Monday, May 26, 2008

“God’s Own People”

1 Peter 2:2-10[1]

How do you know who you are? How do you really know who you are? In one sense, our identity is wrapped up in a web of relationships with family and friends, vocation and faith. Part of why I know who I am is because my family told me—meaning they told me the story of our family. I have the privilege of having the Brehm family Bible that belonged to my Great-Great Grandparents Wilhelm and Elisabetha Brehm! That Bible tells me a lot about who I am. It tells me, for example, that my family was fairly devout, because it is inscribed with John 14:25: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” I guess it should come as no surprise that here I am 150 years later standing in front of you holding a Bible and preaching!

A couple of years ago I made an accidental discovery on the internet. I did a search for William and Elizabeth Brehm and I found out that I have a distant “cousin” who maintains a genealogy site for, among others, the Brehm family. What’s more, when I clicked on the link to their name, I found their picture. There they were, William and Elizabeth, staring at me from a black and white photo that must have been taken at least 100 years ago! The first thing I noticed right off was Elizabeth’s face—it was a face I had known and loved much of my life. It was my Grandfather’s face! After a while I also recognized my son in William’s eyes. And then I recognized myself! What an incredibly profound experience it is to reconnect with ancestors you’ve never met, but whom you’ve known all your life!

The question of identity was one that Peter thought to be very important to the Gentile Christians he was addressing. He goes to some effort to help them understand who they were and how to live their lives based on that understanding. We have to remember that Peter’s audience was one that must have felt like they had lost their identity. In leaving behind the way of life they had inherited from their ancestors, they had in effect left themselves without a sense of who they were. What’s more, instead of benefiting from their decision to embrace Christian faith, they were actually suffering because of it. I think Peter wisely knew that they needed to know who they were in order to make sense out of the sufferings they were enduring.[2]

What he does, however, should surprise us. Peter essentially tells these Gentile Christians that they were now a part of God’s chosen people. He uses a fairly elaborate metaphor of a “cornerstone” to say that they who were strangers and aliens in their own land were now a part of God’s “house.” In fact, he almost completely lifts the very words that God used in choosing Israel to establish them as his special people—and then applies them to Gentile Christians (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Exodus 19:6)! Peter above all wants his audience to grasp that they were God’s people. No matter what else happened to them, their identity was secured by God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:10). And they were now heirs of the rich story of God’s redemptive work beginning with Abraham. That not only gave their suffering meaning, it also gave meaning and direction to all of their lives.

I think this is still important today. As Christians, we need to understand who we are, and what that means for how we live our lives. We, too, are the “people of God,” What makes us the “people of God” is not anything unique or special within us, but simply and entirely our relationship with God through Jesus Christ![3] Now, I realize that this is something incredibly mysterious; yet at the same time it is vital to the Christian life. In fact, without it there is no Christian life.

In our confirmation class, we are studying a confession called “Belonging to God” that emphasizes this special relationship that with God. The very first questions ask, “Who are you?” to which the response is “I am a child of God”; and “What does it mean to be a child of God?” to which the answer is “That I belong to God, who loves me.”[4] The central requirement for being part of the “people of God” is to have this kind of relationship with God, to know ourselves to be precious children who belong to the God who loves us.

That can be a challenge for those of us in the post-modern world. It is not something that can be programmed or measured; you cannot draw a schematic diagram of it, nor can you write a software program for it. It is entirely mysterious. Somehow we have to find a way to trust that “the heart of life is good,” that there is someone out there who cares for us, that our lives are heading in the right direction.[5] That’s the hard part!

The easy part having a relationship with God is by practicing the faith together—coming to worship and singing the hymns and praying the prayers and hearing the Scriptures read and preached. And we practice the faith on our own as well. We read the sacred Scriptures for ourselves. We pray the prayers at home, at work, and at school. This is the easy part because as we practice these “sacraments” we experience God’s presence in our lives.[6] Not tangibly, not every time we pray or study, and then often only in a fleeting moment, but we nevertheless do experience God’s presence![7]

That relationship with God, so mysterious yet so profound, makes a difference in the way we live. We can no longer live solely for our own benefit. Those of us who have encountered God in Jesus Christ and have experienced new life through that encounter will from that time onward live in the service of God’s kingdom and God’s justice. That’s what it means to be “God’s own people.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/20/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, 94-95; cf. also B. Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 2, 100, though he argues that the audience need not have been Gentile.

[3] Donald K. McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith, 118-122, 124-25; cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2.340; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 5, where he defines this in terms of the assurance that “God is for me; I am his child. Christ is beside me; I am his brother.”

[4] Belonging to God: A First Catechism, questions 1-2; cf. also questions 33-38.

[5] See again Moltmann, Experiences of God, 5: “there is someone waiting for me, who will not give me up, who goes ahead of me, who lifts me up, someone to whom I am important.”

[6] H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 349-52, enumerates 9 “sacraments” that have the effect of bringing individuals into a relationship with God: instruction, baptism, worship, religious discussion, Lord’s Supper, diaconal ministry, church officers, and church order. While he considers these to have a “more constant and institutional character,” he also recognizes that “new instruments regularly emerge.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 52, reminds us that this encounter takes place “in the Holy Spirit.” See further ibid., 191, 198, 294-95

[7] Berkhof, Christian Faith, 395, speaks of the “elements of surprise and unpredictability” in the encounter with God through various “sacraments.”

[8] See Book of Confessions 10.3-r; Book of Order, G-3.0101-G-3.0103; G-3.0200; G-3.0300; W-7.6000; cf. also W-7.2000-W-7.5000; see especially W-7.1001. Cf. Belonging to God, questions 16, 23. See further, Moltmann, Church in the Power, 10: “Mission comprehends the whole of the church.” See further ibid., 64-65, 84, 316; and especially 301-302, where he depicts the church’s mission in terms of Christ’s: prophetic, priestly, royal, and messianic.

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