Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 14, 2017
Scripture: 1 Peter 2:1-10
The sermon title today, I will admit, is a really bad pun on our Scripture. But, Peter practically forces me into it. In verse 2, Peter appeals to us all, “as newborn babes” in the Lord. Then, in verses 4 through 8, he goes into some word-play of his own with the work, “rock”, as in, how the Lord is like a rock, a stone, a cornerstone, a foundation stone. So, all in all, I think “Babe, You Rock!” is a pretty good summary of Peter’s train of thought here.
But, he starts off with these rather severe-sounding words in verse 1: “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and slander,” In other words, Peter’s telling them, quit faking it with each other , you all! You’re only making things harder on yourselves!” It’s as if Peter were saying to them, “O, what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”
Deception? Insincerity. Envy. Slander. Malice. What in the world was going on with these folks, do you think? Well, something’s eating away at them. These Christians are under a lot of stress; they’re afraid; they’re uncertain. They are in circumstances which require them to be caring and honest and humble and gentle with one another; in other words, the exact opposites of how they were presently treating each other, and Peter calls them out on their misbehavior.
These Christians didn’t know it, but they were living through a pivotal moment in the Christian movement, and it was putting them in a rather serious identity crisis. They were nearing the end of what we commonly call “the New Testament Era”. What did that mean for someone living in the Roman Empire in the closing years of the so-called New Testament era when nobody really understood it or had any idea of what the next era might be?
Which leads me to ask us: what does it mean to be a follower of Christ and to be a community of Christ at the end of the modern church-era in these United States? You do realize or you do at least suspect, the door has now closed on some sort of Christian era that once dominated the U.S. The great building boom of the 1950’s included the great building boom of American Protestant churches, but that era’s gone now, and nobody is really sure what comes next.
What do groups of people do when they lose their sense of identity? When they lose their sense of security? They grow suspicious; they start questioning other’s motivations; they grasp at straws; they tend to just get mean with each other. That’s what Peter’s addressing here in chapter 2, verse 1. He says, getting testy and nasty and suspicious is not going to help you folks out in the churches across the Empire to figure who you are in this era now ending that’s leading into whatever is coming up next.
Pockets of persecution against Christians are starting to happen. It’s not happening wide-scale, but it is happening enough for the folks in these churches to get really, really concerned for their safety and well-being.
A few Sundays ago we read in 1 Peter, chapter 1, especially verses 6 and 7 where Peter acknowledges that they are suffering “various trials,”, that their faith is being tested as though it were “gold…tested [refined] by fire”.
What’s the persecution these Christians are experiencing? Well, here’s a handy way to get into the shoes of Christians near the close of the first century in the Roman Empire: when you see someone you identify is a Muslim American, what do you think? What do you wonder? Do you wonder about their loyalty to our government, to the “American-way of life”? Do you wonder whether they may be somehow compromising our nation’s welfare?
If that’s the sort of suspicion that creeps up on you when seeing someone you identify as a Muslim American, then welcome to the world of Christians near the end of the first century in the Roman Empire. Christians were being singled out as potential threats in their communities.
It’s not that these Christians were actually guilty of anything at all. It just that the Christians, for religious reasons, could not take the public oath of allegiance by saying “Caesar is my Lord.” They could not take part in public ceremonies pledging their absolute fidelity to Caesar.
Loyalty to Caesar was the glue that held together this vast collage of ethnic and racial groups that was the Roman Empire. That loyalty was expressed not only by paying taxes and obeying the law. That loyalty was expressed by participating in the civic religion of the Empire, which was, worship Caesar as god.
If you read through the rest of this letter, you will read Peter devoting a lot of space advising these Christians on how to behave in their communities to work against this kind of civic slander. Read on further in chapter 2, verses 11 to 17; read on in chapter three, verses 13 to 17. He tells them, for example, in chapter 2, verse 17, “Honor all people. Love the Christian fellowship. Fear God. Honor Caesar.”
But, they could not worship Caesar. Because of that, Christians were likely to find themselves put out of a job. Their non-Christian neighbors who now knew their faith-commitment would shun them. Merchants were closing their doors to Christians. There were isolated cases of execution of Christians.1
That will make any Christian believer and any Christian church sit up and ask themselves some hard questions about their identity: who am I, who are we, in this faith of ours? How are we to give witness of our faith in the larger community outside of our church fellowship?
Is this what challenges University Baptist Church in our community? In our culture, our place, our time: do you feel singled out as a threat? Are we being accused of not supporting the community’s welfare?
As a Christian believer and as a Christian clergyperson, no, I don’t see us being persecuted for our faith here in Charlottesville. We’re mostly just being ignored. We’re not being persecuted; people have simply pushed us to the back of their shelves where they’ve left us until our expiration date comes and goes and our usefulness to them finally expires. That hurts, and that insults us.
What do we do? Where do we turn? Peter writes, you got to get your nourishment, your strength, your identity focused in Jesus and in his Gospel. Plain and simple and, at times, also very hard. Anything other than or less than Jesus and his Gospel among you will not serve. Anything else, anyone else, simply is not the genius of who you are or what you are to be about.
Verse 3, Peter makes an observation, which, implicitly, is also a question; “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord”, right? “You have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” That’s what this is all about. This is what has gotten you personally involved and committed to this whole movement of believers going…men and women, free and slave, Jew and Gentile…one by one by one: “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”
So, Peter writes them and us, let that taste guide you; crave that food for yourselves over and over. “Like newborn babes…like newborn infants nursing at the breasts of their mothers,” Peter writes, “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.” Anything else won’t grow you up into health and strength, Peter’s saying.
By “growing up to salvation”, Peter means more than just getting saved. Peter is saying much the same as the Apostle Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 13, that they were to attain “maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” That’s what Peter means here in verse 2, “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”
With what are you, personally, nourishing your soul that’s enabling you to grow up in your experience of salvation in Jesus Christ? I think Peter’s metaphor here in verse 2 gives us permission to ask one another, “what have you been drinking?” Are we drinking the pure spiritual milk that’s enabling us to embody the fullness of Jesus and of his Gospel?
What do we understand we mean, when we speak of the Gospel of Jesus? What does the Gospel of Jesus mean to you, and are you feeding yourself so that you are growing upwards into that Gospel? Not everything that comes packaged as Gospel is all its cracked up to be.
You may recall the boycott against the Nestle’s Company back in the 1980’s over the way they were marketing their baby formula. Nestle was aggressively marketing baby formula in developing, third-world countries, especially among poor women. They were telling mothers that baby formula was superior replacement to breast milk. After all, if moms in the U.S. and Europe were turning to baby formula then they can be sure it’s the best thing going for their newborn children, too.
The problem was, no one was bothering to teach these moms about sterilizing the bottles. The other really big problem was that these third-world country moms had no access to clean water. They were using polluted water in unsterilized bottles to mix the formula to feed to their infants and their babies were getting sick and dying.
Nestle’s marketing campaign to the poor was so successful, doctors and health officials in those countries had a very hard time convincing these moms that their own, natural milk was exactly what their newborn infants craved and very much needed to thrive and to grow up healthy.2
We need pure spiritual milk, Peter tells us. We’ve at least got to do a taste-test with whatever we’re trying to feed our spiritual lives. Does it taste like what we first experienced when we first “tasted the kindness of the Lord”. You remember what that tastes like, don’t you? Peter says in verse 3…let that taste guide you in what you’re feeding yourselves.
What Peter does next is a prime example of a very important way we must feed ourselves. We must know the wealth of spiritual understanding in this Book that is our Bible.
“This is who you are now,” says Peter, in verses 4 through 10, “because this is who Jesus is for you.” Peter uses some special, almost technical, terms to describe Jesus to them. All of these terms find their origin and meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures, the books of the Bible we call our Old Testament. At the time Peter’s writing, it is their only Bible. What we call our New Testament was still floating around as separate writings, yet to be agreed upon as Scripture.
Apparently, somebody’s been teaching these Gentiles what’s in the Hebrew Scriptures. At least, Peter is assuming that’s happened, otherwise what he’s writing to them is going to be gibberish. If they’ve got at least some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, then what Peter is writing to them is a thing which should have caused them to marvel and to be astounded at this faith of theirs.
What Peter cites in these verses enable them to answer, this is who we now are in the sight of God. They would have been filled with a newborn passion for their purpose, their calling, in this place and in this new era for them in the Roman Empire.
“Spirituality” is a word very much in vogue now. Our spirituality…our sense of God and what that means for us…again, is what Peter calls our first taste of “the kindness of the Lord”. That spiritual experience has got to find focus and content; we got to have some substance of understanding. If we aren’t focused in our faith, if it has no real definition or substance, well, we’re like those folks we too easily deride, who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
You remember that old, standard definition of poetry that we learned in junior high school? The 18th-century English poet, William Wordsworth: “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility”….the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.
Spirituality is this spontaneous and often overflowing powerful feelings of the Divine mediated to us in our souls. But, it becomes poetry, and prose, with reflection and focus and articulation. Scripture for us…the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures…these are our definitive, authoritative, and inspired recollections in poetry and prose. Our Scripture enables us to give rational meaning to our faith experience. We human beings have got to have that kind of spiritual focus if we are to have religious meaning operating in our lives.
I was reminded of this truth while listening recently to an interview on the radio about feats of human endurance. In February, 2014, Ben Saunders and his partner, Tarka L’Herpiniere, achieved what Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott failed to do: they became the first persons to successfully travel by foot from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. The pair did it on skis, each one of them pulling loaded sleds that weighed 440 pounds.
These two men skied 1,800 miles in the most hostile conditions imagineable. They were outdoors for nearly four months. They lived that way in 24-hour sunlight, covering ½ a mile per hour pulling those sleds behind them. Ben Saunders said it was like living inside a ping-pong ball. Everything was a blinding white: they couldn’t see the horizon; they couldn’t see the ground; it was all one, big, brilliant white blaze.
They skied in single-file, and every 1-1/2 hours, they would trade position, each man taking his turn leading. Saunders said it was such an incredible relief to be in the second position following his partner. For this reason: he finally had something to focus on.
He could focus on his partner’s blue jacket. He could focus on the sled’s red cover. The sleds themselves were yellow. Saunders told interviewer, how hard it was to explain to anyone the sense of relief they found in being able simply to focus on something that wasn’t all white.3
Peter wrote to give these early Christians something truly remarkable to focus upon…their identity in Christ; their mission, as he writes in verse 9, “to declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.”
But, how do we do that? How do we declare the wonderful deeds of God if we ourselves don’t know what those deeds were and what those deeds continue to be about?
Spiritual nourishment cannot be force fed. We’ve got to long for spiritual nourishment and find it, and we’ve got to find it in Jesus and in his Gospel. These early believers, by and large, did that, and that’s why we’re here some two thousand years later talking about them. They found their focus. They found their identity refreshed and restored.
Know Jesus; know his Gospel; let this be who you are as a congregation going forward; find the best ways to do that not for what went before which is now gone. Find the best ways to live this kindness of Jesus for what era now lies before you yet to be. Let that be your focus, nurtured in Christ, continuing to grow in salvation.
1 Among the many scholarly treatments of consequences of civic suspicion of Christians and the public rituals of Emperor worship are: Leonhard Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times, tr. Robert A. Guelich, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970) pp. 108-117; Leander Keck, The New Testament Experience of Faith (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1976) pp. 125-127, 150-151; James Blevins includes descriptions throughout his more popular work, Revelation As Drama (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1984) e.g., pp. 86, 89.
3 Interview by Guy Raz of Ben Saunders, “What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?”, The TED Radio Hour, NPR NOW, Feb. 11, 2016.