A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:10
Scholars believe that the little book of First Peter was written in a time when Christians were being persecuted. It was addressed to people in a troubled time. It is a peculiarly pastoral letter, gentle in tone, avoiding threats of judgment and damnation. The writer seemed to understand that the communities to which he wrote needed to hear an encouraging word. They needed to have their hopes lifted and they needed to be reminded that their future was in God’s hands.
The remarks of certain dissemblers aside, I doubt very seriously that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today. In fact, far too often in more modern times, practices of those claiming to be Christian have been highly persecutory, doing more damage than good in the world. Yes, we know there are places in the world today where Christians are paying a heavy price for their faithfulness, cruelly persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. But I would bet that most of us have not suffered greatly for our faith. To the degree that that is true, it may be difficult to get the full impact of this little letter to the early church.
I’m reaching back into the first chapter of the letter in hopes of providing a useful frame for the passage that Melanie read for us. Remember the writer was writing to the first century church, new Christians, a decided minority in their social setting, people for whom it was risky to claim their faith at all, let alone proclaim it. Hear these uplifting words as you might if you imagined yourselves hearing them for the first time 2000 years ago. “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23.)
Just as we saw last week with the early church in Jerusalem described in Acts 2, the beginning of Christian witness is spiritual discipline. What would it take to purify your soul? What is involved in developing obedience to truth? How in the world do we find our way to genuine mutual love? None of these things comes easily just because we might change our name to Christian. There is work, discipline, involved in living into and up to our new-found faith. As Jesus taught his first followers, we do the work so that above and beneath and around all other things, we may come to “love one another deeply from the heart.” We could sit here for the rest of the hour and contemplate that gentle yet life changing exhortation – “love one another deeply from the heart” and it would be enough.
As Jesus tried to teach Nicodemus, “If you want to know God’s Beloved Community, you must be born again.” If you want to be saved, to experience health, wholeness, the peace and well-being of God’s shalom, you have to let go of what you think you know about life and start over. You have to be “born from above,” born “of water and the Spirit.” The writer of First Peter assures his anxious audience, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” – Jesus Christ, the living word, the eternal Word made flesh is the source of your new life.
Now what might that mean practically? The first verse of the second chapter of First Peter has one of those lists of things to avoid if you want to be a true Christ-follower. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” It’s a shorter list than some of those we find in Paul’s letters, but perhaps it is more powerful in its conciseness. So, help me out here. What comes to mind when you hear these words? What do these exhortations say to you living in 2017? Rid yourselves of all malice. Rid yourselves of guile, deceit, treachery. Rid yourselves of insincerity, pretense, hypocrisy. Rid yourselves of envy or jealousy. Rid yourselves of slander or gossip. You see how this life in Christ is challenging as well as joyful work, how important the spiritual discipline is? Before we get to the meat and potatoes, we need to drink the pure, spiritual milk. It is the source of our salvation.
In our Seasons of the Spirit resource for today, we are encouraged to “Stand Firm.” They draw this theme from the reality that all of the lectionary texts for today – Psalm 31, John14, Acts 7, and First Peter – make some reference to rocks, stones, or structures built on sure foundations. The Psalm reminds us that God is our rock and our refuge. Jesus assures his followers in John’s gospel that in God’s realm there is room enough for everyone who will follow him there. As Stephen is stoned to death for his faith and witness, he is filled with a vision of the glory of God. Secure in his sense of who he is and what is to come, he is able to pray, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7).
First Peter encourages us to build our lives as a spiritual house founded on Christ the living stone, “rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” We are called to be a holy priesthood of believers, offering spiritual sacrifices – prayer and praise, work and witness, compassion and care, love and light – sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. True, everyone doesn’t see it the same way, but “to you then who believe, Christ is precious,” the rock of our refuge, the source of our salvation, the origin of the new and abundant life of God’s Beloved Community.
The title of this sermon came to me as I thought about images of rocks on which we might stand firm. Somewhere deep in my memory bank I heard the beautiful bass-baritone of George Beverly Shea singing the “The Solid Rock.” Some of us remember that Shea was the regular soloist with the Billy Graham Crusades. I remember watching those stadium events on television – my parents were fans – and enjoying especially the music Cliff Barrows leading thousands in song, Don Hustad on the piano or organ, a massed choir. But often, the highlight for me was listening to Shea sing. ”The Solid Rock” was a sort of signature song for him. This gospel song was written by a woman named Ruth Caye Jones, in London, at the height of World War II. As air raid sirens sounded and bombs fell, this wife and mother had the foolish courage to pen these words:
In times like these you need a Savior
In times like these you need an anchor
Be very sure, be very sure
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
This Rock is Jesus, Yes, He’s the one
This Rock is Jesus, The only One
Be very sure, be very sure
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
I also thought of another old gospel favorite, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” the chorus of which affirms:
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
We don’t turn to these songs very often anymore. Perhaps they’ve outlived their usefulness. Still, there is something comforting in knowing we are not asked to walk Christ’s way alone. When times are tough it never hurts to be reminded of the Living Stone, the Solid Rock, One in whom we can be very sure. It is important to understand that, as believers, as followers, as those who have tasted that God is good, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” not so we can claim special privilege, but “in order that [we might] proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called [us] out of the shadows into marvelous light”; to hear again that, as disparate group of individuals, “Once [we] were not a people, but now [we] are God’s people; once [we] had not received mercy, but now [we} have received mercy.” And because we are God’s people, who have known God’s mercy, how can we keep from singing?
What it means to be God’s own people who have known mercy is that we must now show mercy. Even in times like this, especially in times like this, we must show foolish courage. In the immortal words of Dolly Parton, as she observed the poverty of the Kentucky county where she was born and raised, “[W]hen you’re in a position to help, you should help.” Dolly has given millions in aid to folks in that corner of the world. Or as Henri Nouwen asks in today’s Words of Preparation, “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”
“[A] chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we might] proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called [us] out of the shadows into marvelous light.” To be God’s own people means we must be drawn from the shadows of difficult and troubled times to bring the Christ light into the world. There are still people and communities needing to hear an encouraging word, to have their hopes lifted, and to be reminded that their future is in God’s hands. As people of faith and followers of the way, this is our story, this is our song – to trust in the Living Stone, to shine the light into the deepest shadows, and to love deeply from the heart. Amen.