A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 2 – Faith under Fire!

Sermons for Compline in Lent 2019, based on the First Letter of Peter

  1. ‘Christian Character and Identity [1: 13 – 2:10]: preached by The Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar, on Monday 18th March 2019

 

I’d like to begin this evening by just refreshing our memories about this letter from Peter; a letter written probably by the apostle Peter, probably in Rome, probably about AD 60, to a group of churches covering a vast geographical area in the north of Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. And Peter didn’t know these Christians. He had never visited the churches, and neither had Paul and we don’t know a huge amount about them, except the fact that they were predominantly Gentiles.  These churches were struggling to stay firm in the faith under the rule of Emperor Nero, who was not afraid to persecute Christians. And so this was a tough time for the recipients of Peter’s letter.

Peter began his writing to them by reminding them that they were chosen by God, set apart for him, through the blood of Jesus Christ – and that their identity was to be found in their calling, even though the practical result of that is that they were living as strangers in the world. And this is a truth for us today; that we are in the world but not of it and so we must do our best to work out what it means to live as Christians in the light of the tensions this raises for us and so this evening we will explore five ideas in particular: being ready for action; holiness; loving one another wholeheartedly; living stones; and a holy or royal priesthood.

Firstly, Peter’s letter is intensely pragmatic as he helps us to work out what the principles are by which we are to live out our faith and the practical nature of Peter’s teaching starts straight away in verse 13 of Chapter 1: “Therefore prepare your minds for action.”  There is a real sense of urgency in the way that Peter phrases this. It’s not that we must be prepared in case we are called upon to act as Christians sometime in the future – but that we must be prepared so that we can act straight away.  Can you see the gospel portrait of Peter in this statement?  Always the one to act first and think later, but Jesus knew this and wanted him to be the man of action to lead the church.

And how are we to prepare? Preparation is to be two fold; mind and discipline.  Preparation of the mind is not about the acquisition of knowledge but rather of understanding.  Of extending our understanding of God, certainly through study, but chiefly through prayer; it is through the discipline of a concentrated prayer life that we draw closer to God.  I hope you are all enjoying using the little booklet the diocese has given us for Lent and allowing it to settle you into a routine of prayer.   As Christians we are called to pray and to meditate on the hope we have, which is the revealing of Jesus Christ at the end times. And as we meditate on that hope and allow it to fill our very beings, so we will be able to get perspective on our present experience and be able to interpret the sufferings and trials of our present life in the appropriate context of the hope that is to come.

Peter is saying that we can only cope with and survive our earthly trials if we spend time meditating on the future hope that is to be revealed.  I wonder how often we really think about Jesus coming again.  Every week in our Eucharist we respond to the statement from the deacon, Great is the mystery of faith: with the words Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.  Most of us will be able to sit comfortably with the first two phrases, but the third?   I wonder how much thought we give to that.  Of course in the early church there was much more of an urgency because they believed that Christ would come again soon, in their lifetime, but now?  How do we respond to that now?   Do we feel that some desire to be ready?

Secondly we are called upon to be holy.  The word holy literally means to ‘set apart’.  Peter is I think, encouraging us as Christians to be set apart just as God is.  Not detached from the world but finding ways to act so as to be more God like.  It is a reminder that we have been saved and by being saved reformed as children of God and this reformation requires of us a special relationship with God which produces high standards of living.  Now I am not saying that we should take the moral high ground and become holier than thou kind of people.  This is not what Peter is advising.  But he reminds us that part of our Christian life is to live as Christ like as we can.  This will require us to be obedient to God’s will for our lives in all areas of our lives.  We have a responsibility to live good lives, just as God expected a higher moral responsibility from Israel in the days before Jesus.  Read the eighth century prophets like Amos, Hosea and Micah and you will find the constant call to the people to return to the way of God; This is what the LORD requires from you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to live humbly with your God. Micah 6:8.  The gentiles Peter was writing to did not have this background in the Hebrew Scriptures so they had to hear it anew; they had to be living signals of a new way of life made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  They had the spirit of God living in them which set them apart.  And it sets us apart too.  We have the same responsibility to be signals to those we work with, live with, share our leisure time with, that God’s spirit rests in us.

Which leads us to the third idea of this evenings talk the ability to love each other wholeheartedly.  After the events of the last weeks and months never has this been more needed at a national level yet alone a personal level.  Wherever you find yourself in the whole BREXIT debate our country has not been so divided since the civil war in the 17th century divided this nation along royalist and parliamentary lines.  People hold views which have become entrenched, views which divide families and communities.  In the coming weeks, months and years as Christian people we need to find ways to heal these fractures.  We do it precisely because we have been called to love each other wholeheartedly.  Our Archbishops have called upon us all to work for reconciliation and healing in the communities we come from.  “Reconciliation happens from the top of society down, from the bottom of society up and from the middle of society out. It must include women, youth and minorities.” said Archbishop Justin.  He went on to add, “I hold firm to the belief that we can create a society where mutual flourishing is possible, disagreeing well is central and respecting the difference is paramount.”   The key phrase for me there is human flourishing.  Humans only truly flourish if they know they are loved and cherished and this is what we as Christians are called to do.  Jesus called us to do it and Peter in his letter to the gentiles of Asia Minor calls them to do the same even though they too were living in difficult and dangerous times.

Sadly only last Friday we saw a terrible attack in New Zealand on Muslims worshipping in their mosques on their holy day.  Last year in the US we saw Jews being murdered as they went to their synagogue.  In Pakistan we have seen Christians being bombed as they went to their church.  These three great Abrahamic faiths have at their core the same fundamental ideas about humanity.  We are made in the image of God; we each reflect something of the God in our lives.  Setting aside all other tenets of these faiths surely this one fact is enough for us to love one another wholeheartedly.  To want each person of every faith to flourish in the way God designed.  We have to find the will to walk the extra mile with our neighbour whatever their faith, background or political view if we are to honour our Lord’s command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  Matthew 22:39

Let’s move on now and think about the final two ideas from this portion of Peter’s letter set for this week that of living stones and of priesthood.  Let me begin with a question.  Are the things that we do as a Christian church here in The Abbey and in the benefice important? I don’t just mean “Are they enjoyable?” I mean, in the great big scheme of things, are they important? Or, to put it the other way around, if we weren’t here to do the things we do, would the people who are not Christians miss us? Would they notice that something important was missing in the life of the community?  Clearly if the actual buildings were not here they would be missed but would the church be missed in the same way as say The Yeatman Hospital or the GP surgeries, the fire station?  I suspect we could be below these. What is worrying for us as a church is if we begin to think that what we do as a church is no longer important.

If we go back to Peter and his letter we remember that this letter was written to Christians in what is now northern Turkey who were increasingly coming under fire from their neighbours because they were followers of Jesus. They weren’t just being seen as irrelevant; they were being seen as a dangerous antisocial sect who refused to do their civic duty by worshipping the emperor and taking part in the ritual sacrifices in the trade guild meetings. They were rumoured to practice incest and eat flesh and blood when they met together for their secret Eucharist’s before dawn on Sundays. Increasingly, they were being ostracized and pressured and arrested and even, in some cases, executed for their allegiance to Jesus. And in this situation what they needed to know, more than anything else, was this: “Is this worth suffering for? Is this worth dying for? Is this important to God?”

Look at what Peter says in answer to this question.  ‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight’. 1 Peter 2:4

Who is this ‘living stone’, chosen by God but rejected by mortals? The answer, of course, is Jesus. In the gospels Jesus tells a story about how a landowner rents out his vineyard to some tenants, who refuse to pay him the proper rent. After sending them several messengers who they ignore or beat up or kill, eventually he sends his Son, and they reject him and kill him. But Jesus then quotes from Psalm 118:22: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. In the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, he was making a pun: the word for ‘son’ is ‘ben’, and the word for ‘stone’ is eben’.

Imagine a group of builders looking around a quarry for bits of stone to use in their building project. The quarry is littered with rocks, and some of them are obvious fits. But there’s one piece that they all reject; it just looks wrong, and everyone can see it won’t fit. But then along comes one builder who is willing to take a closer look; he picks up that rock and takes it to their building project, and to everyone’s surprise it turns out to be just the shape they need for the cornerstone of the building.

And that’s what Jesus is like. Jesus is God’s Son, the one God sent into the world to save us and to call us all back to him. But the religious establishment of the day didn’t like what he had to say; they couldn’t see how he fitted in with the way they understood God and what God was doing, and so they rejected him and handed him over to the Romans to be crucified. However, that turned out to be the biggest mistake they ever made, because, says Peter, this ‘stone’, this ‘eben’, was ‘chosen and precious in God’s sight’. He wasn’t just a failed messianic pretender, crucified in a backwater at the insignificant edge of the Roman Empire. No; his death and resurrection were the central events in God’s plan to save the world.

But Peter puts a further twist on this by telling his listeners that the building is only a virtual building they are the true temple where God resides, in each person and each Christian community:  God chooses to live among a community, a particular group of people.  And what of priests in this community; well says Peter you are all priests; a holy priesthood, ‘like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’. 1 Peter 2:5

Priests in the way we have them now in our church have no place in the New Testament church.  The word ‘priest’ is used in the New Testament in two main senses. First, it’s used for Jesus, who is the mediator of the new covenant: he offered the perfect sacrifice by dying for us on the cross, he is God’s word to us, and he prays to the Father for us. Second, it’s used for the whole Christian church: we are a priestly people – all of us – you as well as me. We pray to God for the world, and we take the message of Christ to the world.  That’s what you are. You may feel unimportant and insignificant, but it is your Christian privilege to lift up the needs of the whole world to God in prayer, and it is your Christian privilege to take the words of life that Jesus gave us and to pass them on to those who do not yet know him, so that they also may become his followers. No one else is doing that; if we stop doing it, it won’t get done.

Yes, many people in our society would feel a lot better about what we were doing if we’d just stop talking about Jesus but we can’t do that and be faithful to the call God has given us. We believe that Jesus is not just a prophet or a great religious teacher he is God the Son.  He is the stone the builders rejected who turned out to be the cornerstone, the most important stone in the building. Reject him, and the whole building comes tumbling down.

We also learn that Christian community is vital. What use is a brick if it’s not part of the wall? The reason Jesus is making us into living stones is so that we can be ‘built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:4). Staying away from the community is not an option. In the New Testament, there’s no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t participate in the life and work of the Church.

So tonight we have explored what it means to be a Christian community and how we should live as part of that community.  It’s a great responsibility but it is the way God decided to let the world come to a relationship with him, because God is love, and this is the loving way to get things done.

Let me close with this imaginary story.

It’s said that when Jesus ascended into heaven at the end of his mission he was met by Gabriel and the other angels. “Lord”, they said, “what you’ve done is amazing – teaching, healing, giving your life on the cross for the sins of the whole world, reconciling the whole human race to God, rising from the dead victorious over evil. It’s truly amazing! But what’s next? What’s the next stage in the plan?”

“Ah”, said Jesus, “Didn’t you notice? I spent a lot of my time down there gathering a few people together and teaching them what the kingdom of God is all about. Now I’m going to send the Holy Spirit on them and they will go out into the whole world and spread my message so that everyone in the world can have the opportunity to turn to me and be saved”.

Gabriel frowned. “Far be it from me to criticize, Lord’, he said, ‘but have you noticed that the track record of the human race isn’t very good? Surely you must have a backup plan?”

“No”, Jesus replied; “there is no backup plan, there is only them”.

The Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar 18/03/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne