The following was an expository sermon delivered today 4/25/06 in Estes Chapel at Asbury Seminary by my esteemed colleague Dr. David Bauer, also a professor of Biblical studies. This message is rich in thought-provoking material which I find myself agreeing with to a very great extent. Special thanks to David for allowing me to share this here
Text: Exodus 19:1-6; 1 Peter 1:1-9
Purpose : To lead Christians into a full experience of God’s calling for his people, esp. a hope that produces a culturally transcendent holiness.
We Christians are at a crisis point in our history just now. The Christian Church is being shaken to its foundations by the rise of what we commonly call “secularism,” which is a vision of society that attempts to exclude God and all divine things from public life, and, related to secularism, by the systematic dismantling of a Christian cultural consciousness that has been the cohering force in our western society since the fourth century. All of this has created an identity crisis for us Christians. This crisis—the rise of secularism and the casting aside of a Christian worldview, in other words, the emergence of the post-Christian society, has created for us the urgency of confronting the fundamental questions of our faith: Who are we? What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?
You see, we Christians can no longer do what we have long tended to do, to define ourselves in terms of a prevailing Christian culture. Society will no longer have it; for the most part it wants nothing to do with the Church and is increasingly repudiating, sometimes to the point of ridicule, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This fact remains in spite of recent talk about the political clout of “people of faith,” which as a political force has been much overrated, and in any event represents a reaction to the dominant secularization of society; it is an exception on the social and political landscape that proves the rule of an increasingly dominant secular vision. So the Church is forced to go back to its beginnings and consider in a radical way what it means to be Christian, and how we live out our Christian faith in this new secular setting.
This seismic shift to a post-Christian society is a traumatic thing for us Christians, of course. But I am convinced that in the end it will be a good thing for the Church. It was, after all, never a good idea for the Church to play down the differences between its faith and the larger society, no matter how “Christian” that larger society appeared on the surface to be; nothing has so blunted the witness of the Church to its gospel or so dulled its spiritual experience as easy accommodation to the preferences of the prevailing culture. Besides, the Bible claims that the Church is strongest when it is weakest, that God manifests his power precisely through our powerlessness and vulnerability. But most of all, this new secular setting provides us with a great gift: the possibility of hearing the Word of God in Scripture in a fresh, new way. For the Scriptures present a pre-Christian period in society; they addressed people who had never known such a thing as a Christian society, who faced the task of living out their faith in a clearly alien world, even as now we must.
Of all the writings of the New Testament, the one that most directly addresses the issue of living the Christian life in an alien culture is First Peter. Peter sets for himself the task of defining what it means to be Christian, and he carefully develops his vision of Christian identity in a hostile world. In fact, Peter cannot wait to jump into this question of Christian identity, for already in the first two verses of his book he gives this defining declaration: We Christians, he says, are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father;” this language of the foreknowledge of God Peter employs elsewhere to refer to God’s plan or purpose “before the foundation of the world.” The point is clear: We are those whom God has chosen to fulfill the predetermined plan God had for his people, a purpose he decided upon before he created one molecule of the universe. The plan of God is our identity; the purpose of God is who we are.
But let’s get specific. What is God’s plan for us? What is his eternal purpose for the Church that gives us our very identity as Christians? Peter describes the specifics of this eternal plan in the language of divine calling. In three passages punctuating his epistle Peter sets forth God’s calling to the Church. In 1:14 Peter tells us: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” In 3:9 he says: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may receive a blessing.” And in 5:10 he declares: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” God expresses his purposes for us by calling us to Holiness in the face of enculturation, Humility in the face of confrontation, and hope in the face of desperation.
We are a holy people. “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” God’s plan for us is that we should be holy in the face of enculturation. Now it is a remarkable thing that even in Methodistic churches there is a great deal of confusion about holiness. Since, according to Peter, holiness stands at the center of our identity as Christians in a hostile world, we owe it to ourselves to be very clear on this matter. Simply put, there are two affirmations involved in the biblical concept of holiness.
The first affirmation is that there is a great gulf, a huge chasm, between God and every form of human culture. God is essentially different from all human structures, institutions, and societies. That is not to say that human structures, institutions, and societies bear no imprint of the hand of the Creator. The Bible declares that they do. Peter himself will press the fact that society in some ways and at certain points reflects God’s will for human creation. But it is a general reality that at their deepest levels sin has so corrupted human life, structures, institutions, and societies that Isaiah’s verdict is perfectly valid: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So the point stands: God is essentially different from all human structures, institutions, and societies. The New Testament refers to these things, insofar as they stand against God, as “the world,” and the world is engaged in a struggle to the death in violent opposition to God and God’s rule in the earth. The fundamental reality about the people of God is that we have been called to join God on his side of this struggle.
When God first called Abram, God called him to leave behind the cultural environment he had known and loved and to join God in a new land, a land where God would be in control, where God would set the agenda. In the same way, when God chose to make us his people, he called us to leave behind the thinking, values, and behavior that characterize a world that does not know God or his Christ. The issue, then, for us is: Will we fully leave our Ur of the Chaldees in order to join God in his very different place?
Now Peter frames that question in his own way. Will you, he asks, be conformed to the prevailing culture, or will you be conformed to God? Will you be conformed to the kind of thinking and acting that you have inherited by virtue of being born into it, or will you be conformed to God who has given you new birth and is therefore now your Father and expects you to resemble him, even as children in general resemble their fathers? The assumption is that we will be conformed to something. We are not free and autonomous, with the power to chart our own course and determine our own destiny. We are necessarily shaped by something outside ourselves, and our decision is what we will be conformed to. The two alternatives are starkly different: God or the world; the kingdom of heaven or this present age.
Now the culture in which we live is strikingly similar to that which Christians in the period of the New Testament experienced. Theirs was a pagan culture, untouched in any serious way by Judaism or the emerging Christian faith. They lived in a pre-Christian society, before the influences of the gospel were felt upon the culture. We live in a post-Christian society, which is likewise becoming increasingly pagan. For, as Lesslie Newbigen has pointed out, in trying to create a secular society—one that attempted to structure life merely on the human plane, with no regard for God or the divine—we have actually created not a secular society, but a pagan one, in which religious-like value is given to things that are unworthy of them. So secularism has become something of a religion in its own right, with its own creed, centered upon pluralism, its venerated saints, and its own ethic, an ethic that values liberation from the “artificial” and “inhumane” constraints inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition in favor of the free expression of the individual’s feelings and instincts, leading to a moral code that is increasingly reminiscent of certain aspects of the ancient paganism of Canaanite, Greek, and Roman cultures. And all this comes as no surprise to the Christian, for from the Christian point of view a secular society is an impossibility. Because God has created us there are irrepressible religious impulses within us and they will come to expression in society in ways either that glorify the true God or that form a distortion of his good purposes.
But in spite of the increasingly shocking character of the belief system and morals of the dominant modern American culture that surrounds us, this culture has a deep appeal for us and is powerful in its attempt to draw us in. For one thing, of course, it appeals to our inclination to cast aside the rule of God, to be free of God, and to create our own world. But there are two additional forces that pull us towards enculturation.
The first is peer pressure. It seems that the former friends of these Christians to whom Peter wrote were put off by their change of behavior since they had become Christians, and to try to win them back they abused them. Now this, of course, was violent peer pressure, involving physical attacks and trumped-up legal charges. This obviously is not the kind of response we typically experience for our distinctive Christian lifestyle. But peer pressure to conform is present nonetheless. To us it comes not—at least not usually—in the form of violence, but in the much more subtle form of thought manipulation, i.e., in the attempt to control thought patterns, especially in the subtle messages we receive through the various media, with entertainment the channel for the shaping of public opinion that more often than not involves values opposed to the Christian faith. You understand, of course, that there is no such thing as pure entertainment, that all entertainment has a “sub-script” of values formation, and it behooves us to learn to read this sub-script, the almost subliminal messages that come across and shape our thinking without our even knowing that they are present or how they affect our values. Those who work with Christian youth and college students, raised on a steady diet of television, are surprised at the fundamentally un-Christian point of view many of these young people simply assume to be true.
But beyond peer pressure, enculturation comes through the desire for acceptance, the desire to be part of the group, to belong. The major problem these churches to which Peter wrote were experiencing was a deep sense of social alienation, a sense that they no longer belonged to the society, a sense of being excluded. This sense of marginalization is extremely painful, and when the carrot of acceptance is held out, we are quick to grab it. We see this in our individual lives: someone tells an ethnic joke and we join in the laughter; we hear a racial slur, and we say nothing. We don’t want to make a scene; we don’t want to appear to be different; we don’t want to exclude ourselves from the acceptance of the group. But we see it also in our corporate lives, when denominations or Christian educational institutions cast off their historical counter-cultural and prophetic stance and attempt to move into the “mainstream.”
Before I leave this point, I want to make one clarification. On the basis of what I said about entertainment you might conclude that the danger of enculturation comes only from those dimensions of our society that are clearly at odds with “traditional values,” to use social and political categories, those that represent the left or the liberal. This would be a total misunderstanding of the biblical perspective. For, according to the Bible, the Word of God stands over and judges every culture and sub-culture and every human ideology. That is not to say that every human ideology and program is equally far from God’s perspective, but it is to say that none represents—in anything near a perfect way—God’s thinking. The political and social left and the political and social right both stand under God’s judgment, and we Christians must be careful not to equate any ideology, any movement, with the kingdom of God. In the end, to do that would be the worst possible form of enculturation.
So the first affirmation in biblical holiness is separation. This emphasis on separation is dramatically portrayed in the Old Testament by Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan. You remember that God commanded Israel when Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were to annihilate completely all the Canaanites who lived there. Thus we have the “wars of extermination.” Why did God command such a horrible thing? One reason was in order to establish Israel as a holy, separate people. They were to be separate in that they were to have no contact with the Canaanites at all, and the only way to assure absolute non-contact was to kill all the Canaanites. That is holiness as isolation. And, according to the Old Testament, it was appropriate and necessary at that time in God’s dealings with his people that holiness should involve isolation. God recognized that given where Israel was in its experience of being God’s people (mere babes in the experience) that Israel would be unable to avoid gross enculturation to Canaanite society and religion if the Canaanites were allowed to continue in the land.
But it is significant that when Peter scours the Old Testament for a model of Christian holiness he does not use the conquest, but rather the exile: that time in Israel’s history, long after the conquest, when God caused the Babylonians to attack God’s people, carry them off to Babylon, and scatter them to the ends of the earth, from which distant places God promised to bring them back. God commanded that in the meantime they should live out their vocation of holiness precisely as resident aliens within the context of that pagan Babylonian culture. They were to live out their holiness, their difference, in responsible engagement with the surrounding pagan culture. And, Peter says, that’s the way it is with us Christians. This is the second affirmation of Christian holiness, not only the separation of difference, but also responsible participation. Holiness no longer means isolation; now it means participation. Holiness at one time—at the beginning of Israel’s life—meant “come out from among them, and have nothing to do with them.” But now it means, in the words of Jesus, “I do not pray that you would take them out of the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one.”
Ultimately, it is impossible to be holy in isolation, in serene distance from the attacks, challenges, and opportunities of a culture that desperately needs God. The reason: Holiness is essentially a difference in love. God is holy, different from all human structures, in that he is perfect love. And we, as we share his holiness, are separate, different from the culture that surrounds us, in that we love—not perfectly, but we share the transcendent love of God. Holiness is a holiness of love, and love must be expressed in real participation with people. Do you remember the chilling poem by Dr. Studdert-Kennedy?
If I had a million pounds
I would buy me a perfect island home
Sweet set in a southern sea
And there would I build a paradise
For the heart of my love and me
I would plant a perfect garden there
The one that my dream-soul knows
And the years would flow as the petals grow
The flame to a perfect rose
I would build me a perfect temple there
A shrine where my Christ might dwell
And there I would wait to behold my soul
Damned deep in a perfect hell.
The only holiness that has God’s approval repudiates self-protecting and self-serving isolation in favor of real participation in the real struggles of people. The second-century Letter to Diognetus, written to explain to pagans who Christians are, puts it best: “For these Christians every homeland is a foreign country, and every foreign country is a homeland.”
But this participation in a society that is so unlike us will lead to confrontation, and that brings us to the second plan that God has for us, his people: “Do not return evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may receive a blessing.” Thus, God has called us to humility in the face of confrontation.
Now it is clear from the context that Peter is urging a submissive, non-retaliatory response to persecution; he is not discussing confrontation in general, but suffering for the sake of the gospel. And this immediately prompts the issue of relevance. How can this apply to us at all, when we do not suffer for the gospel, at least not in the same way or to the same extent these Christians did? But that question prompts a second, and more uncomfortable question: Why is it that American Christians are not suffering in this way for the sake of Christ and the gospel? And there are many answers to that question. For one thing, some are. Although not suffering criminal prosecution or physical beating, they have been shunned and ridiculed. Nevertheless, it is an arresting observation that the New Testament speaks so frequently of suffering for the cause of Christ and insists so strongly that it is a typical and necessary feature of our life in the world, and yet it is almost entirely absent from contemporary American Christian experience. One possible explanation—and not the only one—is that many of us modern American Christians (and I include myself first here) do not share the suffering of Christ because our discipleship is not as radical and threatening as the discipleship set forth in the New Testament, that we do not live out quite to the fullest extent the holiness to which God has called us. Perhaps Archbishop Trench’s famous verdict on the genteel and innocuous Jesus of 19th-century liberal theology applies to us as well: It is unclear why anyone would have ever wanted to put such a Jesus to death.
The Christian does not seek confrontation and persecution, but does not flee from them either. Some Christians are aggressively and unnecessarily adversarial. Have you been struck by just how uncivil is the discourse of many evangelical Christians directed against their opponents in the “culture war?” To them Peter will insist in chapter 2 that we must “show honor to all.” To those with an adversarial bent, the community of the scowl, Peter will urge that we have an obligation to identify those aspects of the surrounding culture that are godly, or at least that God can use, and affirm them and build on them, that we demonstrate that we are really interested in acting on behalf of the broader society. That we really do believe what St. Augustine declared in Book 19 of The City of God, echoing Jeremiah’s admonition to the exiles to work for the well-being of Babylonian society: The only peace we will have this side of the heavenly city is the peace of Babylon.
But the Christian does not escape persecution, either. We recognize that the consistent living out of the otherness of the gospel will lead to painful confrontation. Toward the end of his life, John Wesley, reflecting upon Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy (“All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution”) was troubled, because in contrast to his earlier experience in the Methodist movement, he was enjoying general popularity and very little persecution. It gave him pause; it ought to give us pause, too.
But back to the principle of non-retaliation. If most of us cannot relate fully to the readers’ experience of suffering for Christ, we can apply this dimension of Christian self-identity in a more general way, for Peter suggests that it is God’s plan that we return good for evil even in the area of personal attacks and injustices. But what is wrong with retaliation anyway? Why is it a contradiction of God’s plan for his people? Simply because it attempts to bring justice and judgment, which belong only to God, into the orbit of our own power; to bring under our control the establishment of a right and just order. I will set this wrong right; I will meet out punishment in my way and time. But the result of this retaliation is the opposite of its intention: In the attempt to gain control of the situation by establishing justice in an unjust setting we lose control of ourselves; for when we retaliate we are no longer free to respond in creative and effective ways, but bind ourselves to a course of action that is established by the aggressor, so that my opponent determines what I will do, how I will act. I have forgotten Peter’s admonition: “Live as free people.”
Sidney Harris, the syndicated columnist, tells of walking down a busy street with a friend who happened to be a Quaker. His friend went to a boy who was selling papers on the street. The boy was very rude and gruff, not saying anything, even thank you. The whole time, however, Harris’ friend was pleasant and courteous. When Harris learned that his friend bought papers from this boy every day, and that he was always rude, Harris asked his friend why he continued to be so pleasant. His response: “Why should I let him determine how I will act?” That’s the freedom of non-retaliation.
There are times, of course, when people need to be held accountable for their actions. It would be unredemptive simply to allow the injustice to pass. But in cases like that we do not respond from an ego that seeks control, but from a love that seeks the healing of the other.
In the final analysis, of course, it is God who will establish his righteous rule on the earth. And he will do so by punishing injustice and pouring out his own vengeance upon evil. But his preferred method is to establish his righteous rule through redemption, bringing the wrongdoer into the sphere of his love and forgiveness. (Hence the New Testament connection between God’s justice and justification) We become partners with God in his work of establishing justice when we bear witness to his power and love by responding to personal hurt with a superhuman and supernatural charity.
But where does our power to do this come from? Where are the resources to fulfill God’s plan—his plan of holiness in the face of enculturation, and humility in the face of confrontation? The answer is the Christian’s third calling: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you into his eternal glory, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” God has called us to hope in the face of desperation. This is a hope that empowers; this is a hope that sanctifies.
This eternal glory is the final goal of God’s plan for us. And its meaning for us is revolutionary. It means that we are people of the future; the future belongs to us, and our calling is to live constantly in light of what God is going to do when the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our God and of his Christ; when the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise; when this perishable will put on imperishable and this mortal will put on immortality and will come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.
This future that God has for us the greatest gift he God could ever give us. For the biblical portrait of humanity is that of people continually under the shadow of death. Whether they think about it or not, and whether they talk about it or not, the final reality for them is the grave. Elizabeth Achtemeier used to ask if we have every noticed how so many cemeteries mark their entrance roads with the sign, “No Exit?” People do have a deep-seated sense that there is no exit, no escape. Despair is written over their lives. To be sure, most people do come to accept the fact of their own mortality, and negotiate some sort of peace with the idea of their own death. Death is just a part of life, they say, or they adopt some misty concept about life after death. But according to the Bible such sentimental notions are woefully inadequate to address the deep despair that grips the human spirit and drives it to find meaning and security in all the wrong places.
In a world like this, bounded by a grim sense of death and despair, God has a plan for you and me. He unveiled that plan in an unlikely spot, in a lonely garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem on an April morning 1970 years ago when he raised Jesus from the dead, thereby changing forever the nature of human life on this planet. For now there is sure hope that death is not the end, but that God has something better for us. And so Peter says, in the passage we read as text, that we who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead have been born again to a living hope. Our confidence that God raised Jesus from the dead makes such a difference for us that it can only be described as a new birth to a life of hope, for we know that God’s raising Jesus from the dead is sure and certain demonstration that he will also raise us from the dead and give us a share in the glory that is now Christ’s.
Our hope is living, because it is the kind of hope that empowers and energizes us in the now. The notion that someone can be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good would strike Peter and all the New Testament writers as nonsense. For them, the only way to be of any earthly good is to be heavenly minded. A hope that functions as an escape hatch from the present life is not Christian hope at all; it is a cheap counterfeit that lacks any substance. It is significant that this theology of hope is embedded in an epistle of suffering; this book makes it clear that this hope does not relieve present suffering, but produces the kind of life that leads to suffering. No, it is only through the power of a hope that is grounded in the past event of Christ’s resurrection and is focused on the future glory that we can fulfill God’s purpose of holiness and humility in the present. Because of the past we have a future, and because of the future we have a present.
But sadly the Church has had a difficult time embracing biblical eschatology. Ernst Käsemann famously remarked that Jewish apocalyptic, the notion of the sudden cataclysmic inbreaking of God’s kingdom at the end, is the mother of Christianity. Yet throughout the history of the Church, and especially in the past 200 years, Christians have oscillated between practical denial of apocalyptic eschatology on the one hand and wild and uninformed enthusiasm about the eschatological future on the other. The extremes are easy to describe.
In terms of practical denial: I remember attending a service in a highly liturgical church on the first Sunday of Advent, which you remember in the church year focuses on the second coming of Christ; the sermon text, following the lectionary, was Matthew 24, the eschatological discourse, but the sermon itself mentioned the second coming of Christ not at all but rather cheerfully announced that Christ comes to each of us every day so as to shower his blessings upon us. I thought the sermon would have had more integrity had the preacher simply announced that he could not bring himself to believe in the doctrine of the second coming and therefore had chosen to talk about something else that Sunday. In terms of enthusiasm: we have all encountered the well-intentioned but theologically challenged and exegetically problematic eschatological tell-all books that cater to people’s natural curiosity about the future and offer a kind of cosmic voyeurism.
In both cases—denial and enthusiasm—the problem is a theology that is not apocalyptic enough. That is clearly the case with the practical deniers insofar as they embrace a God who is so comfortable with this present world that they cannot imagine a divine decision to replace it with something entirely different. But it is also true of the enthusiasts, who envision the eschatological future simply as a grand projection of the same kind of the pain and pleasure we experience in this world. And they are confused over the New Testament’s ambiguous and obscure description of the details surrounding the end. They do not understand that this very obscurity of eschatological description reflects the reality that the end will be so transcendent, so apocalyptically different from anything we have ever experienced in the world that language cannot fully capture it. That’s why the New Testament’s description of the end is so ambiguous, obscure, and hard to understand. The take this necessarily obscure description to be an elaborate puzzle to be an elaborate puzzle that exists for us to de-code. The result is an unconvincing and even carnivalesque vision of the eschatological future that prompts sober-minded Christians to lose interest in the entire subject and thus exclude themselves from the kind of robust moral and spiritual empowerment that comes from embracing the eschatological hope in all of its true theological richness. There is no part of the Church’s faith more central than its eschatology; it is the framework for almost every other doctrine. And yet there is no aspect of biblical teaching that has been so largely misunderstood in the Church. One of the great theological tasks, and one that has practical implications for everything from pastoral care to missions, is to understand accurately and proclaim compellingly the eschatology of the New Testament.
So what shall we say? As we stand here at the beginning of the third millennium and confront an increasingly strange and confusing world, our primary challenge in maintaining the fidelity of our life before God and in proclaiming God’s salvation to the nations is to be clear, very clear, about who and what we are. Our life in the world requires that we attend to the task of developing and embracing a healthy Christian self-consciousness. We have barely scratched the surface of Christian identity in 1 Peter, to say nothing of the rich vision of Christian self-consciousness found in the rest of the New Testament. Yet it is a beginning. Holiness, humility, hope. In each case, a celebration of God’s reality and a recognition of our deficiency, a declaration of what is and a summons to what we must become. In the final analysis, then, our identity under God must be embodied in life. And in the long history of the world there has never been a moment that cried out more urgently for the incarnation of God’s great purposes in the life of his Church than right now.