peter instructs his readers to set their hope on the grace that will be theirs when Jesus returns by being fully able to think and act on the basis of their true nature in Christ, despite whatever hostility such a lifestyle might provoke from their society.
We cannot resolve to stand against worldly opposition unless, as she says, we “have [our] minds fixed on the final outcome of that resolve.” That final outcome is the only reason it makes sense to buck this world now; doing so is what it means to live as obedient children of God the Father. God calls us to holiness—to be set apart from the world and conformed to his character in our thinking and our behavior—nothing less.
As we move into this new year, I wanted to take some time to give you a sense of where we’re going with the sermons and how things fit together. In the last few months, I started to feel a pull to preach on revival. I prayed about that, and had several conversations which reinforced that idea, so I started thinking about it in earnest. Problem was, I had no real concept of how to go about doing such a thing. As I began to try to figure that out, I soon found myself thinking that I needed to do something else first.
What that was, I didn’t know. I was driving along with the music playing, pondering this, and suddenly the song “Trouble Is” caught my attention. It’s a song by the group Jars of Clay; the chorus gives the album on which it appears its title, which I’ve taken for this sermon series. We think we are who the world tells us we are, and that life works the way the world tells us it works. Jesus tells us otherwise, but we have a hard time believing him, because our vision of ourselves hasn’t really changed. We think we are who the world says we are; the trouble is, we don’t know who we are instead.
As I continued to think and pray, a phrase came to mind: “You are a royal priesthood, a peculiar people.” I went looking for it, and found it to be an abbreviation of the King James of 1 Peter 2:9. As I read, I realized that that’s really what it’s about. Peter tells us that we are the new Israel, in that we have been given the mission which was first given to Israel: to be the distinct people of God in the midst of the peoples of this world, and thus to bear witness to his character, will, and purpose. To understand what we’re called to do and how we’re supposed to relate to the world around us, we have to understand who we are in Christ instead of who we were in the world.
We see this in 1 Peter from the first line. He addresses his hearers as “the chosen,” who are “exiles of the diaspora” in the provinces that covered the area we now know as Turkey. That’s loaded language. The Greek word “diaspora” was already being used to describe the Jewish communities scattered across the known world as a result of the exile. Wherever the Jews went, though there were always some who assimilated to the dominant culture, as a whole they maintained their own identity and allegiances as a separate people. They didn’t conform to the societies around them; they were conspicuous by their difference. In this, they are the model for the church.
That’s why Peter calls his hearers “exiles.” The NIV has “strangers” there, but I don’t think it’s strong enough by itself. The Greek word refers to people who lived someplace where they weren’t citizens—foreigners who were long-term residents but remained foreigners, not belonging to the country in which they lived. They were outsiders, and often treated with suspicion as possible threats to the social order.
Interestingly, Peter doesn’t address his readers as “the church” or “the churches” in these provinces, the way Paul would, but as individual believers who are out in the everyday world living as foreigners. He’s balanced this quite carefully. On the one hand, he wants them to understand that as Christians, we’re all exiles and resident aliens; yes, we live here, but we don’t belong here and we never will. Karen Jobes of Wheaton notes that Rome expelled Christians from the capital more than once during the first century, and suggests that Peter’s audience may be Christians who were deported to colonies in the provinces during one of these expulsions; this would give his language extra force, if he’s drawing on a sense of homelessness and disorientation that they already feel.
On the other hand, addressing them as “the church” would focus their attention on what they do when they’re gathered together, separated out from the world around them, and Peter doesn’t want to do that. The easiest way to deal with a society in which you’re a misfit is to withdraw from it, to find other misfits and create your own little bubble. It would be easy for the church to become just that sort of bubble, a little pocket culture for the benefit of those who already fit in there. That’s not what the church is supposed to be, and it’s not how Christians are supposed to live.
Rather, we’re called to live as strangers in strange lands. We don’t belong here, and the countries in which we find ourselves don’t belong to us. This isn’t home, and it’s no place we should be making ourselves comfortable. Yes, that’s true even of this country, for all the influence Christian faith had in its founding. Really, that was always the case, but all the more now that the body politic is moving into a religious hangover phase, no longer truly operating under the influence. As Dr. Jobes puts it, “foreigners dwell respectfully in their host nation but participate in its culture only to the extent that its values and customs coincide with their own that they wish to preserve.”
If we’re faithful to Christ, we may not conform ourselves to the values of this society, or operate according to its models, or let its priorities dictate ours. Rather, we must let the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God the Father judge them, and where they stand in conflict with God, we must stand against them—neither going along with them nor getting out of the way. We are called to be, consciously, conspicuously, and carefully, different, and to let the world denounce us as different.
Inevitably, living that way leads to opposition, which sometimes rises to oppression, persecution, and suffering. That’s why oppression, persecution, and suffering are such strong concerns all through this letter. It’s not often our place as disciples of Jesus to create conflict, but we do need to accept it when it comes—and if we’re faithful to him, it will. Peter’s concern in verses 3 and following is to focus his readers’ attention—and beyond them, ours as well—through suffering to hope. Whatever trials and struggles we face will be worth it, and more than worth it, for two reasons.
One, in Jesus we have an inheritance which is beyond all the corruption of this world, and we have the assurance that it’s being kept for us and we’re being kept for it by the power of God. This world cannot raise the dead, and though it can give much pleasure, it cannot offer joy. God has already given us both, though we cannot now fully experience them. The world can’t save us, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t want to; it profits too much from our scrambles to save ourselves, and even from our ultimate demise. Jesus has already saved us, purchasing us out of this world and into the one that is coming. Our society frantically tries to deny that, striving to convince us either that we don’t need it or else that it can’t possibly be for us—that we’re too messed up for him to love us. Jesus just looks at us and says, “I love you anyway.”
Two, when trials come and we suffer for our faith, for all the grief and pain we experience now, even that is part of our hope. Trials and suffering are the testing of faith. A faith that has never dealt with trials and suffering is a faith that has never been experienced. It’s easy to say you have faith in your ability to walk when you’re lying flat on your back; if you never get out of bed, your faith is merely theoretical. It’s easy to talk about faith in God when everything in your life looks good, because you don’t need faith then. It’s when trials come and you’re hurting, when you have to hang on to Jesus for dear life, that you see what your faith is made of.
But when you come out of those trials and you can look back and see that Jesus was faithful, that he hung on to you and you made it through by his power, then you can rejoice in his faithfulness—and then you have the assurance he’ll bring you through the next trial, because he brought you through this one. Then you know that whatever this world can dish out to try to force you into line, God can and will give you the victory over it. And that’s a joy and a peace that are more than worth the cost.