What does the Christian life look like? If God’s grace is active in your life, what would it feel like? If you were asked that question, how would you respond?
There are lots of different answers and opinions around today. You may have heard of some of them, whether it’s the portrayal of Christians in Eastenders or Coronation Street (where they’re all either silly or crazy) or from the lips of the prosperity preachers - those who claim that God wants you to sail through life with no problems, no more aches or pains, no sorrow or suffering, and a parking space whenever you’re in a rush and need one urgently.
You might have heard some other ideas of what it is to be a Christian - everyone on the inside (and the outside) of the church has some notion of what it’s like. But rather than being deafened by the crowd of voices, perhaps we need to ask what God thinks of the Christian life - through the pen of one of his apostles.
Through until the summer, we’re going to be following this first letter from Peter. If you turn over to the last verses of the letter, you’ll see what his purpose in writing the letter is: ‘I have written this short letter to encourage you, and to testify that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.’ (5:12) Peter has written about the true grace of God - and what it looks like as that grace works in our lives.
Very often in the New Testament letters we find that the opening verses aren’t just a nice wee greeting, something to pass over on the way to the good stuff - rather, the first things that are said are the key to the whole letter. So what do we find that Peter says right at the start? He says who he is writing to, but it’s not just their address, it’s also who they are: ‘To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood.’
In those verses, Peter uses two words to describe these Christians - chosen exiles. Now it’s not obvious in our version, but Peter puts these two words side by side as he writes: ‘To the chosen exiles’ or ‘To the elect exiles’ - and what he’s saying is that God’s true grace makes us chosen exiles.
From time to time, we get a hint of what exile would be like on the news. Seeing people driven from their homes and land, streaming over a border as refugees, far from home, scattered, needy, poor. Peter’s first readers are ‘exiles of the Dispersion’ - right throughout modern day Turkey, small groups of believers, vastly outnumbered, it would be easy to feel isolated, abandoned.
Exile is the driving emotion of our Psalm today (137) - as Boney M sang of the waters of Babylon. All of us feel from time to time like we’re exiles as well - far from home, we’re only too aware that this world is not our home, we’re home sick for heaven, to be at home with the Lord.
Yet to those exiles, and to us as well, Peter reminds them that they are chosen exiles - destined by God the Father, sanctified (set apart, made holy) by the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood. God’s grace is active as the whole of the Trinity works together for them.
As if it weren’t enough, Peter then bursts with praise as he spells out the hope we have as the chosen people of God: ‘By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading...’ Because Jesus is alive, we have this living hope - we have something to look forward to. It’s what Peter calls an inheritance - but it’s like no inheritance you’ve ever received before: ‘imperishable, undefiled, unfading.’
Think of anything you’ve bought or received in the last month. Some day it’ll stop working, or fade or break. Anything in this world we give our lives to won’t last. As the small print on the ads says: ‘Investments may go down as well as up.’ But in these three ‘im’ and ‘un’ words, Peter says that it’s a sure and safe investment. The inheritance is kept in heaven - just as we are kept by God ‘protected by the power of God...’
The true grace of God brings so many blessings, it’s as if Peter is out of breath as he piles them all up together. It’s right that we rejoice - God’s grace means we are chosen. That’s right and good and proper - but it’s not the full picture. You see, the prosperity preacher might stop there but Peter won’t allow us to do the same. Remember what Peter is teaching us about being a Christian - we are chosen exiles. And in verse 6, he brings us back to reality with a bump. ‘In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith... may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’
The Christian life is not pain-free; it’s not all a walk in the park. It’s a life of exile, journeying toward our real home, and along the way there are trials and suffering. And when those trials come, you might be led to ask ‘Why me?’ You look at your problem; you’re focusing on the suffering, but Peter gently points us to God’s purpose - to demonstrate your genuine faith, and to bring glory to Jesus Christ.
You see, Peter isn’t going to contradict himself within two verses - just before speaking about these trials, in verse 5 he declared that we ‘are being protected by the power of God through faith’. God is still in control - he is guarding and protecting you when the diagnosis comes through; or when you’re handed your P45; or that situation arises on the farm; or your loved one dies.
Just as gold is tested, so our faith which is far more precious, is tested in the sufferings of exile. We’re to be forward focused - looking to when Jesus is revealed, when every eye will see him; when the suffering will be finished; when the little while has ended and the full stretch of eternity emerges. That day we will see him, but in the mean time, even though we haven’t seen Jesus we love him; we’re filled with an indescribable joy, sustaining us through the trials and leading us home to the fulfilment of our hope and joy.
This is the grace of God, that makes us chosen exiles, the grace of God which was promised in advance, through the Old Testament prophets. You see, they pointed forward to the ‘sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory’ (11). That’s the pattern for our lives too, as we follow the Lord Jesus: suffering now as exiles, glory later as God’s chosen people.
Perhaps today you’re weighed down by worries; you’re tormented by trials. These aren’t signs that God has abandoned you - rather they’re the sign of his grace as he controls and uses those things to trust in him. As you falter, remind yourself of all that is stored up for you - the imperishable inheritance, the living hope, and keep going as a chosen exile loved by God.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th April 2013.