Rich Refugees - 1 Peter 1:1-2
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Some here this evening may well remember an old Negro spiritual song which goes, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door ‘cos I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.’ Now while that song isn’t going to receive any Ivor Novello award for best lyrics, it does capture perfectly the normal Christian experience, that as you go on in the Christian life you feel more out of sorts with this world as you draw nearer to the next world.
Well, over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at a letter in the Bible which tells us why we feel like that and what we are to do about it; and that letter is of course, 1 Peter.
The great Reformer Martin Luther said that this was one of the most important books in the whole Bible being on a par with Paul’s letter to the Romans and John’s Gospel. He believed it contained everything you needed to know about how to be saved and how to live as a Christian. And it certainly is one of the most valued books of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who every day face outright persecution. And I want to suggest to you tonight, that as we increasingly face hostility in our society, it is going to become one of the most important books for us too.
So let’s turn to the opening words of this letter and look at them under three headings: being out of place in God’s World; being steadied by God’s Word and being secure in God’s love.
First: being out of place in God’s World. Just look at how Peter describes these Christians in verse 1, ‘To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…’ These are regions of modern-day Turkey. The word which is translated ‘scattered’ is one which is mentioned elsewhere as the ‘diaspora’ which originally referred to the scattering of the Jews from the time of the Exile in 587BC onwards. It is a word which has a decidedly negative ring to it because for the Jews to be ‘scattered’ by God according to the Book of Deuteronomy, was as act of judgement, in contrast to them being ‘gathered’ into the land of promise, which was the hope the Jews had that the coming Messiah would eventually do. So for Jews to be part of the ‘Diaspora’ was a badge of shame.
But here Peter reverses that and portrays it as a badge of honour for Christians because it underscores the fact that, linking it to the other term ‘strangers’ (parepidemoi), meaning ‘resident alien’, we are in transition as we move from one country to another. Now these folk were literally foreigners as they were originally from Rome but now in the region of today’s Turkey. But there is deeper meaning and it is that all Christians are in effect foreigners in this world; we are citizens of a better country, a heavenly one where Jesus reigns as King. You see, the Bible is clear that this world is one which is in open rebellion against its rightful ruler and therefore the loyal subjects of the King, like patriots in any occupied country, will feel out of sync with the occupying powers, longing for the time when the King will return to reclaim the land for himself. In the meantime, they will feel like exiles and will often be treated as such- ‘outsiders,’ ‘misfits’, ‘trouble makers’ and the like.
And that is exactly what was happening when Peter penned this letter. One writer, [Professor Karen Jobes] argues that the people Peter was writing to were ‘Christians from Rome who were deported to Roman colonies in Asia Minor during one of the several expulsions in the first century.’ And that, ‘Peter uses their disorientating experience to instruct and encourage them.’ That’s the important point.
You see, that sense of disorientation, when there seems to be a mismatch between what you think should be the case and what you experience is sometimes called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Now let me tell you when I have felt this and see if you can identify with it. It used to happen to me a lot when I had been to a Christian conference in London, where I had enjoyed the fellowship hundreds of Christian believers, engaged in rousing worship, first rate Bible teaching, such that you feel you have had a taste of heaven itself. But then having left the building finding myself in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, with traffic rushing by, hordes of people crowding the pavement, flashing advertisements clamouring for my attention- I would often think to myself, ‘What has this world got to do with what I have just been experiencing?’ And the thoughts were never far away (from the devil I am sure) that it is the world of cars and adverts and people and money which is the ‘real’ world, whereas what I had just been enjoying was pure escapism. Don’t you ever feel like that, perhaps when you leave this building on a Sunday night or is it just me?
Now Peter is saying that feeling should not surprise you for that should be our experience, because we don’t really belong here. However, if we are so at home with this world, its values, priorities and idolatries and don’t feel any tension, then that is when you should question whether you are a believer at all.
But it is not just a matter of a tension between the oasis of Christian worship on a Sunday and the chaos of modern life on a Monday which makes us feel out of sorts. It runs much deeper than that. Interestingly enough at the end of this letter Peter writes, ‘‘She who is in Babylon, sends her greeting’- a code for the church in the city of Rome, for it was Rome at this time which embodied the overweening pride which snubs God and defies his ways- which is what ‘Babylon’ in the Bible stands for (see Revelation:17-18). So just as the Jews who were scattered to King Nebuchadnezzar’s historical Babylon in 587BC and wept by its rivers unable to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, feeling not only alienated but sickened by the effrontery of paganism all around them, so Christians are living in a spiritual Babylon and it is not necessarily pleasant.
In his thoughtful reflections on what he calls the ‘post-Christian mind’, the writer and former student of C.S. Lewis, Harry Blamires, in 1999 said this: ‘There is no doubt that, as the twenty-first century approaches, Christendom faces formidable hostility, not least in those developed Western countries once regarded as bulwarks of Christian civilization. Looking around us, we Christians cannot but be aware of how powerful and insidious is the assault on the faith we hold, the faith we have assumed to be the foundation of Western culture. Current secularist humanism-a mishmash of relativistic notions negating traditional values and absolutes-infects the intellectual air we breathe. There is a campaign to undermine all human acknowledgements of the transcendent, to whittle away all human respect for objective restraints on the individualistic self. The hold of this campaign on the media is such that the masses are being brainwashed as they read the press, listen to the radio or watch TV’. Isn’t that so?
The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre refers to ‘new dark ages’ of moral decay. Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned of the West’s debilitating ‘spiritual exhaustion’. In more recent years a bestselling book, by William Strauss and Neil Howe concerning the United States maintains that “it feels like it’s unravelling.” And this unravelling is occurring at a number of different levels, not least on our university campuses. One writer familiar with the experience of campus life, Scott MacKnight writes in his commentary on 1 Peter: ‘In the Western world I can think of no group to whom “social exclusion” might apply any better than to God-fearing Christians on university campuses’. He speaks of ‘the intolerance, almost fascist at times, of religiously conservative ideas that deserve to be debated by leading intellectuals and that deserve a place of hearing in the market place of ideas.’ And points out that ‘This is what a university is supposed to be – a place where all ideas compete against one another.’ As an American, he observes ‘It is a sad story about many American universities that traditional ideas (no matter how well-founded and adaptable they may be for today’s culture) are out, while novel ideas (no matter how radical and illogical) are in. Education becomes indoctrination into ideas of recent special interest groups.’ And the same of course can be said of Britain.
And you know, living in that kind of social and spiritual environment is bound to make you feel bewildered at times and if you are not careful, it leaves you feeling isolated, belittled and beleaguered.
Now Peter is wanting to give Christians their bearings so we don’t stagger around society disorientated, wondering where God is and what he is doing. At one level, Peter is saying, this is what you should come to expect in world out of kilter with its Maker, and far from that being a sign that you have got it wrong, it is a sure indicator that you have got it right and you are on the right road to heaven.
And so we come to the need for us to be steadied by God’s Word. How is that so? Look at how Peter introduces himself in verse 1, ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ’. The word apostle comes from a verb [apostellein] meaning to send, and it literally means ‘sent one’, that is someone one who has been commissioned with a task. But will you notice who does the commissioning, it is King Jesus himself. It was Jesus who made his disciples ‘apostles’ with the command that they take his teaching and their witness to his resurrection to all nations. And so they came to have a unique place in the early church. They were if you like, the custodians of revelation, the guardians of doctrine and the authorised teachers of the church at its very foundation. Jesus himself had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, bringing from him further revelation and a fuller understanding of his Person and Work. Putting it simply, when we turn to a letter like this: what Peter says, God says. It is not just good advice, it is God’s announcement. So when God speaks- we listen, what God commands, we obey and it is not open for negotiation.
Now do you realise how counter cultural what we have just said is, as well as it going against our fallen human nature. In our post-modern culture everything is up for grabs, because today we are told there is no truth, except the truth there is no truth. I was reading in a best selling magazine the other day of this advice given by Damien Barr for those who wish to write their memoir, he says, ‘Too many facts can get in the way of truth. The truth is what you feel; the facts are what you know and can argue about’. And it is not surprising that such thinking has infected Christians and the church as much as anyone else. But verse 1 of this letter doesn’t give us that option. The Gospel of King Jesus which comes to us through his authorised apostles demands that we put aside our false beliefs as well as our unbeliefs and surrender wholeheartedly to God’s own authority in his Word. And if that runs contrary to what is popular in current society- so be it. For in part that is what it means to be a Christian- a stranger and exile.
But when you think about it, this is a liberating thing. When you are in the middle of a wilderness and not sure where you are, let alone where you want to go, isn’t it great to have a map which has been made by someone who has been through that territory before you, so it is reliable and will ensure you can get your bearings and so get moving? More than that, wouldn’t it be great if that person could draw alongside you and act as your guide? Well, that is what the Gospel, God’s Word gives. For this revelation is given by Jesus who has been through this world of ours and knows its every twist and turn, its pitfalls and dangers and has come out the other end. More than that, by His Spirit he returns to be our guide, directing us to the New Testament he has inspired as well as being within the church where his Word is taught and where he applies it personally to each one of our hearts.
And although these believers were scattered throughout Asia Minor, by and large they were not isolated individuals, they got together so they could hear letters like this read out in their churches. Just think about what ex-pats and immigrants tend to do. They often get together and stick together. They speak the same language, they share similar experiences, they talk about the home country and help and encourage one another on in their new world. Well, that is what Christians need to do if they are not going to be swallowed up and compromised by Babylon. This is where you find the reality of God and heaven as we meet; this is where we can support each other, offer advice to one another to keep on keeping on, reminding each other about the home country-which is heaven, so we don’t lose sight of where we really belong. Could I ask you: do you feel the strain of being a Christian in an alien world wearisome, such that it seems easier to go with the flow of your friends, family and society than to be different? Then the answer is to get to the place where you will experience the overwhelming reality of God and just who you are in relation to him- that is here in church. Neglect this and the drift will happen, but make the best of it and the world will become less and less important to you because Jesus becomes more important.
Which brings us to our final point, being secure in God’s love, ‘To God’s elect…. who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.’
One of the reasons we can feel disorientated as Christians is because we so easily forget who we are and feel intimidated by the fear of a loss of identity. We all crave significance-that is the way we are wired. And in our society significance is measured in terms of our income, or looks, or possessions or job. And if we buy into that then we are always going to be beholden to the latest fad. But notice what Peter says here to get us firmly rooted in our true identity and so our true worth. He doesn’t address us as the ‘socially excluded’ but God’s ‘elect’, and this comes before he addresses them as ‘exiles who are scattered’. In other words, our social standing comes second to our spiritual standing. In effect Peter is saying, ‘Do you want to know how valuable you really are, where you significance truly lies? It is not in the approval of your peers or the size of your house or the class of your degree. It is anchored in the fact that the whole of the Triune Godhead has invested itself in you even before you were even born. This is the Trinity we are talking about who has pulled out all the stops to save you.
There is the Father who ‘chooses us according to his foreknowledge’. This not God observing you from eternity or having information about you in advance, so that he ‘knew’ you were going to turn out to be a rather nice and useful chap and so he ‘chose’ you to become a Christian. No. It is God’s knowing and loving people in eternity and so choosing them to be saved in history by the proclamation of the Gospel. And it is that choosing of a Melvin or a Tim or a Ruth which comes from God’s kind heart which gives us significance. Back in the 1970’s in the US at the height of the black power movement, one young African American was getting pushed around at school because of his colour, and at one point he rounded on his tormentors and said, ‘I’m, black, I’m me and I’m loved because God don’t make no junk’- terrible grammar but brilliant theology. And Peter says to these knocked around Christians, ‘You are you, you are loved ‘cos God don’t make no junk.’ Or as the Puritan Nicholas Byfield put it, ‘If God chooses them, it matters not who refuses them, if God knows them it matters not who is ignorant of them; if God honours them it matters not who disgraces them.’ That is the work of the Father, he chooses you to be his son or daughter- hold on to that says Peter.
Then we have the work of the Spirit, ‘through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.’ If it weren’t for the work of the Holy Spirit you wouldn’t be where you are tonight, because it was by his ‘open heart surgery’ that he released you to trust in the Gospel. Going back to Martin Luther he said, ‘I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him’. ‘It is the Spirit who first stirs in the heart reaching toward God, quickens one’s understanding of the gospel, convicts of sin, reassures of pardon, and transforms the character by his fruit of virtues.’ Isn’t that you experience? What God the Father planned- your salvation- God the Holy Spirit made real- sanctification- being set apart- which is what Peter means by ‘obedience to Jesus Christ.’ This is the initial obedience bound up with our initial repentance and our initial submission to Jesus as ruler (cf v22).
But something happened in order to make all this possible. Did you spot it? ‘Sprinkled with his blood.’ This is God the Son’s work. Here Peter is drawing on something which happened with the OT people of God in Exodus 24 when at Sinai Moses took the blood of the animals sacrificed and put them in bowls. He then read the Book of the Covenant to the people gathered where they promised obedience to God and he splashed blood all over the people. And you can imagine the people standing there with blood streaming down their faces that that was an event they would never, ever forget, costly sacrifice had been made and costly obedience had been promised. But what has been splashed across our faces, if I may put it like that? It is divine blood, Jesus’ blood, the blood symbolising a life giving exchange, his life for ours poured out on the cross to make us his own. So little wonder that Peter can say, ‘grace and peace be yours in abundance.’
Do you feel a stranger in this world? Of course you do. But if you are a Christian you are not a stranger to God: he is your Father and you are his child; Jesus is your redeemer and you are infinitely precious to him because he shed his infinitely precious blood for you; the Spirit is your Comforter and will be with you and within you until your reach heavens shore, and then, and only then, you will be at home for ever.
 Quoted in ‘How to Write your Memoir’ SAGA April 2016 p59
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