05.14.2017 Preaching Text: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” (1Peter 2:9)
We have a problem. We human beings that is. The problem is that the truest thing in the world is not even in the world, exactly, though it was indeed created by this truest thing.
Which is to say that the truest thing, the most real thing, is God. And though God is evidenced in the world, God is not of the world. Worse still, God is all but invisible to the untutored human eye.
Thus what is seen by humans in everyday life can be a kind of puzzle or conundrum. What we “see,” in other words, often can be quite misleading.
Where did our world come from? What is its purpose? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with this life?
These matters of purpose or, as they say in theological circles (just to confuse everybody), teleology, run to the core of our existence. What, in specific terms, is the meaning of life?
The MA Conference has begun an initiative asking churches to answer these sorts of questions. What is the purpose of your church, they want to know.
The simple answer, of course, is that the church is here to worship and serve God. Everybody knows that. Then again, what does that really mean in specific terms?
If you look at our bulletin you will find our church’s “mission statement.” It’s been there for years. In fact, I remember when it was created back in October of 2001.
We held a retreat in the Parish House, on a Friday night and then again on Saturday morning. A hired consultant gave us some ideas as to how we should think about our mission. Then we separated into groups with instructions to list the things the church should be about.
Afterward we came back together in a plenary session, wrote down the contents of every group’s list, and combined them to form our mission statement. As such, it says absolutely everything and absolutely nothing at all. You’d never be able to recite it. No one could. It includes just about everything but (or maybe even) the kitchen sink.
But getting back to the meaning of life and the true purpose of the church, our most basic task is to first recognize the difference between God’s heavenly realm and the finite world God created, things related yet distinct.
This is precisely where we tend to stumble. As I’m always harping on about, we mainline Protestants, and perhaps especially we Congregationalists, have a very hard time distinguishing between what Augustine once called the City of Man and the City of God.
We’re used to blending the two together to the point where they’re one and the same. The ordinary and pedestrian becomes synonymous with God.
On the odd chance you haven’t noticed, this is the crux of my whole concept of ministry. It’s why I’m here. For I firmly believe that the biggest challenge we face as the church is our inability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the church from the world, spiritually speaking.
We tend to think American culture is synonymous with, if not actually superior to, the gospel’s truths. This may even cause us to go along with contemporary culture for fear of being perceived as somehow “fundamentalist.”
If we take a principled stand based on biblical understandings, we risk being accused, at best, of living in an intellectual ghetto, confined to a primitive, archaic past.
As I wrote in my May Beacon article, there’s also a general tendency in Western culture today against holding strong values or norms of any sort. The reason? Strong beliefs create division and conflict.
As the argument goes, “If there are no strong truths, nobody will judge others or limit their freedom. If nothing is worth fighting for, nobody will fight.”
To avoid this unwelcome effect, we must pursue “disenchantment,” or the deliberate weakening or watering down of specific beliefs and truths.
The fear is that if we hold to any strong, particular beliefs, such as those found in biblical faith, we’ll be led back to the barbarism of the first half of the 20th century, where extremist ideologies held deathly sway. To believe strongly in anything, then, will lead us back to Auschwitz.
Unfortunately, the church today is seen by many as a holdover from this failed past, a past the “enlightened” or the cognoscenti should properly move beyond. To stand for biblical truths, in other words, is, at best, to hamper societal progress, and with it, a better future.
Because we are far more captive to the surrounding culture than we’re likely to admit, we may find ourselves shamed into rejecting gospel truths in order to adapt to the non-prejudicial brave new world unfolding before us.
Of course, if you heard our scripture readings this morning, the very opposite idea is being advanced. There we are being urged to reject the world’s standards in order to pursue the life-giving generosities of God’s eternal truth.
1 Peter even goes so far as to refer to the church, itself informed by this godly truth, as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…”
And to what purpose? “That you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
In today’s readings the basic argument is that the world, the culture, and not the church, is the one out of sync with its Creator. For the world does not, indeed cannot, grasp the reality of this invisible God or, by extension, God’s purposes. The true meaning of life is thus all but hidden from a world that simultaneously beckons us to join it.
Having been called out from the world, and given the Spirit’s wisdom and insight, indeed God’s very light and truth, the church is henceforth tasked with sharing these divine insights with an increasingly godless world.
Not surprisingly, speaking God’s truth can cause us to be ostracized and rejected, even persecuted, as in the extreme case of Stephen. Nonetheless, in spite of this, we are charged with sharing with the world the love of Christ so that it too might know what we, the church, have been privileged to discover.
The problem is that we often demur in seeing ourselves as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, or as God’s own people. If anything, we are prone to think the opposite – that we’re behind the times and need to catch up, that we need to shed our old beliefs in order to adapt to the forward thinking of the world around us.
The opposite, of course, is true. The key to benefitting our world, paradoxically, is not to become more accommodationist, but to resist the impulse to dismiss the church and its timeless mission.
Thus we need to embrace, not reject, our calling as a royal priesthood, not as a way of ignoring the problems of our world, but in order to serve as effective agents in its altogether necessary spiritual transformation. Amen.