July 22, 2012

Stranger Identity

Do you have an identity?  I mean, sure, we all have some kind of an identity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a recognizable or even necessarily desirable one.  Do you have some identity by which you are proud to be known?  It gives you a sense of foundation, a place to rest when life gets hard.  When the swirling eddies of the constantly whirling world leave you spinning in gyroscopic circles wondering which way is up, to where do you retreat?  Is there a place you go or an activity you pursue in which you know that when all else fails, you can find yourself there?  Having an identity is a really important for us as people.  We need an identity.  Some people find their identity in work.  Some in their family.  Many others in one hobby or another.  Like most kids, I spent several years starting in about Junior High looking for an identity.  I wore baggy JNCO jeans for a couple of years because I thought I would find my identity in the grunge, alternative crowd.  But it wasn’t there.  I sought it in sports multiple different times but never quite found it there.  In college I took a mild hippie approach for a while and went everywhere barefoot and didn’t wash my clothes or shave very often.  But I cared too much to find it there.  For a long time I found my identity in music.  When life started to feel like it was slipping out of my hands I could get in the car, put in a CD, turn the volume up nice and loud, and retreat.  I spent a lot of Sundays and multiple mid-week services in college behind a drumset worshiping God because that place of music allowed me to tap into part of who He had created me to be.  I could find myself there.  Fortunately, that happened to be a place where I could find Him too.

A lot of folks don’t have a place like that.  They are either still looking for an identity or else they’ve found one that connects them to the heartbeat of this world which does not beat for God.  Having an identity is especially important for followers of Jesus.  We’re in the fourth week of our series Strangers in which, with the help of the New Testament letter 1 Peter, we have uncovered the fact that as followers of Jesus, we are strangers in this world.  Paul declares that we are made new creations when we take up the journey of following Christ.  This necessarily means that our old identity, whatever it was, is gone.  This is a disorienting experience, to lose an identity like this.  The euphoria of our newfound faith covers it for a while, but eventually life rolls on and we are left needing to figure out who we are.  Some believers take a long time to do this and follow some of the same kinds of pathways that teenagers do when seeking their first identities. Now, though, instead of looking in various worldly places, they look in churchy ones.  Believers seeking an identity look in places like the choir or a particular Sunday school class or a missions team or a specific ministry group and so on and so forth.  But all of these things, while important outlets for expanding God’s kingdom using the gifts He’s given us, aren’t sufficient to give us a concrete identity to which we can run when life falls apart.  They aren’t enough by themselves to justify our taking on this stranger status in the first place.  But, because we have jettisoned our old identity and the people who were a part of it, we can’t go back.  So we’re stuck.  We fall into a rut of routine never quite settled in our identity, but not knowing where or how to find a better one.  We become hollow shells with a Christian covering, but no core.  This is not how things should be.

Peter understands all of this and in the final part of the introductory material of his letter, before he gets to the heart of his arguments, puts the final piece of our stranger puzzle in place: our identity.  If we are no longer recognizable to the world, if we have lost our identity as far as the world is concerned, who are we?  If you’ll open your Bibles to 1 Peter 2:4, we’ll dig into this important text.  It’s important because in it Peter answers this question of where our identity now lies, but it’s also important because it lays the groundwork for one of the most important theological concepts of the Protestant Reformation: the priesthood of all believers.  This is the idea that if you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t need anyone but Jesus to gain access to the Father.  This is a foundational idea for us and it is within this foundation that we find our most important identity as godly strangers.  This identity is rooted in the fact that as followers of Jesus we are not merely a part of the household of God in the sense that people are one part and creation is one part and so on.  We are the household of God.  We are the constituting elements of His dwelling place.  And as part of God’s household in this sense, we gain an imperishable identity.  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone.  Look with me at the text starting in 2:4—read this morning from the Message—as we discover our identity as strangers and how we access it.

“Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life.  The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor.  Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as the holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.”  So what’s all of this saying?  It’s saying that we are the household of God.  Believers in Jesus Christ are not merely members of, but in reality are the household of God.  We are the place where God’s presence on earth dwells.  The importance of what Peter is saying here can’t be overemphasized.  What it means is that as a body, God is building us up into His temple—His spiritual house.  Peter is counting on his audience thinking about the Temple of Solomon.  After Solomon finished building the temple he led the people in this huge celebration and dedication service.  During the service Solomon offered this incredible prayer in which he talked about the temple being the place where all the nations would be able to come, observe the worship of the one true God, and join in that worship themselves.  At the end of the ceremony the glory of God in the form of a cloud came down and filled the temple.  This symbolized God coming to dwell in His house, among His people.  Later in Israel’s history, as recorded in Ezekiel 10, when the people had turned away from God and rejected their status as His people, the prophet reports seeing a great cloud rise up out of the temple.  God had left the building.  More importantly, His people had left Him.  They wanted to blend in with the rest of the world and so God let them.  In doing so, they lost their identity and became another face in the faceless crowd.

With the work of Christ on the cross, however, the way was opened for all people, not merely one chosen people, to become the people of God.  In building a new people to bear His name, one founded on grace and not law, God intended to come and dwell among them again.  But this time, instead of dwelling in a physical building such that people had to come to Him, He was crafting a spiritual house composed of all of those who belong to Him.  And just as Israel in Jerusalem was set out to be a city on the hill—in other words, to stand out as unique among the peoples of the world, drawing them to the light—so also would this new people be.  Indeed, Jesus said His followers are the light of the world.  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone.

Let’s not miss the implication here, though.  We are all being built into God’s spiritual house.  Each one of us is a stone in the wall.  Every stone is necessary and important.  In the original temple of Solomon every detail of the temple—even those parts nobody saw—was designed to proclaim God’s glory to the world.  In the same way, every member of God’s new house is designed to proclaim God’s glory to the world.  But this proclamation only comes when it is set in the context of the house.  A single puzzle piece might be beautifully painted, but the real artwork is found when it is set in place and can be seen in the proper context.  Each individual believer is a testament to the work and presence of God in the world, but apart from a deep, abiding attachment to the church, that believer will never reach her fullest potential.  He will never proclaim God’s glory and advance God’s mission as far as he would be able to if he was working in concert with the larger body.  Taking up the idea that as long as each of us does what we feel God is calling us to do we’ll get along well doesn’t cut it.  That’s not the church.  There’s no lasting identity to be found there.  The church is a group of individuals using the gifts God has given them to pursue one single goal together.  Individual missions in Jesus’ name aren’t a bad thing.  But unless they are backed with the full weight of the church, they don’t carry nearly the power and potential for impact they could.  One person can’t advance the kingdom very far.  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone, not when we’re just a beautiful stone in the field.

Yet Peter goes even further than this.  We are not merely the stones composing the walls of God’s spiritual house, we are also the priests inside leading the worship.  We are making the acceptable sacrifices which Paul identifies as our entire lives.  Under the old temple system there were designated priests who were the men who had gone through the appropriate physical and spiritual cleansing rituals to be able to stand before God and intercede on behalf of the people.  Under the new system inaugurated by Christ, each individual follower has been cleansed by the Holy Spirit and we are able to make direct appeals to Christ who intercedes before the Father on our behalf.  In this, we are able to interact with the full godhead.  That was a privilege available to only a special few prior to the cross and resurrection.  Now, though, when we are part of God’s house, we are someone.  We have an identity.  And this identity rests firmly upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.

Well, after making the initial point, Peter doesn’t just leave it there.  This is too big a theological observation to leave unjustified.  And so Peter points to Scripture to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the foundation stone on which this whole system rests.  Come back to the text with me in v. 6: “The Scriptures provide precedent: ‘Look!  I’m setting a stone in Zion, a cornerstone in the place of honor.  Whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation will never have cause to regret it.’  To you who trust him, he’s a Stone to be proud of, but to those who refuse to trust him, ‘The stone the workmen threw out is now the chief foundation stone.’  For the untrusting it’s ‘…a stone to trip over, a boulder blocking the way.’  They trip and fall because they refuse to obey, just as predicted.”

Now, there’s a weight of challenging theological concepts presented here, not the least of which is the question of whether people are destined to stumble or destined to disobey in v. 8.  The Greek of that particular verse is able to be taken either way and was perhaps intended by Peter to be taken as such.  In other words, Peter upholds both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility here.  That’s the subject for a whole series of sermons.  I think for our purposes this morning v. 6 is more germane, particularly the end of the verse: whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation will never have cause to regret it.  When we take on the stranger status of Christ-follower, we put ourselves out there.  Jesus warned us to count the cost and indeed for many the cost is high.  As we’ve already talked about this morning, whatever our pre-faith identity was must be given up.  We have to give up control over our entire life.  The way we people relate to us is going to change.  The way we relate to other people is going to change.  It would not be out of the question for someone to fear a loss of influence, a loss of image, a loss of power, a loss of honor in the transition.  In many of your translations you read there something to the effect of “those who trust in this stone will never be put to shame.”  Peter’s culture was based on the ideals of honor and shame.  Anything which increased shame was to be avoided at all costs.  Our culture is different from this in significant ways and so being told we’ll receive honor or won’t receive any shame doesn’t do as much for us as it did for Peter’s audience.  Perhaps thinking about it in the terms Peterson uses in the Message might help: one of the emotions our culture tries avoid at all costs is regret.  Regret comes from knowing we made the wrong decision.  There are a couple of ways of ridding ourselves of regret: First, don’t do things that are wrong under your current moral value framework.  Second, change your moral value framework so that the things you want to do aren’t wrong.  If we can justify why some behavior isn’t really wrong, we don’t have to feel regret if it proves to simply be the wrong decision.  When it comes to embracing the chief cornerstone and thereby becoming a part of His household, we don’t have to do any philosophical gymnastics to justify our choice.  It will always be the right choice.  He’ll never give us any cause to regret the decision.  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone.  We are someone of whom we can be proud.

Look with me at the last couple of verses as we see how Peter finally presents this identity we’ve been unpacking.  Let’s start at v. 9: “But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.”  Now, I read a text like this and have to stop for a minute to give God some praise.  This is incredible.  What an identity.  Do you see it?  Look closely with me.

Let’s start at the end.  We have been taken from nothing to something.  When we are part of 30God’s house, we are something.  Back at the beginning of the year we talked about our creation in the image of God.  I told you then that on our own we don’t have any value.  There is nothing about us that is inherently any more valuable than any other animal or plant or geographic feature of this world.  It is solely because of the image of God in us that we are of infinitely greater value than those things.  When we try and operate apart from God’s enabling grace, we are acting as if there was no image of God in us.  Such a move removes the source of our identity and worth and renders us unable to be accepted by God because of His holiness.  Thus, when we become part of God’s house, we are someone.  We are accepted.  We gain an identity rooted in the foundation of identity for all that there is.

So what is this great identity?  Essentially what Peter describes is that the people of God, followers of Jesus, become the new, spiritual Israel.  He doesn’t relate to us in exactly the same ways because we are no longer a physical, theocratic nation and we are governed by the New Covenant of Christ’s blood instead of the Covenant of the Law of Moses, but in terms of God’s purpose for Israel, we now bear it.  We are priests of God.  We are to go before God on behalf of this world.  We stand in the gap, facing God, sharing with Him the heart of the world.  Each believer is called to this task, not merely paid, professional ministers.  We are a chosen and holy people.  We are to stand out as distinct from the world—our strange identity—offering a clarion call to come to the morally preferable environment of the kingdom.  We are the prophets of God.  We are to go to the people of this world on behalf of God.  We stand in the gap, facing the people, sharing with them the heart of God.  Under the old covenant the priests never addressed the people, only God.  It was the prophets who spoke on behalf of God.  Now we, the followers of Jesus, the church, are called to both duties.  We the church, the godly strangers of this world, are the holy prophets and priests of God.  We have such an identity as an extension of our Lord, as the instrument through which the Spirit works, as the household of God.  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone.  We are not merely strangers, even godly strangers.  We are the dwelling place of God and the means by which He is advancing His kingdom in this world.

And how does this kingdom advance through us?  It advances as we live out the lifestyle Peter commended to us in the last section and as we “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  In other words, our prophetic message is that we serve the great God who brought us out of the darkness of sin and into the true light of life.  He took us from nothing and made us something.  He carried us from rejected and accepted us by the glorious grace of Jesus Christ.  This is a God worth being identified by.  This is a God whose house is worth living in.  I wonder.  Do you know Him?  Are you known by Him?  Are you known as part of Him?  When we are part of God’s house, we are someone.  So again, what’s your identity?  Is it one in which you can really find yourself?  Not the self the world tries to put on you, but the self that rings true in the innermost of your heart.  Because as a godly stranger dwelling in Christ, that’s exactly what we have.  When we are a part of God’s house, we are someone.  Come and have a real identity.