Good morning holy, healthy, and happy people of God! If you are visiting today, I welcome you and apologize at the same time. Please do not judge McKendree by today’s sermon. I am but the humble seminary student here. Pastor Stephen will be back preaching as normal next week and I strongly encourage you to come back then.
Today marks the third time I’ve preached from this pulpit. People told me this would get easier over time, and I must say the writing part does get easier with each attempt. Surprisingly once one learns to let go of one’s high thoughts about one’s intellect and humbly falls before God praying only that his thought be expressed, the writing goes much easier. Hmmm, humbleness before the Lord bringing great joy, I seem to remember a book being written about that… Yes, some of us are slow learners. Those of us called to ministry, I’ve found, are often times the slowest of all.
Let us pray…
The apostle Peter is the very rock of the church against whom even “gates of hell shall not prevail.” It is no surprise then, that his first epistle is a summary of the faith he has been given to transmit to the holy church he has been called to organize. In 1 Peter we find the foundations of the apostolic faith we reaffirm each Sunday as we together recite the creeds. In this epistle, Peter, more or less succinctly, summarizes the gospel gift Jesus gives his holy church. It is no surprise then that in the weeks after we proclaim “Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” that the lectionary would spend seven weeks making its way through this letter. The church is very much our response to the Lord’s once offered sacrifice and resurrection and, therefore, it makes sense that we would want to refresh our minds as to what it was exactly that Jesus came to bring us.
Within Wesleyan circles 1 Peter is also an excellent source for understanding God’s call to holiness for both his church and our individual lives. And, as we all know, if left to my own devices that’s exactly what I’d be preaching today. Everybody knows I love some old school, Methodist, scriptural holiness and would like nothing more than to tell you what John Wesley thought all about it. But, such is the discipline of the lectionary. It forces us to take in the entire revelation of God through his Holy Word, moving us away from pet theologies and favorite passages, and requiring us to lean on the Holy Spirit for guidance and learning.
If one hangs around Christians of the Methodist persuasion long enough, one will hear the analogy of the house as it relates to the stages of our relationship with God. I’m not one for using tired clichés so I will not describe the analogy in detail, but I do think it is a good starting point for discussing today’s portion of Peter’s letter to the church. In its various iterations the house will have either a front yard or a porch where everyone is kind of hanging out looking around; this is representative of humankind in our natural fallen state. Next the house will have a door where God stands calling those in the yard or porch to come closer; this is God’s grace going out into the world calling all to faith in Jesus Christ. As people answer God’s call they one-by-one pass through the door and enter the house. Now this, obviously, represents justification through faith in Jesus Christ, i.e. “getting saved”.
It is at the door, or more specifically the decision to pass through the door into the house, that many pastors and evangelist will dwell. There is good reason for this. As I will touch on later, it is our great joy as Christians to share God’s love, grace, and mercy to the world and watch as our fellow creatures pass into his love and are transformed into brothers and sisters in Christ. However, to focus only on the birth of a Christian is to ignore the beautiful — and often messy — life of a Christian. One cannot watch the birth of a new baby and then go to the nursery and recount the story of her birth to the nurse and say, “This is Molly.” No, Molly is just beginning! Her story is just starting! Molly will have trials and troubles, she will love, she will lose, she will rejoice, and she will cry. Though her birth is important, interesting, and strongly impacts her trajectory through life, it does not completely define who she will become.
Sanctification is a fancy word those of the church use to label the process by which the Holy Spirit writes the story of our lives after we have been “born again” through our faith in Jesus Christ. In the worn analogy of the house, sanctification is what happens in the hallways and various rooms; it is where we live and grow together with those living inside the house. It is, essentially, God’s version of MTV’s The Real World. A bunch of people who otherwise would have no relation with each other are stuck together in God’s house learning how to live and grow with one another. There are fights, there are parties, and — in the end — everyone is changed and brought closer to the ideals of the writers. (Y’all didn’t think “reality” TV was actually unscripted did you?) Sanctification, the full meaning of salvation, is what Peter points to as the “outcome of [our] faith”. Peter starts his epistle not on the front porch or at the door, but in the front foyer looking around at what all the house has to offer.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” After greeting the church scattered throughout the world this is how the apostle Peter begins the main body of his letter. What a start it is! Though the church is scattered in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and all over the known world of Peter, God is to be blessed and praised. Why? In his great foreknowledge God has called to his people and offered them free grace through Jesus Christ. In obedience to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s church has been “[sprinkled] with his blood” — baptized — and is now receiving the gift of sanctification brought about by the Holy Spirit. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at work in the church and the church is “all in” to God’s salvation plan. The people of God are ready and listening for instructions from their Lord and are ready to obey his call to holiness in their lives. For this God is most definitely to be praised!
Now, this “living hope” we have been “born again” into “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” is not something we experience once and then forget. God’s free gift of grace offered to all the world is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” This is why we of the church must decide if we are “all in” to God’s plan or not. God doesn’t pull us out of the pit of death and despair simply to then sit us aside — as those who only preach justification might have you believe. But rather, God pulls us from the pit and brings us into his eternal triune relationship of love; our “living hope” “kept in heaven for [us].” He doesn’t want our heart for a one time decision; he wants our mind, body, heart, and soul — all of it. He desires us to be “all in” to what he is doing in the world, the church, our community, our families, and our lives.
Looking around at our world, much less the world of Peter, gives us pause at all this talk of “living hope” and grace and love. If the church of Peter’s day was scattered, in our day it has been ground to a fine powder and thrown to the four winds. The modern church can’t seem to agree on anything. Just try and plan a joint baptism service with all the churches in Nashville; only a miracle from God could make it happen. Even within our own United Methodist Church there are great divisions. Outside of the drama of the church, in Syria and Egypt, brothers and sisters in Christ are martyred and persecuted because of their steadfast faith in our common Lord. In the Ukraine servants of Christ’s Holy Church stand in the midst of conflict trying to remind their parishioners of the unity they once experienced at the Lord’s table even as rocks and bottles are thrown their way.
In our personal lives we are constantly bombarded with opportunities to deny our faith. That moment at work when you could have proclaimed Christ, but were too afraid. That moment when anger got the best of you and your tongue was used to say unholy things. We go to church, we give our gifts to the service of God’s kingdom on earth, we pray, we share God’s love with those around us, and yet who among us has not had setbacks. We lose jobs, loved ones suddenly die from disease, we are mocked because of our “superstitious piety”. In Peter’s words we are “grieved [or distressed] by various trials.”
To the outside world our shortcomings and setbacks are proof of the folly of that which we believe. However, Peter reminds us that our “various trails” are to be expected. We live in a fallen world; a world of sin and the death which it brings. Though Jesus presently reigns in glory as king, it is not yet time for his judgement and arrival in his fullest glory, when “every knee shall bow and tongue confess” that he is Lord. The world daily tests the “genuineness of [our] faith.” However, in an amazing act of complete reversal God uses the fallen filthiness of our world as a catalyst for his plan of complete reconciliation and salvation to all humankind. In our trails he, by his mighty power, guards our faith; he refines us — sanctifies us — through our trails by the inner working of the Holy Spirit to be more precious than the finest gold. Peter reminds us that even the finest gold can be destroyed by fire, but “praise and honor and glory” are due our God because he sees us through the fires to the other side; in his care even life’s toughest trails cannot destroy us.
How short we have sold that which Christ died for! Do we rejoice on Easter only because we have been saved from our justly deserved death? No! Christ died not just to free us from death, but to also free us from the bonds of sin; he wishes to refine us to his image. He is not Zoro who swoops in, breaks us free from prison, saves us from the hangman’s noose, and then rides off into the sunset. No! He frees us from prison and death for sure, but then invites us to live with him. He gives us new clothes of righteousness, he refines our prison language by feeding us his words, he teaches us continually. When others leave or abandon us he is by our side. When we, as gold, stand in the middle of the fire of life’s “various trials” he ensures we are guarded from the flame’s destruction; that the flame refines rather than destroys.
“Though [we] have not seen him, [we] love him. Though [we] do not now see him, [we] believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” Those of us here in this sanctuary now, know this love and inexpressible joy. We are experiencing the “outcome of [our] faith” daily. What is our response? The fourfold focus of McKendree is to connect, receive, equip, and send. This is how McKendree responds to God’s love. The first focus specifically, connect, fits well with today’s lectionary reading. If the church is God’s The Real World we, like the casts of that show, should not be afraid to live openly. Rather than hiding from the world while we are facing trails, in fear that they will judge our faith, we should display our rejoicing as our God suffers along side us. Where we see others suffering “various trials” we should rather than standing back, enter the fire with God’s love and grace.
To be “all in” as a disciple of Jesus is to surrender our lives to be transformed. To accept Jesus as the Christ, as Messiah, as Savior requires a response on our part. One does not have a personal relationship with God if the actions of love flow only one way. To be “all in” is to be open to change and open to action. To be “all in” means we are open to share our sufferings, to be vulnerable. To be “all in” means we stand ready with open arms calling the tired and troubled into the all refining, freely offered grace of Jesus Christ. “All in” means “I believe therefore, I’ll do.”
Let us pray…
Almighty Father, we truly bless your name. You are our living hope. We praise you for the inheritance you have stored in heaven for us that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Merciful Lord, continue to guard our faith in you against those who would lead us to curse your name. We know, Father, that our disobedience to your perfect will has brought death, suffering, and pain to the world. We thank you, and magnify you because you have freed us through Christ from the chains we have made for ourselves.
Lord, where there are parts of our lives that are not “all in”, make them so. Father, where our faith struggles during our trails, give us strength and stay by our side. God, where we do not see your power to refine at work, cure our blindness. Lord, if there are those here today who do not yet know the grace you freely offer through Jesus Christ, let their hearts be opened. Let them know that nothing, no past sin, no current struggle, can separate them from your love; pour your grace into them even now and let them be filled with your inexpressible joy.
God, we open our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to your divine will. We are “all in”. Take us, Lord, mold us, refine us, and save us. It’s in the mighty name of Jesus Christ, whose name we profess to all the world, we pray. He, with you in the unity of the Holy Sprit reign as one God now and forever, world without end. Amen.