Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 2:11-25 Aliens and Exiles

Can you finish the movie catchphrase? ‘ET...’ ET Phone Home. ET is perhaps the most famous alien from the big screen. Now, I must confess that I’ve never seen the film, but the story revolves around this ET (Extra Terrestrial) who gets stranded on earth and is taken in by a boy called Elliott. They get up to various adventures, but the whole point of the story is their efforts to get ET back where he belongs, on his own planet. You see, he’s an alien, a stranger, this world is not his home.

You might have been struck by that same word which Peter uses at the start of today’s reading. Here’s what he says: ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles...’. Now what does he mean by that? Do you remember back to the beginning of the series, as we saw the greetings? ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles.’ ESV (or chosen exiles).

So far we’ve been seeing how Christians are chosen - with an imperishable hope, through the imperishable blood, with a new birth by the imperishable seed of the word. Last week we saw how we’re being built together in the church, as living stones. And in verse 9, Peter said this: ‘But you are a chosen people...’

Now in 2:11, he shifts from our identity as the chosen people of God to our situation as exiles (and aliens). The big question is this: how should we live in this hostile enemy territory? If this world is not our home, then how should we conduct ourselves? Can we just opt out of all responsibilities, cut ourselves off from the world around us and sit around waiting for Jesus to return and take us home?

Some Christians have tried that - but Peter won’t allow us to ignore the world. He knows only too well that we can’t do that. But then some on the other end of the scale reckon that instead, we should just get on with the world, be just like the world, and make this world our home; indeed, make heaven a place on earth. When in Rome, do as the Romans?

Far from it. Peter reminds us that we are aliens and exiles. We’re called to live up to who we are, no matter what the world seeks to do around us. The actions must flow from our identity. And we see the difference in those first two verses. ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.’

First, we’re urged to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. There’s a battle raging within us - as it says in the hymn ‘Just as I am’: ‘Fightings and fears within, without.’ There will be things that we want to do, desire to do, but which are sinful desires. We need to abstain from them. (We’ll see some of them in a moment).

Instead, we need to conduct ourselves honourably - to do what is good and right. Even when people think that we’re evildoers, and speak evilly of us, we’re called to do the right. This is for the reason Peter gives - they will glorify God (either when God has judged and they glorify his vindication of us; or else as they see our deeds and join us, and therefore glorify God as one of us).

Peter then gives a number of worked examples of this honourable conduct in the world where we are exiles and aliens. The first, verses 13-17, is in our relation to the state. If we’re not of this world, how should we relate to the authorities? Peter won’t let us off the hook. We are to ‘For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution...’ They exist to punish the wrongdoer and praise those who do right - so the Christian should have nothing to fear. It is God’s will for us to obey the state, by doing what is right.

The desire of the flesh might be to rebel, to ignore the government, to break the law (even the speed limit), but God’s will is for honourable conduct. But then Peter goes further. Look at verse 16. Sometimes the law allows us to do things that God does not approve of. ‘As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.’ Some things may be lawful, but they may also be evil - you see, even as we submit to the government, we are servants of God. How do we fill in our expenses forms;

Peter sets out the relationship to have to each group: ‘Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.’

In the next section, Peter moves to the world of slavery - or, in our situation, work. Again, the desire of the flesh is to resist authority, to rebel and do your own thing. But Peter urges slaves (employees) to accept authority - even from those who are harsh. Now why is this? Why does God approve those who do what is right and have to endure suffering because of it? Should we just be masochists, seeking out and enjoying pain?

Well, no. Rather, it is something that every Christian has been called to. Precisely because we are aliens and exiles, because we don’t quite fit in, those around us (and those over us) may not like it.We shouldn’t be surprised at this - Peter then shows the prime example of a resident alien: ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.’

In that sentence Peter gets to the heart of what was happening in the last moments of Jesus’ earthly life. Often people only focus on one or the other - ‘Christ suffered for you’ - Jesus bore the punishment only he could bear; he died to take away our sins. Yet Peter goes on to say that this death was also an example, ‘so that you should follow in his steps.’ The pattern of Jesus’ death becomes the model for our life in this world. Using some verses from Isaiah 53, Peter shows that it is both and, in reverse order: First, follow the example - ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When you’re suffering, I wonder how you respond? If someone is attacking you, what would you do or say? Jesus was silent. He didn’t retaliate, didn’t threaten. Rather, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. When we suffer injustice, we’re inclined to get vocal, we want to shout the house down. In following Jesus’ example, we’re aware of God, we know that one day he will come as judge, that nothing is hidden from his sight, that the injustice will be righted - if we hold on and wait for God’s timing.

Yet even in this section where Peter is telling us how the exiles should live, it’s not just commands. We’re not just told a list of things to do. Even here, Peter reminds us of the true grace of God as he reminds us (for the second time) of the cross, that Jesus bore our sins, so that now we are free from sins, we might live for righteousness. We’re not being given new law, but rather, the spur and encouragement of grace. It’s not easy living as alien exiles; but in Christ we find the freedom to live honourably, in the will of God, as we make our way home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th May 2013.

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