Saturday, February 20, 2021

The First Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.

The First Sunday of Lent

Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Our Gospel reading this week is basically the same as the reading we had just over a month ago on January 10 for the Baptism of Christ. (The service and sermon are still available on YouTube and as a podcast!) The obvious question, then, is: why is it repeated in the Lectionary so soon? The answer is that Lent, traditionally, as well as being a time of preparation for Easter, has additionally been a time of special preparation for those who will be baptized at Easter. This also explains the choice of the second reading upon which I wish to base this week’s sermon.

The second reading is a passage from St Peter’s first letter. It has been chosen because of its reference to baptism, although, in fact, the passage doesn’t itself say a lot about baptism. The reason St Peter mentions baptism at all is as part of his guidance to believers who were already baptized on how they should live for Christ. They already knew what baptism was all about, and so St Peter doesn’t have to explain it - much as we might wish he had!

Some scholars believe that at least part of this passage may have itself come from an early liturgy used at baptism, which St Peter quotes because it was familiar to those to whom he writes. If this is the case, he is quoting from it in a similar way to how I quoted from our Liturgy of the Eucharist in the sermon for Ash Wednesday. However, while the passage itself may have been familiar to his first readers, so that they understood what it meant, it is for us one of the most difficult passages to understand in the New Testament.

Fortunately, while we may not be able to know with certainty precisely what St Peter meant in this short passage, the guidance he is giving in this section of the letter, which he uses these verses to support, is quite clear and straightforward. While we, at Christ Church, are unlikely to be able to have baptism services any time soon because of the restrictions that have been imposed upon us, the guidance on how to live for Christ that St Peter gives his readers is guidance that is needed as much today as it was when he first gave it.

So, who is the letter to? St Peter addresses it, in the first words of the letter, to the ‘exiles’ in five regions of the Anatolian peninsula. This is the area that makes up most of modern day Turkey. This idea of his readers as ‘exiles’ is one that St Peter repeats. In chapter 1 verse 17 he writes:

‘If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.’ (1 Peter 1:17)

And then in chapter 2 verse 11:

‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.’ (1 Peter 2:11)

Some interpreters of the letter have thought that these words, ‘aliens and exiles’, describe, literally, the social background of those he is writing to. Personally, I am not convinced. However, even if they are a reference to his readers social situation, St Peter uses the words here in a metaphorical way to describe the spiritual condition of all believers in this world.

It is probable that St Peter’s readers were Jewish believers or Gentiles who had previously been attracted to the synagogue. Interestingly, St Peter at the end of the letter writes:

‘Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark …’ (1 Peter 5:13)

Most scholars take ‘Babylon’ to be Rome where St Peter is writing from. Historically, of course, Babylon was the place where the Jews were taken into exile in 586 BC.

St Peter writes of how God has given us as believers a ‘new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3). He continues that this new birth is also:

‘… into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ (1 Peter 1:4-5)

In common, then, with the other New Testament writers, St Peter sees believers as strangers here and not belonging to this world. This raises the question, then, of how, as followers of Christ, we are to live in this world while we await the inheritance that is being kept in heaven for us and for the salvation that will be revealed when Jesus himself is revealed (1 Peter 1:6).

Firstly, St Peter gives general guidance about how believers are to live. He writes about the need for us to be holy as God himself who called us is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). 

Secondly, he also gives more specific guidance. St Peter writes about what a believer’s attitude to the governing authorities should be, and he speaks directly to slaves, wives, and husbands on how they should behave. His guidance is in keeping, as we would expect, with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament and, again as we would expect, it echoes the teaching our Lord himself.

St Peter touches on much else in his letter as he writes. His aim throughout is to offer his readers encouragement and hope.

In chapter 3 verse 8, St Peter starts a new section of his letter in which he seeks to offer his readers direction in their own particular circumstances. It begins with the word translated ‘finally’ in our versions (1 Peter 3:8). It is, however, by no means the end of the letter. In what follows, we learn that those to whom the letter is sent are suffering as a result of believing in Christ.

St Peter begins his encouragement and direction to his readers by making a distinction between the suffering that that comes as a result of doing wrong and the suffering that comes from following Christ. No believer, he writes, should do anything that leads to suffering because of wrongdoing. ‘Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?’, St Peter asks, but, he continues, if they suffer for doing what is right, they are ‘blessed’. As St Peter explains:

‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.’ (1 Peter 3:17)

At first, from what St Peter writes, it doesn’t sound as if the suffering they are experiencing is all that serious. There seems to a somewhat hypothetical character to it: ‘if suffering should be God’s will’. It sounds as if he is preparing them for something that may possibly happen sometime in the future, but which hasn’t happened yet.

We soon learn that this is not the case. On the contrary, it seems that their suffering far from being just a theoretical possibility is all too real, and that they are already suffering quite badly. In chapter 4, St Peter writes:

‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ (1 Peter 4:12-14)

St Peter continues by repeating that they are ‘blessed’ if they suffer for Christ, but, again, he immediately warns them that no-one who is a believer must suffer as a consequence for doing something wrong.

If the believers St Peter writes to are suffering so much, why does he at times seem to make so light of it? The reason is twofold.

Firstly, like St Paul, St Peter wants them to see that the suffering that believers experience is as nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed and which one day will be ours (Romans 8:18). He talks about it in the way he does to put suffering in its place. He wants his readers to view what is happening to them in the present in the light of eternity.

Secondly, St Peter is anxious that they should only suffer for their faith and not because they have done anything wrong. It is striking that he is as concerned about whether they are living good lives as he is about their suffering. This is not because he thinks suffering unimportant, but precisely because he knows that one day we will be glorified with Christ. What matters now is that we do nothing to bring shame on the name of Christ.

St Peter is also very conscious that Christ is, as he puts it, ‘ready to judge the living and the dead’ (1 Peter 4:5). The New Testament takes seriously the idea that our actions and how we live will have consequences. The New Testament writers don’t presume on the forgiveness of God; judgement is something real. St Peter writes:

‘For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?’ (1 Peter 4:17)

One of the major frustrations of my own ministry is my failure to get anyone to take this seriously. What will it take to wake us to the reality that we will one day have to give an account of our lives to God?

And so, in support of what he writes about suffering in these ‘final’ words of his letter, St Peter includes this short passage that is our reading this week.

As I have said, it is a difficult passage to understand. There are many different interpretations of some of the phrases in it. Sadly, there is not enough time now to go through them. The good news, however, is that the overall meaning of these verses and why St Peter includes them here is clear enough.

Firstly, St Peter writes of how ‘Christ died for our sins’. Christ’s death for us is fundamental to our lives as believers. It was through his death for us that Christ ‘brought us to God’. St Peter’s point is that if Christ was prepared to suffer death for us, we should be willing to suffer for him. And if it was our sins that led to his death, as his followers, we should want to avoid sin in future. As St Peter has been explaining, we are blessed if we suffer for Christ, but not if we suffer for doing wrong.

Secondly, the new life in Christ, that St Peter describes, begins with baptism and comes through the resurrection of Christ, who, when he was resurrected, went to heaven to the right hand of God ‘with angels, authorities, and powers subjected to him’ (1 Peter 3:22).

St Peter wants to reassure his readers that although it may appear that earthly authorities or unseen powers, by causing suffering for believers, are the ones who are in control, it is, in fact, Christ who is in control. It is because he is in control and all powers are subject to him that he is able to use the believers’ suffering to achieve his purposes and bring them to glory.

This much then is clear. What is not clear from what St Peter writes here is in what way baptism ‘now saves’. Does it, for example, save whether or not people have faith? What happens if people have faith, but are not baptized? Or, as is perhaps more common in our own day, if they are baptized, but don’t have faith?

These are not questions that can be answered on the basis of these verses. St Peter doesn’t go into detail about baptism and the relationship of it to faith or discuss any of the other issues that we argue over because that’s not his concern here. The questions that we have about baptism have to be answered on the basis of what is said about baptism elsewhere in the New Testament.

St Peter does, however, give us a hint of the meaning of baptism by writing that baptism is the ‘pledge of a good conscience’. In baptism, we ‘pledge’ ourselves to serve Christ by doing good and enduring, in the way St Peter describes, whatever suffering serving Christ may bring.

This leaves the problem of understanding St Peter’s, to our ears, rather strange words about Noah. Why mention Noah? The story of the flood and the ark is one that still fascinates people today. It seems it had a particular fascination for those in the region where St Peter’s readers lived. Noah was a prominently known Biblical figure even among pagans in Asia Minor.

St Peter uses a popular story from the Old Testament that his readers were likely to be interested in effectively as a sermon illustration. In the same way that Noah and his family were saved through the flood by entering the ark, so too we will be saved by entering the Church through the waters of baptism. St Peter stresses the fact that eight people in total were saved at the time of the flood. The number 8 is significant here. The eighth day is, of course, the day of the resurrection of our Lord, and it is, St Peter writes, through the resurrection that baptism now saves us.

[I am afraid the question of what St Peter means by our Lord proclaiming to the ‘spirits in prison’ (1 Peter 3:19) is a question that will have to wait until another day. Whatever it means, it doesn’t affect the meaning of these verses taken as a whole. Thankfully, St Peter’s intention in including them, even though they are hard to understand, is plain.]

So what message can we take from all this as we begin Lent?

1. We too are exiles

St Peter describes himself as:

‘ … a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed …’ (1 Peter 5:1)

I have been speaking in recent sermons about the way St John, a close associate of St Peter, writes about how he and his fellow disciples have seen Christ’s glory. He wrote his Gospel, he explains, so we might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing may have life in his name (John 20:31). St Peter is writing his letter as one of those who, like St John, have seen Christ’s glory. Although we, like those St Peter writes to, may not have seen Christ the way he and St John have seen him, nevertheless, we too have come to believe in him.

Our faith in him gives us life in his name, but, in this world, we are aliens and exiles who are waiting the final outcome of our faith, which will be revealed at the appearing of our Lord.

We are very familiar with ‘voluntary exiles’ here in Hong Kong. We call them expatriates. These are people like me who have chosen to live and work in Hong Kong. (It is perhaps worth commenting, as an aside, that it is interesting that Americans and Europeans, for example, are called expatriates whereas other ethnicities are called migrant workers. But we will leave that there for the time being!)

There are expatriate communities in cities all over the world. People living in them sometimes have no choice but to live away from their homeland; others do so for a variety of reasons. For some, where they are living has become a permanent place of residence even though they still think of themselves as belonging to where they or their family come from. In many cities, for example, there are districts known as Chinatown where Chinese people have gathered to preserve their culture and lifestyle. The British, historically, have done something very similar. Even today, you only have to go to mid-levels to see Brits preserving their culture.

The point is that although these different communities are made up of people who have settled in a foreign land, they still remember their homeland and try to maintain their culture and traditions. They have a different lifestyle to the indigenous population and those whose home it is naturally.

St Peter is telling us while this world may be where we are living now, it is not our home. Our real home is with Christ and, one day, we will live with him forever. Until then, as believers, we live as foreigners here, as exiles who seek to embody the culture and values of heaven.

2. The Church is a community of exiles

As we wait for the appearance of Christ, not only are we to live individually as exiles, we are to form communities of exiles. St Peter writes:

‘ … 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)

The Church should be a ‘colony of heaven’ where people see the values, attitudes, and priorities of heaven being lived out in communities that reject the lifestyle of the society in which they find themselves. We are, as St Peter goes on to write, to love one another and to use what gifts we have to serve one another and to bring glory to God (1 Peter 4:8-11).

We are a community of exiles who do not belong here, but we are not a closed community. We should be a community that welcomes people and invites them to join us. There is, however, an edge to this offer. We know that the world in which we live is under judgement. To change the metaphor, and to use another that St Peter uses, the Church is to be an ‘ark’, a place where people can find salvation and eternal life.

St Peter describes the sort of community we are to be and what is to be our purpose. He writes:

‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

Here and now in the society in which we live, our lives, as believers, are to glorify God and lead people out of darkness to the light of Christ. St Peter’s hope is that when people see how we live, how we endure suffering, however unjust, they will want to know the reason for our hope. This is why he tells us we should always have an answer for anyone who asks us the reason why we have the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15).

As followers of Christ, we are radical by not being what society expects radicals to be. We bring change, not by changing society, but by being changed ourselves. We don’t seek to overthrow the Emperor and those in authority like him. The Emperor is not our enemy. Our enemy is the devil himself, who, St Peter tells us, prowls around us ‘looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). But we resist him by being firm in our faith, which means knowing the One we have faith in and why we have faith in him.

I realize that all this can seem somewhat unreal and detached from the reality of the lives we live. It can sound like no more than empty rhetoric, fine maybe for a sermon on Sunday, but of little relevance the rest of the time. It was, however, not empty rhetoric for St Peter and his readers. For them, it was all too real. St Peter himself was to be crucified by the Emperor Nero not long after writing this letter, and his fellow believers in Rome were burnt as torches for the Emperor’s amusement. Theirs was to be quite literally a ‘fiery ordeal’.

We don’t, thank God, have to endure such terrible pain. While we may not have to experience the suffering that St Peter and his readers faced, maybe instead we can make the effort to put up with the inconvenience and unpopularity of being a believer in our own age.

Finally, my own perception, for what it worth, is that it is going to get progressively harder to be an orthodox believer in our world. I know that many fear for the Church in China. Perhaps it reflects my own cultural bias, but I fear for the Church as much, if not more, in the west and in western societies.

You may be safe, if you are willing to abandon an orthodox approach to the faith as represented by the Bible and the Creeds. Indeed, many are going down this route, not primarily to escape persecution, but because they have signed up to the progressive agenda. As a result, the changes taking place in society are being mirrored in the Church with those holding to an orthodox understanding of the faith finding themselves not only aliens in the world, but aliens in church as well.

For those of us who are unwilling to take this path, the way ahead looks hard indeed. Already believers are discovering that there some things that it is hard to say publicly and are finding themselves, to use the jargon, cancelled on social media. My suspicion is that suffering for being a follower of Christ is going be coming to us as it did to those St Peter writes to in this letter.

We may not for the foreseeable future have to suffer for Christ like them, but, whatever happens, we do have to live for Christ like them. St Peter would challenge us, as he challenged them, to take seriously what being a follower of Christ means for the way we think and live, even if it does involve us being cancelled and unpopular.

Having to live as an exile and an alien in a foreign and hostile world is a frightening and disturbing prospect. St Peter would, however, encourage us, as he encouraged his first readers, with the words with which he closes his letter:

‘And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 5:10-11)

May we too, like St Peter’s readers, knowing the grace of God, stand firm whatever trials we may find ourselves having to face as we wait the revelation of Jesus Christ.


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