8 May 2011
10.30 and 6.00 Woodchurch
Readings: 1 Peter 1:17-23
Heavenly Father, as we bring ourselves before your Word this morning – still us, quieten our minds and our hearts and help us to listen to the still small voice of your Holy Spirit and to hear the Word that you have for each of us today. Amen.
Those who know about public speaking say that you should never begin any talk with an apology. Well, being a bit of a contrarian, I just wanted to say that I am sorry!
What am I sorry about? Well, when I decided to do a short sermon series on the First Letter of Peter I foolishly overlooked the fact that this would mean not preaching on today’s gospel which is the story of two disciples encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This means that I cannot tell you how it is one of my favourite stories in the gospels, that I cannot say how it speaks to me deeply of the truth that no matter how downcast or depressed we may feel that Jesus insists on walking with us and opening the scriptures to us whether we recognise him or not, it means that I cannot reflect with you on the beautiful denouement when Jesus is finally revealed to the disciples when he blesses and breaks the bread and shares it with them. And finally it means that I can say nothing of the parallels between this story and what we do here each week: how we come together in sorrow for what has gone wrong in our lives the previous week, how we listen to the word of God being proclaimed and then how we encounter the risen Lord through the blessing, breaking and sharing bread together. So I am truly sorry that I can say none of that but it may be a story that you would like to read yourselves and maybe we can think about it together on another occasion.
So this week, and for the next four or five weeks I really wanted to talk about is the First Letter of Peter. If you want to look at the bible while I am talking you’ll find that 1 Peter starts on p.1217 of the pew bibles.
You will see that 1 Peter is a very short book of only 5 chapters which can be read through in fifteen or twenty minutes at home. This is important because even though we are going to be looking at this book for the next several weeks the fact is that we are not going to be able to look at every verse or even think about every theme so to get the most out of this time and to get a real sense that by the end of this preaching experiment that we have journeyed through this book together I would recommend that everyone does read through this short book at home, perhaps once every week.
As I will be looking at this book over the course of several weeks, and as time is always limited today is intended to be a general introduction to the book and its themes and we shall delve into more detail next week.
So – first things first – Who wrote this book and when?
Well, it identifies itself as being written by “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” and for most of Church history this letter was accepted to be written personally by Saint Peter. When thinking about historical figures like “Saint Peter” it is easy to become too abstract in our thoughts – but I find it amazing and humbling that the person who wrote the words in front of us, or at least the majority of them, may be the same fisherman who was called by Jesus, who witnessed the transfiguration up the mountain, who was at times hot headed, who denied Jesus after his arrest, who was forgiven by Jesus following the resurrection and appointed as the rock upon whom the church would be built – the same Peter who lead the church in Jerusalem at the time of the first Pentecost and who later travelled to Rome, became the first bishop or overseer of the church there and was killed by the Roman emperor sometime in the mid-60’s AD. Some scholars believe that parts of the letter may have been edited after Peter’s death, sometime between 73 and 92 AD but most believe that this is mostly the words of Peter, albeit with the help of Silas. And if this letter was written sometime between the 60s and the 90s AD then it makes it one of the earliest documents in the New Testament, and probably pre-dates the Gospel of John and books such as Revelation.
What sort of book is 1 Peter? Well it is written in the form of a letter – in verses 1 and 2 it is addressed to a number of groups of people:
“To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Capadocia, Asia and Bithynia.”
And if you have a look at the end of chapter 5 you will see that it is also signed off as a letter:
“With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.”
Knowing that this is a letter helps us in knowing how to read it. As we know the bible is full of different types of writing – history, law, poems, songs, biography, prophecy and so forth. So, in the same way that we might read a text book of criminal law differently from the way we may read a history book by Simon Schama or we would read an anthology of poems by Andrew Motion differently from a letter written to us by a friend so we know that this book needs to be read in a particular way – it is a letter of encouragement from an apostle of Jesus, or at least someone very close to an apostle of Jesus, to the churches around the known world helping them to learn how to be distinctively Christian in a culture that is suspicious of them.
And this brings us to the most important question – why was it written and what are the major themes?
One way of answering this is to imagine ourselves to be one of the groups of early Christians to whom Peter is writing – say we are the Church in Asia that he mentions in the introduction. We know that St Paul never got into Asia in the 50s so it is likely that we are first generation followers of Jesus – perhaps converted and baptised by a slightly later evangelist. We are probably not converts from Judaism, as there were very few Jews living in Asia, which means that we do not posses the background or the books of the Old Testament. Rather we have converted from one of the faiths that existed in the Roman empire or something else. There is no New Testament yet as the gospels and letters which came together to form the New Testament are still being written by different people in different places and have yet to come together into, what we call, the canon. We probably have the verbal stories about Jesus told to us by the evangelist who converted us and baptised us from our previous pagan faith, we pray, we worship God as revealed through Jesus and we try to live in the Holy Spirit. But everyone around us is suspicious of us – we have rejected the faith of our neighbours and friends. We take part in what look like strange practices, we no longer join in with the customs and rituals of the culture around us. In short by being different from everyone else we open ourselves up to persecution and ridicule. At the same time we may not have much contact with other Christians in different places – at times it must feel like we are all alone in a hostile world and, perhaps, wondering why we bother?
And then we get this letter written by someone who actually knew Jesus – and how does this letter refer to us? Looking again at the introduction in verse 1:
“To God’s elect, strangers in the world.”
Yes, we do feel like strangers in the world – but straight away this apostle of Jesus reminds us of our calling – we are God’s elect. Awesome words to hear.
And looking again at the sign off in chapter 5 we see:
“I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.”
This is a letter of encouragement in our faith, to testify about God and to help us to ‘stand fast’ in the face of persecution or ridicule.
Think how amazing it must have been for the scattered, isolated and persecuted Churches who had little access to each other or to any written testimony about their new faith to have received this letter from Peter – reminding them that although they are strangers in the world they are God’s elect and encouraging them to be distinctive, to be holy and to stand fast for the sake of Jesus.
And of course this brings us to one of the reasons why I choose to go into some depth with this letter – the fact is that we need this letter of encouragement as much as the early church. In some ways our culture still has the outward appearance of being Christian and one of the best things about the Royal Wedding for me was the fact that x hundred million people around the world saw William and Kate being married by our archbishop and they heard a prayer written by the couple being used in the Bishop of London’s sermon. However despite the fact that the Church was front and centre at that occasion it is also true that we live in a culture which is increasingly alien and hostile to Christian values and beliefs. To actually live distinctively as a Christian in this culture is hard.
But it is too easy to turn that difficulty into an attack on the surrounding culture and to simply say that if everyone either agreed with us or even if they let us hold our beliefs without interference then life would be so much easier and better. I know that last week a prominent bishop was preaching against the rise of so-called militant atheism. But, in a way, I think that is to miss the point entirely. Being a Christian is meant to be a distinctive call on our lives, being salt and light to the world also, by definition, makes us different from the world. That does not mean that we stand apart from the world but that we take our distinctiveness into the world for the sake of the world. But, like Jesus, we should not always expect others to welcome us, to understand us or even not to persecute us.
But there is another danger even greater than persecution and misunderstanding. A much worse danger both for the scattered church that existed at the time of 1 Peter and for ourselves is that, in the face of an alien, hostile or even indifferent culture not that we are persecuted or discriminated against or ignored but that we lose our distinctiveness – that we seek to hide our calling, that we play down the different standards to which we are called – that we laugh at the idea of holiness, that we forget to be salt and light because it is so much easier not to be different. That was true then and it is true now – in one sense there is nothing new under the Sun which means that the words of this letter can be read as much for our own encouragement as for our brothers and sisters in the early church.
We, like them, have been born anew and not of perishable seed but of something imperishable and more valuable even than gold or silver – we are ransomed by the precious blood of Christ and are given the imperishable seed of the living and enduring word of God.