The next few Sundays we are looking at an area of interpretation that has been pretty hotly contested for the existence of the church. There is a lot of history connected with it and folks from all sides of the debate have done amazing things and have on occasion seriously dropped the ball. There are people in this church who are at various positions on how to interpret the biblical call to both not be of this world and yet honor the various human institutions of rule. I hope that we as a church can keep the lines of dialogue open so we can learn from each other. I think that, as in many of the discussions people have that can become polarized; there are elements of truth to be gained from listening to each other with a spirit of humility. Peter was speaking into a situation in the church that needs to be mentioned to help us understand why he felt the need to address things as he begins to in today’s text. The church had not yet experienced persecution from the Romans, and in fact had turned to the Romans for protection from some Jewish elements that didn’t approve of this “upstart Galilean cult.” Peter most likely wrote this epistle from Rome itself, so there are considerations for him about what he was writing, but he was very careful to not let his concern for upholding the truth of the Gospel be eroded by the culture he found himself in. In some ways this next section feels a bit schizophrenic to us since everything Peter just said goes completely against the value system of the Roman culture he is addressing and living in. My personal opinion is that in the section we are going to be covering the next few Sundays, Peter is showing how living in the way of Jesus effectively undermines the power and effectiveness of evil in the world. Peter begins by reminding all Christians of a foundational truth:
10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received it. 11Beloved, remember you don’t belong in this world. You are resident aliens living in exile, so resist those desires of the flesh that battle against the soul. 12Live honorably among the outsiders so that, even when some may be inclined to call you criminals, when they see your good works, they might give glory to God when He returns in judgment. 1 Peter 2:10-12
We have been called out of the places and cultures we are in and have received the mercy of God. We, who once participated in the systems of bondage and death that are destroying the world and staining the image of God every human being is imprinted with, now operate under forgiveness. God has poured out his mercy into each person’s life here, and it is a gift that sets us apart. We live in a world that doesn’t really have a lot of mercy in it, so to have received mercy from anybody makes us different. To receive mercy from a God who is popularly portrayed as capricious and vindictive is an audacious claim. Then we actually share the mercy we have received with others! “You mean that you see my soul as more important than your rights? What kind of self-denying craziness is that?” Being called by God to receive his mercy and share it binds us as Christians together in ways the systems of this world aren’t able to cope with. We actually love and care for people that are “worthless” to others, for people that don’t have the same skin color as us, people who don’t speak the same language, and that don’t believe the same things we do. This church supports the loving efforts of the Nieferts in Ireland and Dawn Elizabeth Todd in Palestine, and by supporting their work we are loving people we might never meet this side of heaven. How weird is that?
By mercy we no longer fit in to the comfortable routines of our nation. We end up as flies in the ointment or sand in the gears since we tend to ask questions like: What about the lives of unborn children? What about giving pregnant moms some time off and not penalizing them for missing work? What about a criminal justice system that breeds more hardened criminals than reformed citizens? What about those without homes? Why do we shunt the developmentally disabled out of sight? How can we help? Questions like these threaten both the conservative and liberal systems of this world and the comfortable routines of the representative republic we live in. My conservative friends tend to think I am a raging liberal and my liberal friends tend to think I am some kind of crazy conservative, and as a Christian I think I might just be in the right place. We have been freed by Jesus from the categories of right, left and center into the new category of holiness. This alienates us from the political systems of this world, but also puts us in position to speak to them and encourage them to greater mercy and true justice. As resident aliens living in exile we have a responsibility to represent the best of our true home. God’s kingdom, His economy, His morality, and His ethics are what we need to use as our measuring sticks, and this is not a process we can do on our own. Like resident aliens do here in the US, we need to gather together so that we don’t lose sight of our calling and the values of God’s kingdom while we are in this strange land. This is one of the reasons why the leaders of this church are looking at a plan to form a network of Home Meetings in this church, so that we can all get the support we need to remember our true home, be discipled, and give others a place they can learn about and connect to the kingdom. With these reminders we will learn how better to listen for God’s input into our decisions and will be able to draw ourselves back from conforming to the patterns of the world. We will not only be protecting ourselves from the many marketed messages of greed and lust, but will also diving in to save those who are drowning.
Something else happens when you refuse to conform to the values of a society. Societies have mechanisms to enforce conformity and often the penalties are legal in nature. In the Roman Empire when you didn’t participate in the empire’s officially sanctioned religions you were considered untrustworthy and were labeled an atheist. Christians very quickly became persecuted when they lost their connection to Judaism, one of the few “ancient” religions that were given a pass on participating. Christians faced trials for their faithfulness all through history, and when the Friends came into existence, we got to spend a lot of time in jail because of our unwillingness to conform to the ways of the world. In the new world, the Friends were ridiculed as the only group to never violate a treaty with the Native Americans. Later, we became abolitionists and were imprisoned for loving people that didn’t look like us and helping them escape from slavery. More recently we walked with Dr. King and were imprisoned again, and even now when we refuse to conform to merciless values, we face ostracism and rejection by the society around us. It sounds hopeless in some ways, but we are not looking to our glory or profit, but the glory of God, his kingdom and his way of being and doing what is right.
We aren’t looking at what the benefit for us now is, because, to be frank, there often isn’t one. Obeying the direction towards mercy that the Holy Spirit gives us often leads to being misunderstood, mocked, or considered “weird.” Operating by God’s values will make us vulnerable to being taken advantage of, will make us appear foolish, will heal the brokenhearted, will open prison doors, will cure the sick, and will give others a sense of dignity. Those are things worth sacrifice. Those acts of God’s salvation are worth everything we have and are and hope to be. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing someone catch their first glimpse of God’s love for them, nothing more beautiful than witnessing the birth of someone’s soul. We get to participate as midwives at the birth of people’s souls. We aren’t giving birth, but we get to attend and hold people’s hands, bring comfort and the knowledge that the process, though hard ends in a new life coming into the world. When we had Amy, Mel and I came up with a birth plan of how we wanted things to happen and what interventions we were comfortable with. It was with some trepidation that we approached the event, and I remember one meeting with the midwives where we were given the advice: “Don’t be married to the plan. You are going to have to change it and reevaluate, so don’t get too detailed. Just give yourself some guidelines and let things happen as they happen.” We talk about a plan of salvation as though there is a one size fits all detailed plan, but because of how uniquely broken we have been we have some guidelines and sometimes step 1 happens after step 2 and we have to skip step 3 because it didn’t really apply. No, everyone has a very unique birth story of how God met them and gave them life through His Spirit. When we try to have everyone fit neatly into our categories and preconceived notions of how things should be we can actually interfere with the process rather than assist in it. Last Sunday we heard the testimony of how God brought Josiah into spiritual life, and it was not a neat process, not even happening in the usual order, but hearing the story and the way God brought Josiah’s restoration we can see the beauty of the result and give glory to the God who lovingly gives life.
A good midwife is attentive to the one giving birth, and we as spiritual midwives must be equally attentive to the Holy Spirit as we interact with those God has given us contact with. We must pray for God to open our eyes to the direction and readiness for birth and be ready to catch the infant with all the tears, joy, pain and radiance that comes with new life. We can make plans, but it is important to allow the plan to be altered, the structures to be altered, because our goal isn’t to make things easier for us, but to see God’s love give people new life through the birth of the Spirit. When Mel and I were leaving the hospital the midwife came in to ask us some questions, the last one being “Are you ready to bring her home?” and as we head into open worship I ask you the same question “Are you ready?”