September 9, 2012

A Final Word to Strangers

So this morning finds us finally at the end of our journey through the marvelous little book of 1 Peter.  This has been quite a journey, has it not?  We started out the weekend before the Fourth of July—doesn’t that feel like a long time ago?—talking about the fact that if we are followers of Christ, we are strangers in this world.  Peter’s address of the letter to the elect exiles of the dispersion gave us this idea which has served not only as the big idea for the series, but its title as well.  After establishing his audience, Peter spent the first part of the letter unpacking this idea of strangeness for us in some detail.  He gave us a foundation for bearing our self-imposed strangeness, a method for doing so rightly, and an identity to cling to in those times when we feel our strangeness with particular acuity.  The foundation necessary to bear our strangeness is the living hope we are given as followers of Jesus.  We have been promised an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading at the end of our journey.  This assurance gives us the confidence we need to keep on walking forward in this difficult journey in spite of any and all challenges to the contrary.  This walk, however, is not something done simply any way we choose.  It is to be intentionally modeled after the walk Jesus demonstrated during His time on earth.  Anything other than this renders us indistinguishable from the world around us.  In other words, we give up our stranger status.  We learned that week that we are not to be merely strangers, but godly strangers.  As we talked about the following week, though, being able to bear our strangeness and knowing how to live it out, while important, are not enough.  We need an identity.  We need something by which we can identify ourselves and say, “This is who I am.”  Fortunately, God has provided this for us as well.  Our identity as godly strangers is entirely wrapped up in our being a part of the household of God.  Just like I have always been able to say with pride regardless of what else is going on in my life that I am the son of Jim and Jana Waits and that this gives some amount of meaning and definition to me; just like it is my hope that Noah and Josiah will similarly be able to point to Lisa and me and say they are our sons in order to explain to other people who they are; as followers of Christ we can point with pride to God the Father and proclaim we are members of His household.  We may be strangers in this world, but our identity is secure.

From this point, Peter began to unpack how this strangeness actually works when lived out in the context of a foreign world.  The theme to all of this was wrapped up, if you’ll remember, in the example of Christ’s behavior toward the world.  Namely, He practiced humble submission to everyone.  He treated the people around Him, regardless of who they were, as if they were more important than Him.  Now, were they in reality more important?  Of course not, but that didn’t make any difference.  He assumed such a status on their part as the baseline for His behavior toward them.  He did this with incredible consistency even to the point of giving up His life in the most violent, painful way possible.  Peter established all of this and then took Jesus’ example and applied it to some different areas of life which most of us experience at one time or another.  First, we are to practice humble submission with people in positions of real authority over us, like government officials or employers.  In doing this, our goal is to encourage people to copy our example even if they do so imperfectly.  You see, our primary driving goal should be the expansion of the circle of folks who are strange like us in order that our strangeness is gradually diminished as the kingdom expands.  And while with enough external pressure folks might take up a small measure of strangeness, of kingdom ethics, external force is never going to really do the job.  Anywhere religion is spread by the sword, it must also be maintained by the sword.  When the sword is taken away, so also will the religious fervor ebb.  That’s why Jesus didn’t use the sword.  He came to conquer, but not in the same way we do.  His method was humble submission.  Love does what force never can.  This takes the world’s approach and turns it on its head.  It’s strange.

The other example Peter gave of where this humble submission is applicable is the marriage relationship.  Wives are to submit humbly to their husbands and husbands are to demonstrate the same behavior toward their wives.   This is the primary engine of marriage.  If we try to run marriage on anything else it is not going to be fully what God designed it to be.  Now, this won’t always play out to our advantage in the short term.  It won’t be readily accepted or understood by the world.  But we do it anyway because that’s what Jesus did and it’s the only thing that’s going to accomplish the life change, the heart change, the mind change in our partner we want to see take place.

With the public face of godly strangeness thus established, Peter turned his attention to the lingering question in the minds of many a believer at this point: what happens when we do all this and things still don’t go well?  Peter’s response to this was two-fold.  First, be prepared to defend your faith.  Be prepared to unpack and show as reasonable the strangeness which has set you apart.  This needs to be done with actions, yes, but it must also be done with words.  We need to understand what and why we believe to a sufficient degree that we could explain it conversationally to a peer.  This doesn’t have to be eloquent or fancy, but how can we claim to follow something we don’t understand well enough to verbalize?  More to the point, if you know more about something like your favorite sports team than your own faith, something’s wrong.  Second, as we saw last week, we need to keep things in perspective by keeping our eyes focused on the end.  If we let our gaze rest too long on the obstacles between here and there—which admittedly are many—we’ll lose sight of where we’re going and it will become frightfully likely that we’ll get lost along the way.  And we need to do this both with the big things thrown at us by the world, but also with the little things we bear from each other when we come in from the storm raging outside.  Keeping our eyes on the end keeps our lives here in perspective.

All of that brings us to the end of the letter.  What do we say at this point?  How do we wrap all of this up in a way that it will stick with us beyond the back doors of the church?  What is the result of all of this strange living?  What do we get for persevering in our quest for Christ-like righteousness in spite of the pressures to cave and walk away from it?  What Peter needs to do here is to cast things forward and give us a final vision of the results of our self-appointed strangeness.  As it turns out, this is exactly what Peter does.  And he does it in two different ways.  He speaks to the people who should be leading others to embrace the strangeness of the kingdom of God, and he speaks to everyone else.  In the end, he has the same message for both groups: life.  If we stick with this strangeness we will receive the life we’ve been promised.  Living as godly strangers brings life.  Let me read his concluding words here and then we’ll take a few minutes to unpack how he proclaims this remarkable truth to us.

“So,” meaning, in light of what I’ve just been saying, “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.  Cloth yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  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.  To him be the dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”

Powerful words, yes?  For the rest of our time together this morning I simply want to make three points to you from this text which I think back up the idea that living as godly strangers brings life and we’ll be out of here.  Let’s start where Peter does with his words to elders.  In their most specific sense, Peter’s words here are aimed at church leaders.  For many of us, though, when we hear certain key words like that, we allow ourselves to check out a bit.  “After all,” we think, “I’m not a church leader.  Peter must be talking about pastors.  I’ll tune back in when it’s more obvious he’s talking to everybody.”  Here’s the problem with this tendency: The Greek word Peter uses, presbyterous, is the word from which we get our English word presbyter which in the Presbyterian Church is roughly the equivalent to our deacon.  Peter’s not speaking to pastors here.  He’s speaking broadly to church leaders.  Well, who qualifies for the title of church leader?  Certainly anyone who’s been ordained as a deacon does.  But does the distinction apply more broadly than this?  I would argue that yes, in fact, it does.  In the early church, people became elders when they had been in the church long enough to be leading it.  You see, at some point we have to start leading.  At some point as we journey in the faith and become more accustomed to bearing our strangeness well, other people start looking to us for wisdom and advice on how to do it.  This same principle can be seen in other places in life.  Little boys and girls eventually grow up to be mommies and daddies.  They grow and eventually reach the place where they are able to pour into someone  who is not as far along in the journey as they are; ideally someone whom they helped bring into the journey in the first place.  Are you with me?  When someone reaches the age of thirty and still has the same view and understanding of the world as a three year old, most of us would acknowledge a problem exists.  This is not how things were designed to work.  The same goes in the church.  When someone has been professing Christ for several years, they should have an active role in helping believers who are not as far along in their own journeys grow in their faith and understanding.  Ideally, some of these will be folks they have introduced to the journey themselves.  If this isn’t happening, there’s a problem.  At some point we all become leaders in some capacity.

There are three options before us in light of this truth: flee from it, take advantage of it, or embrace it.  Many folks choose to flee from it.  They claim they don’t want anyone following them; they don’t want to lead anybody.  This is often paired with an attitude which says, “I don’t want to follow anybody else either.”  This is a deeply unbiblical position.  At some point in our strange journey of faith we grow to the point that God expects us to use what we know in order to help other, younger believers along in their own journeys.  We are to be making disciples.  If we’re not making disciples, we’re not doing the faith right.  This involves some degree of leadership.  There’s simply no getting around this.  These are the folks to whom Peter is speaking when he writes that we must not lead under compulsion, but willingly.  In an ideal world, the nominating committee should not have to beg, plead, and twist arms to find people to fill leadership roles in the church.  Running from leadership is a worldly trait.  There’s nothing strange about it.  Other folks choose to take advantage of it.  They use their influence to their own benefit.  They have an agenda and see people as a means to achieving it.  It is folks who might drift in this direction that Peter aims his comments when he tells us not to domineer over folks over whom we have authority or use it for our own shameful gain.  Taking advantage of leadership is also a worldly trait.  The right approach is to simply embrace it.  This is indeed a strange approach as far as the world goes.  Leaders who have embraced their role in the body—which often operates in conjunction with other gifts God has given—do so willingly, eagerly, and by setting an example for others to follow.  But they also recognize that if no one is following, perhaps it’s because the example being set isn’t worth following.  They are fully aware that they are accountable to the Chief Shepherd.  If they perform their task well, they will receive, Peter says, the unfading crown of glory.  What is this but a complete sharing in the life of Christ?  Living as godly strangers brings life.

The second point I want to make is this: the other side of leadership is followership.  Not only are we all expected by God to do some leading during our journeys of faith, but we are also all expected to do some following.  Following someone is hard.  I mean, sure, we’ll follow if they have some pressure to exert over us to do what they want, but to follow when we have the choice to do otherwise?  That’s hard.  That takes a lot of humility.  It takes a recognition that we are not the smartest, most capable, clearest seeing person in the room.  And even if we happen to be in a particular situation, it takes treating the folks around us as if they are more important than we are.  It takes actively calling to mind the fact that God is sovereign, not us, and further, that He utterly humiliated Himself on our behalf in order to gain us the prize of life.  He still actively humiliates Himself on a daily basis as He interacts with us and listens to us and involves Himself in our lives.  This is something like a situation in which the President sits down and plays house with a four-year-old girl…as the family dog.  If in your mind that would endear him to you, that’s only because your outlook on life is filtered through the lens of Christianity that characterizes much of our culture.  In cultures not so shaped by the Gospel—like Peter’s culture or modern-day Japan—such a move would be viewed as deeply shameful.  If the Emperor of Japan did something like that his position in the eyes of many of the Japanese people would be permanently lowered to the point that he might even have to abdicate his position entirely.  The point is here: if God does this on our behalf, there isn’t anyone on whose behalf we shouldn’t do the same thing.

Even more germane to Peter’s words, though: at different times in our lives, God appoints different people to be in positions of authority over us.   This happens both outside the church and inside the church.  The authority might be physical or spiritual, but either way, we are expected to submit ourselves to it.  Thus Peter’s advice: follow your leaders.  And following doesn’t mean simply sitting back and giving a nod of assent.  It means actively working with them to achieve the goals they’ve set out.  Pridefully sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option for us if we are going to hold to our stranger-status.  God doesn’t have anything to do with folks like that.  When I was in high school my youth minister had a vision of putting together a youth choir that could go on tour.  He thought this would be a lot of fun and a great ministry opportunity.  At the same time, I was one of the student leaders of the group.  I didn’t realize it then, but I had a really big impact on the nature and direction of the group.  If I supported something, the other kids in the group were likely to do so as well.  Well, while I wanted my youth minister to succeed, I didn’t have any interest in being a part of something like that.  It just didn’t suit my fancy.  I was happy with things the way they were.  As a result, I didn’t give any real support to the idea of the trip.  I didn’t follow my leader at all on this.  In the end and with the addition of a few other factors, the choir and the trip never happened.  Who knows what opportunities were lost because of it?  I was too prideful to submit to one of my leaders.  I chose to go the route of everyone else instead of the route of godly stranger.  If I’m really honest, I didn’t support the idea because it was something unknown and fearful for me.  It was easier to rely on what I could do instead of casting my anxieties on the God who cares for me.  Who knows what life I missed out on because of it?  Living as godly strangers, though, brings life.

Here’s the final point and we’re out of here.  When we commit ourselves to living as godly strangers in this life, hard times are going to come.  We are going to face persecution in one way or another.  Our adversary, the devil—not people, is always on the lookout for a way devour us, to throw us off the path of life.  He works tirelessly to entice, coerce, and otherwise convince us to conform to the patterns of this world.  He wants desperately for us to abandon our stranger status because he doesn’t have any power over godly strangers.  If we are going to experience the life coming to godly strangers as opposed to the death awaiting those who settle for conforming, we must resist him.  And how do we resist him?  By using the same tools we have been talking about all the while.  We practice the humble submission of Christ—which means both following and leading when appropriate.  We also keep things in perspective by remembering that we are not the only ones facing hard times like this.  We can take comfort in the fact that our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are facing the same treatment from the world and worse; the same treatment received by Christ Himself.  As I said last week, the very fact that we are receiving persecution from the world suggests in a powerful way that Christ is at work in and through us because you and I are, on our own, not important enough to merit such reactions from the world.

The most important anchor for us in this resistance is our faith. And let’s make sure we understand what Biblical faith is.  Biblical faith is not, as is caricatured, a blind leap into nothingness.  It is not the acceptance of some premise as true either in contradiction to or even in the total absence of evidence.  Biblical faith is acting on the promises and commands of God because of our confidence in His character which we have seen demonstrated enough times to overcome our doubts.  Faith is also not, as it is often falsely assumed to be in the church, simple belief in God.  It is belief put into action.  If your faith doesn’t lead you to the places where God is most present—all of which are beyond your ability to see or understand—it’s not doing you any good.  I can say I believe a chair will support me all day long, but until I actually sit down there’s no reason to accept my claim as true.  We can say we believe in God’s ability to provide for us all day long, but until we put ourselves in a place where He has to provide in order for us to make it (not merely where if He doesn’t come through we’ll still be okay), there’s no reason to accept our claim as true.  If we remain rooted in this kind of faith, the persecutions, the hard times, the attacks by our enemy will not succeed.  Instead, when we have “suffered a little while”—for our lives here, however long, are but a little while in the scope of eternity—God will set things right.  He will restore us to wholeness.  He will confirm our faith with sight.  He will strengthen our flagging spirits.  And He will establish us as permanent members of His kingdom.  In short, He will give us life.

Living as godly strangers brings life.  It brings life sweet and lasting.  We walk in the valley of the shadow of death now.  No questions on that.  You know this already.  You have experienced this.  Some of you are actively experiencing it even this morning.  Death swarms all around us.  It is our constant companion in this world.  But over followers of Jesus, over godly strangers, it has no power.  None.  Instead, we look forward to the unfading crown of glory and to experience the restoration, confirmation, strengthening, and establishing of God.  We look forward to drinking deeply of the life that is truly life.  Living as godly strangers brings life.  It brings life not only then, though, but now.  We experience the life of the kingdom now.  When we shine as godly strangers the darkness of death is driven back now.  We know the hope and peace of God in this moment.  We get a taste of the blessings of the final kingdom today.  We know life in the midst of death.  This is the greatest coup of the kingdom: Not that the powers of sin and death will be one day overthrown, but that they are broken here and now in the lives of godly strangers.  Living as godly strangers brings life.  Folks, this life is worth it.  It’s worth the cost.  It’s worth the momentary heartache.  It’s worth the trouble.  It’s worth all of that and more. You simply aren’t going to find it anywhere else.  Living as godly strangers brings life.  Come and let’s live.