Last week we wrapped up our series on the gospel of Matthew. If you recall, we approached Matthew through the lens of several themes and motifs. One of the key themes was framed in the form of the question, “of which kingdom do we want to be a part?” That is, we are called to be a part of the kingdom of God. But to do so means that we leave behind the kingdoms of the world.
So before we begin our next series, I want to think about some considerations that arise out of the theme of kingdom.
Firstly, as we said, we just completed a study of the gospel of Matthew, and from that study, several themes and motifs have arisen. And again, one of those main themes is the kingdom of God. Specifically, what does it mean to be a kingdom people? And further what does it mean to be a kingdom people in our current context.
As we’ve said many times before, we live in the in-between time. Between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the final consummation (Jesus’ return to fully restore all things).
Another consideration that informs my thoughts today is the notion that Canada, for example, is (by some accounts) moving towards or into a post-Christian paradigm. Whereas in previous generations, it could more or less be assumed (again, by some but not all accounts) that Canada was a “Christian nation,” this seems to be less and less true.
There may be various reasons for this (again, if it was ever really true in the first place), but we’re not going to consider this today. But as you know, considerations of and around this are something I think about a lot and form the basis of my on-going studies.
Related to this, there are several questions, issues, or challenges that arise out of our current post-Christian situation. While not being comprehensive, some of the ones that are particularly interesting or concerning to me include:
- Polarization and Tribalism
- Our shifting relationship with Truth
- The supremacy of the individual
- Subversive Imperialism
Now I’m not going to suggest that we’re going to tackle all of this today. I simply mean to say that we, as the people of God, should try to be aware of some of the challenges we are faced with in trying to be faithful in the in-between time.
The particular texts that we’re going to use to anchor our consideration today are from 1 Peter. 1 Peter is written to a people who are scattered throughout the region and are struggling with the challenges of being faithful to the gospel message, being faithful to Jesus Christ, in a decidedly hostile environment. So, reading from 1 Peter chapter 2, we read:
2:4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.1 Peter 2:4-12
Now we’re not doing a detailed study of 1 Peter, nor even of these verses, really. What I want to do is to pick up a few themes. 1 Peter was written, not to a particular congregation (like many of Paul’s letters) but was written to believers scattered throughout the region. In the opening to Peter, we read:
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.1 Peter 1:1-2
These believers, as we read, are “scattered” throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. And as we read through the letter, we understand that Peter is writing to encourage them to be faithful because they are suffering, being persecuted for their belief in and allegiance to Jesus. And in the passage that we’re reading today, we see (I think) what is the crux of Peter’s argument (or encouragement). That though the people are scattered, though they find themselves exiles – people without a home, people without an identity – they can find their true home, their true identity as people of God.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.1 Peter 2:9-10
Now this theme of being exiles is repeated throughout scripture – that is, it’s a theme that is persistent throughout the story of Israel. If we recall, God’s call to Abraham includes the promise (and is predicated on the purpose) that God will create through Abraham a people – a people who will be blessed to be a blessing, a people who will be God’s. And God’s first command to Abraham is to go. Year’s later, Abraham’s descendants, the children of Jacob, find themselves fleeing a famine (by God’s providence), escaping to Egypt. That rescue, however, turns into oppression as the Israelites in Egypt are soon enslaved by their hosts. And so, again, by God’s mercy and power, the Israelites escape Egypt and taken into the wilderness, and then into Canaan. Once again strangers in strange land, Israel conquers and settles in Canaan and seek to make for themselves a home. But after a few years of relative peace and prosperity (under king David), they find that their rebellion against God leads to their being conquered and captured by invaders. These invaders take the Israelites away from their homes, making them exiles in Babylon, or scattering them throughout the region.
Though this telling is obviously very brief, passing over a lot of important details. But this is very much the situation at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. The people of Israel are still longing for the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. They are waiting for a messiah who will restore to them their sense of place and their sense of identity.
And when Jesus arrives, that hope is kindled again in many. But as we saw through the gospel of Matthew, what Jesus was doing was not what many (or most) expected. Nevertheless, for those who believed, for those who understood that Jesus was doing something different, the question must have persisted. “Where is our land? Where is our Kingdom? Where is the victory we have long waited for?” Why do we still find ourselves strangers in a strange land?
Now the question of “why are we still waiting?” is one that 1) we don’t have time to discuss here today, and 2) we don’t actually have an answer for (in part, we can look to the closing verses of Matthew that we looked at last week – about making disciples). There’s also the further question of, in some instances, why were the people suffering exile to begin with. But my point is that the call to be God’s people is somehow to be faithful wherever we find ourselves. This is the particular encouragement of Peter to the audience for his letter. Particularly in 2:11 & 12, we read:
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.1 Peter 2:11-12
Now it’s worth noting that Peter’s words here are reminiscent of the prophet Jeremiah when he’s speaking to the Israelites in exile (especially verse 7):
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”Jeremiah 29:4-7
If we consider this passage in Jeremiah, it’s interesting to note verse 7 which says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I [God] have carried you into exile.” And at the risk of being too heavy handed, what I want to suggest is that there’s something about our identity as the people of God that is actually found in this condition of exile. Specifically, inasmuch as we are Kingdom of God people, and not kingdoms of the world people, we will find that we are always in a condition of exile – this world is not our (ultimate) home. Or, to put it another way, there is no earthly kingdom that is equivalent to (or even approximates) the Kingdom of God.
And part of the reason this is important to understand is that the history of western Christianity is defined so much by imperialism. Though I do not want to discount the genuine Godly desire for missions and evangelism, the movement of Christianity by the West, throughout parts of the world, at times bears a closer resemblance to a conquering army than a crucified Messiah.
When we remember the gospel of Matthew and the situation at the time of Jesus, we know that the religious leaders (and most of Israel) expected a Messiah who would rally the people, rise up and defeat their enemies, and establish a nation for themselves. What they got instead was a Messiah who went to the cross.
As we find ourselves in a “post-Christian” Canada. What is it that we long for? Are we trying to be like Jesus (who was the ultimate exile)? To walk and live like Jesus? Or are we more concerned with building (or “recovering”) a nation? Because the Kingdom of God is precisely something that only God can build – it is not built by human hands. And inasmuch as we try to build it by human hands, we will find ourselves citizens of Babel instead of citizens of Zion.
Are we imperialists? Or are we exiles?
Now there are several principles in 1 Peter that, as people in exile, we want to pay attention to:
Firstly, that the identity of the people is to be found in God – or in being God’s. “9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” This aligns with what we know about God’s purposes for Israel – about His creating a people for Himself. Now the notion of identity is a complicated one. But in short, our identity is to be found in being those chosen and redeemed by God – and not something else.
Now this is particularly relevant (in my mind) when considering the so-called “post-Christendom” problem – that is, for those who might lament the loss of a “Christian Canada.” In short, there is no earthly kingdom in which we can find our identity or our sense of place (no matter how we might try). Our citizenship is in Christ wholly and alone.
Secondly, related to the first, is that this people are called to be holy. This people is called to be set apart (that is, from the world). We are a people who are “called out of darkness into His wonderful light.” And we are to “live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse [us] of doing wrong, they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God…” And if we have been paying attention to Matthew’s gospel – that is, Jesus’ teachings according to Matthew’s account – we should have some idea of what that righteousness looks like. And how Jesus’ idea of righteousness compares and contrasts with what the religious leaders thought righteousness was supposed to look like. And somehow, our living as ones set apart should point people to God.
Now this doesn’t mean that we seek to escape or ignore our current context. As we see in both 1 Peter and in Jeremiah, God’s people are called to be holy but present. It is in this context – this place and this time – that we are called to be holy.
Which brings us to our third point. That is, though as exiles our citizenship is in no earthly kingdom, though we are called to be different (inasmuch as God’s kingdom is not found in any earthly kingdom), we are nevertheless called to be a blessing.
We are called to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to bear witness to the kingdom of God, a kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first; a kingdom where the meek, the mourning, the hungry, the poor, and the weary are blessed, not the rich, the powerful, or the famous; a kingdom where the lame walk, the blind see, and the wretched and the refused are not only accepted but loved. We are called to live out this kingdom now, even in the in-between. And thereby, we point people to God.
When we watch or read the news these days (and this is nothing new), it’s hard to escape all of the problems facing our world. And we hear about various proposed solutions; we hear about who’s at fault, what one person has done wrong, what another person should have done. We hear about what needs to be done to restore what was lost, rarely wondering if what was “lost” was so great in the first place. And we wonder what we have to do to find our place, to achieve our position, to acquire power – all in the hopes that it will make our lives better.
And I’m not suggesting that there aren’t fights worth fighting. Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t injustices worth protesting or principles worth defending. What I’m saying is that inasmuch as we fight with the tools of the world, we are fighting a worldly fight.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.1 Peter 2:8-10
So, in closing, I invite us all to reflect once again upon the message of Jesus, told to us in the gospel of Matthew (not, of course, neglecting the other parts of scripture). What was the kingdom that Jesus was talking about? How did His death and resurrection free us from sin and death, free us from the ways and means of the world, and open the door to a new life, a true life? Of what kingdom do we want to be a part?