Living Holy Lives audio (4MB)
If you were watching TV on the April 12, 2009, you may have seen pictures like this one of Captain Richard Phillips shortly after his rescue.
According to CNN.com:
U.S. Navy snipers fatally shot three pirates holding an American cargo-ship captain hostage after seeing that one of the pirates "had an AK-47 leveled at the captain's back," a military official said Sunday. The captain, who'd been held in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean since Wednesday, was rescued uninjured ... Adm. Rick Gurnon stressed that while Phillips was rescued, more than 200 mariners remain captives at sea. "The pirates have a great business model that works for them: See ships, take ransom, make millions," he told reporters.
In Captain Phillips case he was rescued without a ransom being paid. But, as the report said, many sailors have only been released through the payment of a huge ransom. The idea of being "ransomed" was a very powerful image in the world of the first Christians. In fact, if was a life-changing idea! The language of ransom was standard biblical language for "salvation". Jews would have been immediately reminded of their ancestors being released by God from slavery in Egypt. But in the biblical world "ransom" was also a powerful image for Gentiles. They would have been immediately reminded of slaves whose freedom was purchased by the payment of a ransom. But how is that image powerful for us? We know, don’t we, that around the world today millions of people, especially women and children, still live in slavery – much of it secual slavery! But this morning I want you to imagine for a moment that you were Captain Richard Phillips taken captive by pirates off the African coast. ... And someone paid the million-dollar ransom to set you free – without any expectation that you would pay them back? ...
How would you feel?
What would you do once you were released?
How would your life change?
How often do you hear people who have had an experience like Richard Phillips say that it was a life-changing experience? A close friend of mine survived the Boxing Day Tsunami. The first thing he said in his email after reporting he was safe was that it made you reconsider your priorities. That's exactly the experience Peter is talking about here. It is also the reason he urges his readers and us to live holy lives – lives completely shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One of the ways we can begin to understand a Bible passage is to look at the things the author repeats regularly and to ask ourselves why? The first repeated theme that stands out to me here in Peter's letter is the theme of HOPE. Three times Peter draws Christians' attention to their hope. In the sermon two weeks ago Chris spoke about the reference to "a living hope" in v. 3. In today's reading hear about hope again in verses 13 and 21:
v. 3: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
v.13: Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.
v. 21: Through him [Jesus] you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
What do these verses tell us? They make it quite clear, don't they, that the Christian hope rests on the sure foundation of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. Peter reminds the Christians in exile that their hope is set on the future revelation of Christ because of the past resurrection of Christ. God "raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God" (v. 21). That's why The Message translation calls this section "A future in God".
Peter isn't just talking about Christian doctrine here is he? He is appealing to the early Christians' personal experience:
vv. 18-21: YOU know that YOU were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20 He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for YOUR sake. 21 Through him [Jesus] YOU have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that YOUR faith and hope are set on God.
Over time every experience fades a little, as it will even for Captain Richard Phillips. Our experience of being converted to Christ or having the first taste of our faith really coming alive can fade a little. But Peter reminds us that it is the reality of that experience that counts. We have been ransomed. Just as Richard Phillips is still alive because he was rescued from pirates by the US Navy, just as my friend didn't die in the Tsunami like so many tragically did and is alive and well and living in Sydney, we have a future in God because we were ransomed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just because we don't wake up every morning on a high doesn't mean our lives haven't been changed. Jesus has secured OUR future in God.
Which leads us to the second repeated theme that stands out to me in chapter 1 of 1 Peter: our hope is IMPERISHABLE.
v. 3-4: God has given us new birth ... into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you
v. 18: You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold
v. 23: You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
Peter uses another image here that he learned from Jesus himself. He reminds us that for Christians the result of Jesus death and resurrection is a new birth from God. New birth from God results in eternal life and is therefore imperishable. Our human birth – as miraculous as it is – results only in a mortal life that will perish.
Perhaps this is the image that many of us need today? Over the past couple of months we have said farewell for now to several members of our St. Thomas' community. Tomorrow we say farewell for now to Doreen Duncan. Some of us have also said farewell for now to brothers and sisters in Christ from other churches. Sadly, we know very well from our recent experience that the words Peter quotes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40 (vv. 6-8) are true:
"All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls (v. 24),
But it is worth remembering that those words were written for a people living as slaves in exile in foreign country. And the prophet reminds them, just as Peter reminds his readers in exile,
but the word of the Lord endures forever."
That word is the good news [literally, gospel] that was announced to you. (v. 25)
I was only 4 months old at the time, but some of us here may remember hearing about a sermon by Martin Luther King, delivered at a rally in Memphis on 3 April 1968. You’ll be glad to know I’m not going to attempt to sound like him – I’ll leave that to Brarack Obama – but King concluded with these words:
"Well I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Remarkably, as many of you would know, this was King's last sermon. On the very next day, 4 April 1968, King was assassinated by a sniper on the balcony of his hotel room. When King spoke of having been to the mountaintop he was alluding to the Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy, chapter 34 (vv. 1-8; see also 32:48-52) where, after 40 years in the desert, God allowed Moses to go up Mount Nebo and see into the Promised Land, and know that the people would get there, even though Moses himself would die before they entered the land.
I believe that what Peter was saying to those Christians suffering in exile, possibly under persecution of the cruel Roman emperor Nero, is that they have had their mountaintop experience. "You have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from the dead" (v. 21). You know he will do the same for you. You might not be in the Promised Land yet. But you have been to the mountaintop and looked in.
So what about today? The third repeated theme that stands out to me here in 1 Peter is the theme of HOLINESS. Peter turns the first Christians to their responsibility as people who have been ransomed by Christ.
vv. 13-17: Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14 Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15 Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy." 17 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.
Peter words are built on God's instruction in Leviticus (19:1-2) after God had saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."
Most people know about Martin Luther King's campaigning for racial equality. Less people know that in the late 1960s King he began to tackle the issues of poverty and war. Less people probably also know that after his death it became clear that behind the public persona was a man who also struggled to live a holy life and failed in his commitment to remain faithful to his wife. But in another of his final sermons he gave what I consider a helpful reflection on his own life. Exactly two months before he died (4 February 1968) King preached another sermon in which he said that "every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, 'What is it I would want said?' And I leave the word to you this morning." He went on to say he'd like to be remembered as a "drum major" – someone who sets the beat in a marching band:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't leave any money behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
And that's all I want to say. But before I sit down, I would like us to join in reading this passage from Peter again together from a different translation (The Message). Please join me as we say these words from God together:
13 So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that's coming when Jesus arrives. 14 Don't lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn't know any better then; you do now. 15 As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God's life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. 16 God said,
"I am holy; you be holy."
17 You call out to God for help and he helps – he's a good Father that way. But don't forget, he's also a responsible Father, and won't let you get by with sloppy living. Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. 18 It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in. 19 He paid with Christ's sacred blood, you know. He died like an unblemished, sacrificial lamb. 20 And this was no afterthought. Even though it has only lately – at the end of the ages – become public knowledge, God always knew he was going to do this for you. 21 It's because of this sacrificed Messiah, whom God then raised from the dead and glorified, that you trust God, that you know you have a future in God.
22 Now that you've cleaned up your lives by following the truth, love one another as if your lives depended on it. 23 Your new life is not like your old life. Your old birth came from mortal seed; your new birth comes from God's living Word. Just think: a life conceived by God himself! 24 That's why the prophet said,
"The old life is a grass life,
its beauty as short-lived as wildflowers;
Grass dries up, flowers droop,
25 God's Word goes on and on forever."
This is the Word that conceived the new life in you.