Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Most Astonishing Promise

What a fascinating passage of scripture (John 16:16-33). But if you -- like me -- find some things about this passage to be puzzling, isn’t it comforting to notice that the disciples also appear to be confused? In verse 17, they say to each other, “What does he mean?” (that is, “What does Jesus mean?”) And in verse 18, after repeating that same question, they say quite explicitly, “We don’t understand what he is saying.

Isn’t it great that the gospel writers aren’t at all shy about acknowledging when the disciples were out of sync with Jesus? Of course, the good news is that in spite of their inability to grasp what Jesus is saying, Jesus didn’t give up on them. So whenever we struggle to understand something Jesus is saying to us, whenever we struggle to be in harmony with him, we can be assured that he is not about to give up on us, either….

But isn’t it also interesting to notice that the things that confuse Jesus’ disciples aren’t the same things that puzzle us? In verse 18, the disciples ask about this “little while” business. But when Jesus says, “in a little while you will no longer see me,” we now know that he could well have been speaking about his approaching crucifixion and death -- it is, after all, something that he predicted at least three times. And then when he adds, “and then after a little while you will see me”? Well, we now know that Jesus would also rise from the dead in great victory. And so we aren’t as puzzled today as the disciples were when Jesus said these words. Having the death and resurrection in mind also helps us understand verses 20-22:

20 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

Can you imagine being one of those disciples between Jesus death on Good Friday and his resurrection Easter Sunday morning? When their leader and friend was executed they very likely did “weep and mourn” (as Jesus predicted). It would have appeared to them that they had made a failed investment -- that they had “bet on the wrong horse”.

Now that’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? You take a chance on someone or something, and it fails, or -- even worse -- they fail you. And the more time or money or energy you invested, the more it hurts. The disciples left everything to follow Jesus. They had spent three years of their lives dedicated to him. So you can imagine the disciples’ emotional turmoil during that longest and darkest of Saturdays. But you can also imagine their exceeding joy the following day -- when the reality of Jesus’ victory over death began to sink in. But here, in our text this morning, we aren’t there yet. Neither the death or resurrection of Jesus has happened. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can appreciate what seems to have confused the disciples.

But now we come to the most difficult portion of our text -- at least for us (there is no indication that it was a concern for the disciples). Before we read it, I’d like to give you a “heads-up:” We will be reading Jesus’ promise to his disciples -- his promise to us, and one of the most significant promises in the Bible! But in order to understand it better, it could help to consider an important question: that is, what is the purpose of a promise?

If your child is participating in a play at school, and you promise her that you will leave work early in order to attend, well, there isn’t just one purpose of such a promise. First, there is the immediate purpose -- that is, attending her play. If you were to ask her, “why did your Daddy promise to leave work early?” She might reply, “so he could see me!” And she would be right. But there can also be an ultimate purpose. If someone asked you, “why did you promise to leave work early?” you might reply, “to build a relationship with my daughter!” And you would also be right, naturally.

The Bible is full of promises. And while we might understandably be inclined to focus on the immediate purpose of those promises (being human as we are), scripture make it clear that there are also ultimate purposes, including nothing less that re-making us in the image of our Lord and Savior -- grafting us into the True Vine that Real spoke about last week, enabling us to abide with him, and he with us. As Peter writes (2 Peter 1:4):

he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

So now, as we turn to Jesus’ amazing promise to us, let’s not focus entirely on the immediate purpose, or we could easily lose sight of the ultimate purpose.

23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Now to us, hearing these words almost two thousand years later, they sure sound like Jesus is writing a blank cheque for us, don’t they? “My Father will give you whatever you ask…” But I’m sure that I’m not the only one here who has prayed earnestly, prayed fervently, prayed committedly, prayed faithfully, without receiving the thing that was prayed for. So how do we deal with that? For starters, we must not get hung up on the immediate purpose of this promise -- that is, receiving whatever we ask for. We will only begin to begin to appreciate this promise if we also consider its ultimate purpose.

There is, after all, a whole lot riding on this promise. Because there is nothing like a broken promise to rip your heart out; nothing like a broken promise to make other promises seem worthless. After all, if we can’t take this promise seriously, how can we take Jesus’ other promises seriously? When Jesus says:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

And when Jesus says,

Let not your heart be troubled; …. I go to prepare a place for you.

We must be able to trust him, and so we must also be willing to wrestle with -- perhaps understand -- this promise. But more importantly, we need to experience it.

The problem, of course, is that this promise sometimes doesn’t seem to stand up to the tragedies we face in life. Those heartbreaking prayer requests -- asking for the health of someone we love -- or perhaps even more heartbreaking -- asking for the salvation of someone we love -- they all too often go unfulfilled.

And it won’t do to say that “well, God answered those prayers… he just chose to answer with a ‘no’.” Have you ever heard that? Except that Jesus doesn’t just promise that the Father will just hear, or even respond. No: he says: “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” And to lay it on even thicker, Jesus doesn’t just give this promise once. We see it at least four times in the gospel of John alone. In chapter 14, we read:

13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

And in chapter 15, we read:

7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified

And later:

16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

And the same promise appears twice in the gospel of Matthew (7:7, 21:22), once in the gospel of Mark (11:24), once in the gospel of Luke (11:9) as well as in the first letter of John (5:14,15). This is some serious business. We can’t just brush it off. It even appears that Jesus is insisting that we take him seriously here -- that is, he is encouraging us to make a point of regularly coming to him with our requests! Here is verse 24 again:

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

At this point, let’s agree that these nine passages are really nine different expressions of the same promise. Let’s also notice that there are two types of details in some or all of these passages. On the one hand, there are some we could call the “gate” for this promise, and on the other hand, those we could call the “goal” for this promise. These are the bookends, and between the gate and the goal is where the game is played.

Suppose you participate in a long distance run like the Boston Marathon. Going in, you’re told that successful participants will receive a certificate indicating their completion of that prestigious endeavor. But a few kilometers before the finish line, you spy Rosie Ruiz ahead of you. She was the runner who, in 1980, “won” the race, only to be stripped of the honor when it was found that she didn’t start with the rest of the runners. She didn’t enter through the “gate”, so she couldn’t claim the prize. Similarly, if a runner lost his way, and even ran the full distance in record time without crossing the finish line, you’d feel very sorry for him, but you wouldn’t give him the prize, either. He didn’t achieve the “goal”. Between the gates and the goal is where the game is played.

In the slide, I’ve colored the text. In green, you see the promise itself. In yellow, what we could call the “gate”, and in red what we could call the “goal”.

In our text (at the top) in order to receive what we ask, the “gate” is that the asking be done “in Jesus name.” (as it is in John 14 and John 15:16) In Matthew and in Mark, the gate is to ask “in faith.” In 1 John, the gate is to ask “according to God’s will.” In John 15:7, the gate is to be “abiding in the True Vine (that is, in Jesus, himself).” But “operating in Jesus name” just is “abiding in Jesus” which just is “being aligned with the Father’s will” which just is “living by faith in Him”. As Tom Short says, “Our faith activates the promises of God and makes them real for us.” Those of the nine passages that have an explicit “gate” are simply different expressions of the same “gate”.

But this “in my name” business needs a bit more attention, especially given the common Christian practice to simply tack on “in Jesus name” to the end of our prayers. There is nothing wrong about doing that, of course. It usually expresses our intention to pray in Jesus’ name. But to express an intention and to actually pray in Jesus’ name are two quite different things. After all, Jesus makes it clear that it doesn’t matter if we imagine that we are acting in his name; it only matters if he considers what we do to be in his name. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the crowd (Matthew 7):

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Jesus isn’t buying it when these people think that they have done so much “in his name.” Instead, his reply is the scariest sequence of words in all of scripture: “I never knew you,” he says. Knowing him is important. Knowing him is critical. Clearly, we can’t enter the Kingdom without knowing him. But at the same time, it is also those that do the Father’s will who will enter the Kingdom. Once again: doing God’s will and knowing Jesus and operating in his name are aspects of one and the same thing.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, how did it go? After “our Father”, we are to pray, “Hallowed be your name.” That is, before we go any further, we must recognize the respect that is due to his name. We don’t treat it as a light thing. Instead, becoming a representative of his name is the goal of a lifetime. After that comes: “Your Kingdom come; your will be done -- on Earth (i.e., in my life) as it is in heaven.” That is, we can only begin to learn to pray if we start with acknowledging his purposes, and his goals. We need our heart’s desire to be in harmony and alignment with the Almighty.

But to really appreciate this “in my name” idea, let me remind you of one of its few modern applications. Suppose you are heading down the highway, without paying attention to how fast you are going, and a policeman pulls you over for speeding. He has stopped you “in the name of the law.” It means, among other things, that the policeman is representing the law. In the same way, when we do something in the name of Jesus, we are representing him. But just as the policeman needs training in his profession, needs qualification as the law’s representative, and needs to be well-versed in the law before acting in its name, we, too, need to get to know Jesus before we can legitimately claim to be doing anything in his name. As we said: knowing him is critical.

“In Jesus’ name” is not just something we tack on at the periphery of the Christian life. Rather, it represents something fundamentally pivotal in our Christian experience. In testimony to this fact, the expressions “in the name of Jesus”, “in Jesus”, “in Jesus’ name” and “in Christ” appear over one hundred times in the New Testament, where we also read:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17)

So that’s the “gate”: if we are willing to get to know Jesus so deeply that we can represent him to the lost world around us -- because that’s what it means to operate “in his name” -- then we will fulfill the requirements for the promise.

But what about the “goal?” Here, we consider the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ promise. In our text, Jesus says that the goal is to make “our joy complete.” That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But how about those other passages? In John 14 and 15:7, the goal of the promise is to glorify the Father. In John 15:16, the goal is to have us bear much fruit and to love one another. As the Sunday School memorably reminded us a few weeks ago, “love” and “joy” are the first two of the fruit of the spirit. In John 15:8, Jesus indicates that our demonstrating this fruit is the truest manner by which we glorify the Father:

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.

So, once again, when these passage include a “goal” they are just different expressions of the same goal. When we come to God with our requests, if our purpose is in harmony with the purpose of the promise, then the promise is ours. As Samuel Gordon writes in Quiet talks on prayer “The roots of prayer lie in oneness of purpose” -- our purpose must become more aligned with His purpose.

But even with all that I’ve said this morning, there is an uncomfortable reality in this promise that can’t be avoided. That is, no matter how many times our prayers have been answered, when the time comes that we ask and we don’t receive, then it implies that we simply weren’t in harmony with Jesus in the first place. Either we missed the gate or we missed the goal. “But I tried!” our heart cried out. “I did all I could,” we say to ourselves. It sometimes feels like Jesus must have been setting us up for heartbreak. What more can we do to be in harmony with him? Now that’s the right question to ask!

But in response, let me remind you that our text began with the disciples struggling with Jesus words -- they weren’t in harmony with him at the time. And Jesus gave them this promise in the context of their disharmony. Confusion on the part of the disciples is also part of the context of the same promise in chapter 14. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Let me suggest that our attempts to ask in Jesus name are the best possible remedy for being out of harmony with him. That is, Jesus knows that our asking, expecting and hoping to have our requests answered is actually an effective means of getting to know him better and beginning to abide in him more!

This is how it works: whenever we know an important rule in principle, but are unsure about how that rule applies in practice, what do we do? We give it a try. When it doesn’t appear that the rule “worked”, it simply means that we either missed the gate or missed the goal. It isn’t fun when that happens, but we don’t give up. After all, Jesus tells us that there is great joy and great reward in discovering exactly how this rule “works”. So we must not give up. Will it mean developing patience? Certainly (that’s the fourth fruit of the Spirit, incidentally). Will it mean some heartbreak? Certainly. If we are in harmony with Jesus, our hearts will break at the suffering in the world, even as his does. But will it be worth it in the end? Absolutely.

In Luke 18, Jesus “told [his disciples] a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus knows that there is nothing able to align our hearts with God more -- nothing that brings our hearts into harmony with him more -- than coming to Him again and again with our requests, carefully paying particular attention to the requests that are granted, and adjusting ourselves accordingly. As Andrew Murray wrote: "All this must be learned. It can only be learned in the school of much prayer, for practice makes perfect."
How does Paul put it?

in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6,7)

God knows that our hearts can be slowly brought in harmony with his Son Jesus if we follow this advice: in everything let your requests be made known to God. If you, like the disciples, still aren’t sure, why not start small -- start with the basics. Start with requests that scripture indicates are in God’s will; start with requests that scripture indicates are “in his name”. What would those things be? In 1 Thess 5, we read:

Rejoice always and pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Have you ever prayed that God would help you to learn to pray? Have you ever prayed that God would help you be thankful? Have you ever prayed for access to the joy of the Spirit? Those are great places to start. But this morning we’ve encountered a number of other things that God clearly wants for us. Have you ever prayed to be more securely established in Jesus? Have you ever prayed to be living according to his will? Have you ever prayed for more of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? How about for more of the Holy Spirit in your life?

If we remain faithful in those prayers, we will first begin to experience the ultimate purpose of this promise. And then (and only then) will we experience its immediate purpose, that is -- receiving whatever we ask for in his name.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Suffering ...and Glory

Welcome back to 1st Peter. It’s been a while. Since the previous 1st-Peter sermon, we had Christmas -- and I hope that the holidays were a blessing to everyone -- and then we had three missionary Sundays. So if you are anything like me, you forgot a bunch of what we covered from 1st Peter back in November. So, for review, we made it through three chapters out of five; today will be chapter four, and next week we’ll wrap up the series with chapter five.

Now if we were to summarize the theme of Peter’s first letter in a single word, you might choose the word “suffering”. In fact, a little more than one in six -- almost 20% -- of all the verses in 1st Peter make explicit reference to suffering. So today we can’t help but revisit this theme. Especially now that we’re into chapter four, that begins with these words (4:1):

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.”

It appears that Peter is hung up about suffering. And that might be troubling for many people these days. After all, if the Christian life is going to involve suffering, why do we want to have anything to do with it? How can we expect people to be willing to sign up for it? And how has the Christian message done so well in the marketplace of ideas if suffering features so prominently?

Well, if we think that the apostle Peter is simply trying to comfort his readers in their suffering, then we’ve totally misunderstood him. We need to appreciate that throughout this letter, Peter is actually building an argument concerning suffering; he is explaining the purpose of suffering. He is situating suffering in a bigger picture. So let’s explore that bigger picture this morning.

For starters, suffering is certainly part of the human condition. 350 years ago, there was a philosopher [Thomas Hobbes] who famously said that human life is typically “nasty, brutish and short.” Another famous philosopher, occasionally known as “the man in black”, put it this way:

“Life is Pain... Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

And, sure enough, verses from 1st Peter tell the same story (1:24):

“For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,”

The message is clear: suffering is just part of being human. Over the last three weeks, we heard speakers coming from Kurdistan, from Syria, and from Sudan -- war-torn places where the value of human life seems downgraded, and where evil can appear suddenly and deliver great suffering. We heard of livelihoods and possessions destroyed. We heard of hunger and hardship. And whenever we turn on the news, we witness human suffering around the world.

“But hold on,” you might say, “modern medicine and modern technology have changed things; things are much better here, and we can hope that they will eventually change things throughout the world.” It’s a nice story, but the fact is that in spite of technological progress, incidence of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, depression and anxiety are all up -- not down -- in first world countries. And the incidence of ...death? Well, that’s still at the 100% it’s been throughout history.

We just like to avoid looking at suffering. We just want it to be kept at arm’s length. If people are sick, we have hospitals. If people are dying, we have palliative facilities. Now both of those are wonderful things, but the point is that they create the illusion for the rest of us that suffering is an exception rather than the rule that it is. We might be able to avoid looking at suffering, but we can’t avoid suffering -- that’s just part of being human.

So how do we respond to suffering? How should we respond to suffering? The key is found in our very first verse - the one we’ve already read:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.

Now what attitude would that be? Let’s have a look at that this morning. On the one hand, we’ll keep our Bibles open to 1st Peter. But on the other hand, we’ll also spend some time in the rest of the New Testament -- gimplsing, where we can, Jesus’ attitude.

As we know from all the gospels, Jesus knew ahead of time that he was destined for torture and execution -- he explicitly predicted as much to his disciples at least three times, but in John’s gospel six chapters are dedicated to the last few days and hours leading up to that crucifixion. And at the beginning of those six chapters, we read (John 12:23):

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….

Now, as you know, “the Son of Man” was how Jesus referred to himself. He knew he was on the road to great suffering, but how does he describe it? “The Son of Man [is] to be glorified.” And at the end of those same six chapters, right before the soldiers come to arrest him, we find Jesus praying with these words:

Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son.

Isn’t that remarkable? The hour had come for his beating. The hour had come for his torture. The hour had come for his ridicule, his humiliation, and his suffocation on that Roman cross. But Jesus can see through that suffering -- it is as if it were just a transparent door for him -- and he can see the glory that awaits him on the other side. Now, as Peter puts it, we are to

arm ourselves with the same attitude.

Now the idea that glory can be a consequence of suffering also shows up in our text (4:12,13):

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

Yes: we will be overjoyed with Christ in his glory. But more than that, we will also participate in his glory. We will share in his glory. That’s what we read a few verse later (5:1): Peter says that he has witnessed Jesus’ suffering and will share in his glory. And this same idea shows up elsewhere:

Romans 8:17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

2 Cor 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Yes: the glory to come naturally belongs to our Lord and Savior, but it is a glory that he is willing to share with us! We may share in his glory -- but only if we are willing to share in his suffering.

You know, once you’ve encountered this interesting side-by-side placement of suffering and glory in the New Testament, it seems to show up everywhere. In fact, I did a quick check, and I encountered at least twenty such instances -- and I’m sure I missed at least a few. For our purposes this morning, two are particularly important, because they speak specifically to the attitude of Christ. The first is from the book of Hebrews (12:2):

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Yes: we fix our eyes on Jesus, so that we can learn from him -- so that we can consider his attitude, that ability to see glory through suffering. The attitude that Peter instructs us to adopt. And it isn’t just Peter. In Philippians, Paul writes these same instructions to us:

have the same attitude as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not [cling to his rights as God];
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, ...
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to [the point of] death...
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place....

This theme, of glory through suffering, isn’t just the theme of the fourth chapter of 1st Peter. It is the theme of the entire book of 1st Peter. And not just the theme of the book of 1st Peter, either. It is the theme of the entire New Testament, resting as it does on the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So we fix our eyes on him, and his attitude of... as we read:

  • Endurance
  • Servanthood
  • Humility
  • Obedience
Scripture makes it clear: this is the only sure path to glory.

Now, of course, it is one thing to say that there can be glory through suffering, but it is another thing altogether to be able, like Jesus, to see that glory, particularly when we are experiencing significant suffering. But let me suggest that if are willing to pay close attention to Jesus attitude -- as described in the gospels and echoed in 1st Peter -- we will discover three necessary ingredients to experiencing victory in suffering.

But before we consider those three elements, it is appropriate to notice from our text that not just any suffering can be turned into glory. As you will notice in verses fifteen and sixteen, Peter makes it clear that we can’t expect glory for just any suffering -- and certainly not suffering resulting from our own misbehavior:

If you suffer, it should not be ...even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

So what does it mean to suffer as a Christian in Canada today?

As you may recall, introducing the theme of suffering from 1st Peter last fall, Andy very wisely reminded us that while we may not face violence for our faith in Canada, there is a very real sense in which the culture around us feels (and this is quote from Andy’s notes) “that church is ... out of step with Canadian values.”

Well, that observation was perhaps prophetic. As you may know, quite recently the federal government decided to add an ideological purity test to their applications for summer work grants. This is how the government website puts it:

applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada...

Now that sounds great -- what could be objectionable about that, right? Who would ever be disrespectful of individual human rights? Well, the very next sentence clarifies:

These [human rights] include reproductive rights.

“Reproductive rights” -- hmm, later, that’s made a little more explicit: it means “access to safe and legal abortions.” It doesn’t matter that Canada doesn’t actually have an abortion law; apparently, disagreement with elected officials on this topic makes you a second-class citizen: if you do disagree with them, don't bother applying for a student work grant.

Now the great irony in all of this is that on their website, in order to justify such an unprecedented action, the government invokes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it is that very Charter that explicitly protects the "fundamental freedoms" of, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of belief. But somehow, according to the present government, those freedoms aren't quite as important as the need to toe the party line on the topic of abortion. Sure: we may not suffer violence for faithfulness to Jesus Christ, but we will certainly be treated differently for it.

Of course, when we are treated as second-class citizens, there is enormous temptation to get all bent out of shape at the injustice of it all, but that could be exactly what our text is telling us not to do. Instead, the message of 1st Peter is that when we encounter such things -- rights abuses, marginalization, discrimination, mistreatment and injustice -- that we consider the attitude of Christ. In particular, if Christ did not cling to his rights as God, if we claim to be his followers, it shouldn't be our first instinct to cling to our rights as Canadian citizens.

After all, in the first chapter of 1st Peter (v17) and also in the second chapter (v11), Peter tells his readers to consider themselves “foreigners” in this world. Are we being treated like we don’t belong? Do we feel like we don’t really “fit in”? Peter says, “own that.” Is the church out of step with “Canadian values”? Peter is saying “Amen to that”! As Paul put it (Romans 12:2):

Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world.

Or, as Jesus says in John chapter 17, where he is praying for us:

They [(meaning us)] are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

The attitude here is to be looking forward to another city, whose architect and builder is God. So the first element of Jesus’ attitude -- enabling the ability to see glory through suffering -- is to consider oneself a foreigner, knowing that our home is not of this world. Let’s could call this element “belonging elsewhere”. And on this point, our text (verse 3-5) reads:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do [and] They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

That longing to belong, that our culture drills into us as early as primary school? On the one hand, it tempts us to conform ourselves to this world. But on the other, it reminds us that we were really wired for another one altogether. If we want to experience victory -- even in suffering -- we need to recognize our “belonging elsewhere.”

Now the second common element between 1st Peter and the gospels is the repeated admonition to love each other. In our text, we read:

4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

(which, incidentally, is an echo of)

1:22 love one another deeply, from the heart.

(and also)

3:18 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.

Suffering always comes with temptation -- the temptation to turn inward. In the grip of suffering, it is terribly difficult to see beyond oneself. And so developing a habit of love, which is always outward-facing, is a wonderful antidote. Loving each other deeply gives God the opportunity to plant his glory in our hearts. Of course, suffering can also increase our sympathy for others who are going through hardship. Are we willing to accept suffering if it represented an act of love to those around? Well, that’s what Jesus’ attitude certainly was. The gospels say that Jesus showed “the full extent of his love” by going to the cross for us. And it was with that in view that Jesus gives his most famous instruction to his disciples (15:9, 13, 13:34):

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Those five words -- “as I have loved you” -- contain such a challenge. If our love is to be anything like the variety of love that Jesus has shown to us, we must be willing to suffer for it. How often do we let inconvenience dictate the limits of our love to each other, when Jesus didn’t allow suffering -- and even death -- to become a limitation on his love.

This last week, I encountered a really interesting English word -- the word “insufferable”. Of course, we use that word when we speak of someone else whose behavior we can hardly tolerate - or more accurately, whose behavior we are unwilling to suffer. But there is nothing that anyone has ever done that Jesus found to be “insufferable.” In fact, his suffering was enough to address the sins of every human being who has ever lived. And we are, as Peter puts it, to “arm ourselves with the same attitude”. If you want to experience victory this morning -- even in suffering, “be loving others”.

So far, then, our two key elements of Jesus’ attitude are then:

  1. Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners;
  2. Be loving others -- letting our suffering improve our ability to reach out in love.

And finally, we need to have an attitude of:

  1. Believing in God

Now you might think, “that’s no surprise,” but let’s check out a few examples in this regard. In the final verse of our chapter, we read:

4:19 those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

When we are overwhelmed in our suffering, we fall back on our trust in God. We know that he is the only eternal hope. We know that we can count on his promises. As we read in the book of James (1:12):

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

That’s right: the glory that we have been talking about is promised to us -- if we are able to remain faithful in the face of suffering. And we know that we can count on our faithful Creator, because we have seen how he has glorified his son. Remember Jesus’ final words from the cross? In Luke 23:46, we read:

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

In the extremity of his suffering, even at the point of death, Jesus turned to his Father, knowing that he was absolutely trustworthy. And in his final action, Jesus’ reliance on God becomes an example for us. That’s what it says explicitly in 1st Peter:

2:21-25 “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

This commitment to believe in God -- no matter what trials we are facing, whether frustration, mistreatment, pain or even injustice -- this is the third key element of Jesus’ attitude.

But one more thing to notice: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Similarly, in Colossians, Paul writes that he “rejoice[s] in what [he is] suffering for [his readers].” Could it be that the example that Christ is setting for us, and the example that Paul is setting for us is a willingness to suffer for the sake of others?

Here, in my hand, I have a document written by my father-in-law, Chester Perkins, who went by his nickname, Chet. Its title is: “60 Years as a Paraplegic.” In it, Chet describes the experience of contracting polio in 1954, and the agony and the humiliation that it represented. As a young husband, father, and farmer, his world was shattered. He prayed fervently for healing, or at least for some use of his legs. But more than that, he prayed that God would protect him from bitterness. While God declined to answer the first prayer in the way that Chet had hoped, He generously answered the second. For anyone who knew him, Chet was the most gracious and delightful of men. This is how he closes his reflection on sixty years of physical suffering:

Sixty years have passed so quickly. I have no reason to complain about my lot in life, nor to question God as to why I should be afflicted. The Lord has been very good to me and has helped me see that His ways are better than anything I could have planned.… I would not have chosen to have polio and be disabled, but I choose to believe that my life has been better used in the roles I have been directed to due to my disability. In no way do I feel that I have been cheated.

Now, if you ever met my father-in-law, you’d appreciate that he was entirely sincere as he wrote this. This is what it means to believe in God. We trust him to inject glory even into our suffering. Because not only is it possible to see the victory God intends for us through suffering, but it is possible to experience the victory that God intends for us in spite of suffering.

You can’t avoid suffering, but you can avoid being crushed by it. If we want victory -- even in suffering, we need to adopt the attitude of Jesus:

  • Belonging elsewhere -- considering ourselves foreigners in this world
  • Be loving others -- even as Christ loved us
  • Believing in God -- committing ourselves to the one who judges justly.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Our identity in Christ

Last week, Andy introduced our sermon series with a look at the life of the apostle Peter. This morning, we will take the next step in that series by looking at Peter’s first letter.

For all those who were taught how to write letters -- I suppose it is mostly texting and e-mail now -- I am sure you remember that we were taught a traditional format, with return address there, the date there, and all. And back when Peter wrote his letter, there was also a customary format. In those days, a letter was begun by identifying the author, then identifying the recipient followed by a greeting to the recipient. And Peter does exactly that in the first two verses. But before I read it, I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that based on Peter’s identification of his intended recipients, this room is full of people to whom he is writing. See if I’m right. So please turn with me to the first chapter of first Peter, and I will be reading from the first verse. Peter writes:

Peter, a missionary representing Jesus Christ, [that is, he identifies himself]
To God’s pilgrims scattered throughout the [world -- you’ll notice Peter lists a bunch of Roman provinces, but he would likely permit his audience to stretch beyond them], 2 [those] 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: [and now the customary greeting:]
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Peter’s self-identification is no surprise. He is a missionary representing Jesus Christ. But what about his identification of the letter’s intended recipients?

As I’m sure you know, not that long ago, people identified with their occupation, or their education, or their activities, or perhaps who they hang out with. But we now live in a world where we are increasingly told that our identity is determined by the color of our skin, or by our sex. Unfortunately, there is no liberating power in such things, and the accompanying trend is to become more isolated and disconnected and resentful. We see this all around us today.

And so it is refreshing, inspiring and even liberating to see Peter identify his readers in a way that gets beyond such insignificant identifiers. Now Peter was by no means unfamiliar with such things. Peter grew up in a society with enormous barriers between Jews and Gentiles -- a racial divide -- so you might almost expect such a thing to feature in his identification of his intended readers, but it doesn’t. Similarly, Peter grew up in a society with slaves and freemen and citizens, but those distinctions don’t appear in his identification of his readers either. Peter grew up in a society where women were treated as inferiors, but as we will see in a few weeks, this letter was clearly written to women as much as men.

So how does Peter identify his intended audience? Verse 2:

[to those] 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:

First, Peter writes to those who “have been chosen by God the Father.” That’s the “already”. That’s our position. It is in the past perfect tense. This is our foundation: we have been chosen by God.

Do you remember what it was like at recess in the third grade? I can tell you how it was for me: A crowd would form out on the soccer field, and two of the older children -- usually those in sixth grade -- would “choose teams” dividing everyone up to play the game. One after another every child in the crowd would be chosen to play on one side or the other. Naturally, I wanted to play on the team with the best captain. That’s the team that always had the best chance of winning. I don’t know about you, but I l-i-k-e-d winning. Now Peter is writing to the team that has been chosen by the best Captain. He is writing to the team that is certainly going to win.

But back in grade school, I noticed that the best players were always chosen first, and the choices being made for the best players were done with much deliberation. As long as the team captains still seemed to care, it wasn’t so bad being picked toward the end. But oh, the humiliation, if there were five or six of us left, and the captain just waved his arm and said: this half of you are on one team and that half on the other - it doesn’t matter. Back then, I desperately wanted to be older and better and faster and stronger and bigger -- just so that I would be chosen... with greater dignity. And perhaps that I might be chosen sooner; or that the best captain would want to choose me. Nobody had written the rules down, but everyone just knew that the teams were chosen according to the skill of those being chosen.

But please notice the basis for our being chosen by God. It isn’t our skill; it isn’t our virtue; it isn’t our piety. Here’s how Peter puts it: [those] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Paul says the same thing in Ephesians (1:4):

he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world.

That means the choosing was done ahead of time. And we weren’t chosen because God knew how wonderfully we were. The testimony of the Apostle Paul -- someone who certainly knew that God had chosen him -- is that he was the chief of sinners. And about us he says that, “we were by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)” and that we were reconciled to God while we were his enemies.

Being chosen by God is like being chosen by the best captain on the soccer field when you are the smallest and the slowest. No wonder Peter’s next words are those of praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Nothing we do can make God choose us. Instead, in his second letter, Peter encourages us with these words:

you must do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen ... you (2 Peter 1:10)

Isn’t that curious? God might well have chosen you, but it is up to you to be increasingly aware of his choice of you; it is up to you to recognize the implications of that choice. Has God chosen you this morning? Take the time to explore that possibility -- and become sure about it.

So that’s our foundation: we are chosen by God. But there is a reason for our having been chosen (it is toward the end of the verse): “to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.” That’s the “not yet”. It is in the future tense. This is our potential and our purpose. This is the blueprint for our lives -- what our lives are supposed to look like.

And that obedience to Jesus? Nowadays we don’t like the word “obedience” so much, but we are usually quite happy with the word “employment”. My older brother works for Google, and when he got that job, many people were “oh! Google” -- he received status for working for one of the richest and most powerful companies in history. But his employment? It represents an “obedience” of sorts doesn’t it? He plays by their rules, and does the work he that they ask him to do, and he doesn’t publish company-wide memos that could embarrass anyone...

But you know: Google won’t last forever. Does anyone remember Nortel? Well, earlier in his career, my brother worked for Nortel. Even the best and the biggest companies can and do collapse in the space of a frighteningly few years. In contrast, our King Jesus will reign forever and ever. And If the word “obedience” makes you uncomfortable, you can use the word “employment” for the time being.

Do you remember that call from the employer offering you a job. Either a job you really need or a job you really want? They chose you. This is the kind of thing that Peter is talking about: and just like your employer chose you with some expectation that you would be obedient to them. God chose us with the expectation that we would be obedient to Jesus Christ. But in the same way that you felt pride and joy landing that job, Peter gushes over finding himself (along with the rest of us) chosen by God, the best captain, the top employer -- that’s the next verse: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

What do you think Peter had in mind, exactly, when he wrote “to be obedient to Jesus Christ”? After all, Peter had had the privilege of hanging out with Jesus over the space of years, listening to Jesus’ teaching. Peter had heard Jesus tell all those who would listen: “Repent!” I’m sure that this is an important component of “obedience to Jesus.” Peter had heard Jesus say: “come, follow me!” to him, personally. It must have had great significance for him.

Peter had heard Jesus tell everyone: “[strive] to enter through the narrow door.” And he had heard Jesus tell his disciples, “Love one another” and later, “make disciples of all nations”. Peter could have been thinking of any of those things, but together, they represent a short summary of Jesus’ teaching, don’t they? Repent; follow; strive; love; witness -- this is what it means to be obedient to Jesus. Do you want to be obedient to Jesus? You could do much worse than to keep these words on hand: Repent; follow; strive; love; witness, and challenge yourself by them regularly.

But five things is a lot to remember -- when I go grocery shopping and my list is longer than three items, I'm sure to forget at least one. So here's a mnemonic that could help: "real flowers sure like water" (repent follow strive love witness)

Oh, and that business of being sprinkled with his blood? That is an image that had been drilled into the Jewish consciousness. It shows up again and again back in the book of Leviticus: a sacrifice was made, and the sprinkling of the blood of that sacrifice was an act of purification. Seriously! We might think, “ew!” But the Old Testament is clear: nothing was considered good enough for service at the Temple unless it was so sprinkled. So that’s what Peter would have had in mind. Jesus, making the ultimate sacrifice in his death on the cross for the sins of the world, purifies us with his blood, as long as we’re willing to experience that sacrifice “up close and personal.” You can’t be sprinkled with the blood if your only interaction with Jesus’ sacrifice is distant or abstract or superficial.

So Peter identifies us according to our foundation (being chosen by God), and he identifies us according to our blueprints (to be followers of Christ, purified with his sacrificial death). But he also calls out the means to get from where we are (the “already”) to where we want to be (the “not-yet”). If we want to live up to our potential, if we are to fulfill our purpose, we need what Peter calls “the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” God’s action in the past is to choose us. But God’s action in the present is this work of his Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit working in your heart this morning? In Romans, Paul writes:

The mind governed by our old nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

In Galatians, the message is similar:

Whoever sows to please their old nature, from that old nature will reap destruction; [but] whoever sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life.

If you aren’t experiencing that life and peace this morning, if you haven’t received a glimpse of that eternal life, let me encourage you to pray to God for his Spirit. After all, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus promised that this is one prayer that God is certain to answer:

Which of you [asks Jesus], if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

So let’s come to God asking for his Holy Spirit today. For by his purifying work (that’s what “sanctification” means) we who have been chosen by God become formed according to our blueprints as Jesus’ disciples.

By the way, this verse (1 Peter 1:2) isn’t the only one of its kind in the Bible. In fact, it might even represent an early formula of Christian identity. We find a very similar passage in one of the earliest of Paul’s letters, written to the Thessalonians. There, (2 Thess 2:13b,14) he writes:

...God chose you ... to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit ... that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The three important elements are in both passages: (1) chosen by God and (2) sanctified by the Spirit as (3) we follow our Lord Jesus. And I hope that you picked up on the fact that obedience to Jesus implies sharing in his glory! May this be the reality in each of our lives. May this form our identity this morning. Established by God, pointed toward Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit. So let me ask you: is this where you find your identity this morning?

At this point, having identified his intended audience, Peter then greets them with the customary Christian greeting: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” Then he turns to the body of his letter (verse 3)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In his great mercy, God has given us new birth.” New birth -- being born again -- now sometimes folk who hang around churches misunderstand this concept. Too often, we are tempted to imagine that being born again means having another, parallel, fall-back life that we can hop over to whenever our “real life” gets rough. This unfortunate tendency: to cling to the old life and to treat the new life like a “plan B” isn’t right, and it isn’t new. Paul writing to the church in Galatia, asks them (4:9):

how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?

But this isn’t God’s intention at all. Instead, God grants us new birth because the old life is of no value at all. As we already read:

The mind governed by our old nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

You see, the alternative to the new life is death. The “new birth” is not like a “new convertible”, that we admire in the garage and take out to show off on sun(ny) days, but otherwise use the family minivan. Instead, imagine the Titanic, having already hit the iceberg and pitching heavily. It is going down, people. And that “new birth” is the opportunity to climb on board a rescue vessel. Let me remind you of another verse you all know (2 Corinthians 5:17):

if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

The old has passed away. It isn’t just “mostly dead”. It is no more. It has ceased to be. And it needs to be out of the way in order to make room for the new life! Because with this new birth, God has given us every reason to discard that old life, with all of its obsolete identifiers, and to put on the new identifiers that he provides: established by God, pointed toward Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.

Peter blesses God for the opportunity we have to experience this new birth. And then Peter lists two consequences of this new birth. First, we have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Peter’s hope -- this living hope -- is grounded in a sure historical event. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated once and for all his victory over death and his power over those principles of this world. Power even over those worldly principles we call the laws of physics. I find it odd when people object to the resurrection on the grounds that such an event would represent a “violation” of the laws of physics. Because those laws didn’t just magically appear. Whatever determined those laws -- I should say “Whoever determined those laws” --  is bigger than the laws themselves. After all, God owns all the patents on matter and energy and all the relationships between them, and he can do anything he well pleases whenever he well pleases -- including raising someone from the dead.

And what a world-changing, history-defining event that was. Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” But Christ has indeed been raised, and we are confident that his resurrection is a trailblazing effort, for he is expecting to bring many of us to glory, experiencing this same resurrection even as he has. As we read in Romans (6:5):

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Hey: there it is again -- a death is necessary before the resurrection takes place. A death is necessary before a new birth takes place. The earlier that we are willing and able to write off that old life, the better off we’ll be.

We have been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But we have also been given new birth into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, reserved in heaven for you. An inheritance: you know, I’ve never known an example of an inheritance that was earned. Instead, an inheritance is received on the basis of your family -- usually your birth. And the basis for our firmly established heavenly inheritance is our new birth. No wonder Peter is full of praise to God for such a wonderful gift.

Because it isn’t like earthly inheritances. I’ve been talking recently to someone whose grandfather’s considerable estate is still being fought over three years after his departure. Before it gets resolved, the lawyers will have spent a huge chunk of it. And then there is inflation, and worse. That’s all part of the territory of this old life that leads to death. Our new birth, on the other hand, is into the living hope of an undiminished inheritance.

Oh! And did you notice that this passage that we just read highlights once again the tension between the already and the not-yet? On the one hand, “In his great mercy [God] has given us new birth” - this is the “already”. On the other, “This inheritance is kept in heaven for you ... until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” And this is the “not-yet”.

But strangely, this “future-tense” salvation comes as a surprise to many Christians. Aren’t we already saved? What does it mean that the salvation is “coming”? What does it mean that the salvation is to be revealed in the last time? Well, it means what it says. And this isn’t an isolated passage on the matter, either.

In Philippians, Paul writes that we should “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Hmm, that make salvation sounds very much like something that we requires effort, doesn’t it? As we already heard, Jesus himself says, (Luke 13:24) that we should, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” Make every effort. That also sounds an awful lot like “work” doesn’t it. In fact, the word that Jesus uses here is a Greek word that you would likely understand immediately: ἀγωνίζομαι agōnízomai. That is, our salvation -- our entrance through the narrow door --  is something that we can legitimately agonize over. “Many will try to enter, and will not be able to.” So we need to put in the effort, or we will be in the same boat.

As we read before, Peter echoes Jesus’ words in his second letter “My friends, you must do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen and selected you.” All you can. Make every effort. Fear and trembling. Work it out. God has done his part. He has chosen you. He has sent his Son, who died for our sins and was raised to life to demonstrate his Lordship over creation. Now, in between the “already” and the “not-yet” it is our turn to make the effort. It is our turn to do all we can. It is our turn to show that God really has chosen us. This is no small calling. This is no small task. But it isn’t a burden. In fact, God’s promises to make this task a joy. And that’s what Peter says clearly in the next passage:

6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. … 8 Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Once again, we notice that salvation is the “end result” -- it is something that we “are receiving”. But in the process, we can be “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy”. And that even in the face of trials.

Our society is funny: we are richer than ever in history. We have huge resources of education and entertainment at our fingertips. We enjoy freedom and leisure as never before. Our medical system keeps us healthier and we grow older and are nourished with a greater variety of good food. But at the same time, people today suffer from more anxiety and from more depression than ever before.

In contrast, when Peter writes about “grief in all kinds of trials,” he knew what he was talking about. Those trials were greater than anything we’ve ever experienced by a wide margin. But they weren’t significant enough to cut into his “glorious joy” - he knew what that was all about, too. The salvation of our souls isn’t just something for the next life. It has significant impact on the present. Because even though we find ourselves between the “already” and the “not-yet”, the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives can be that life and peace and great joy in the here-and-now. Notice that Peter uses the present tense: “you greatly rejoice”; you “are filled with a glorious joy”.

When we started, I asked if you could identify with the intended recipients of this letter: chosen by God, pointed toward Jesus, and empowered by his Spirit. Perhaps some could, and some less so. But now I’m asking a different question: would you like to experience this glorious life and peace and joy? Would you like to be on the winning team? Would you like to be led by the best Captain? Perhaps he’s chosen you. If you’re not sure, you could make sure. Start obeying Jesus now, and you might find God’s Spirit will increasingly participate in your life. How? Repent, Follow, Strive, Love, Remember, Witness.

do all you can to ensure that God has really chosen ... you