THE PECULIAR COMMUNITY
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How you view the word “peculiar” might very much depend on your personality. For those who are familiar with the King James Bible, you may remember 1 Peter 2:9 like this – “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people…” So get out there and be peculiar!
What does this mean exactly? What is the church called to be exactly? This is what we’ll be looking at over the next 6 weeks. What does it mean to be a hopeful community, a serving community, a reconciling community, a generous community? What does it mean to be peculiar? As I ask that question you may be saying “Speak for yourself, buddy!”
At the heart of the question, today is the question “What makes us different as followers of Christ?” It might be most helpful to talk about what doesn’t make us different. What we are not. We’re not here on an ethical foundation. Of course, there is an ethical component to our following Christ but it is not our foundation. Many studies show that when compared to the population at large - things like divorce rates, addiction rates - Christians are comparable to the population at large. Our foundation is not altruism. While we are called to acts of altruism, it is not the thing that makes us distinctive.
We need to be getting this right. We need to be sure to have a robust understanding of the church’s foundation. Anything less than this can lead to results like this. I remember talking to a young American friend last year. He was talking about how many young people he knew grew up in church and had little to do with church once they graduated from high school. I asked him why this was. He told me many see the church as a place in which/from which to do good deeds, and there are lots of places in our world in which one can do good deeds. While we are called to good deeds, of course, our foundation is not good deeds.
Nor are we tied together by common interests, a common background, a common ethnicity. The church is not such a club.
So what is it? What is this peculiarity?
Peter starts where we must always start. With Christ in 1 Peter 1:3. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy, he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” He writes of our past, present, and future in Christ – “and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” He writes of setting all our hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he is revealed, on loving one another deeply from the heart, on being born anew.
This is how our second chapter begins – “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” There is an ethical component to this Christ following life. It involves taking off – it’s the same word that’s used for removing clothing – the things that keep us from living in the harmonious community. Self-serving, self-seeking. Envy. We are called to something else. We are called to something better.
We are called to transformation. This is key, I think, when we think of peculiarity. When we think of how we are called to be different. Be made new. Like a newborn. “You must be born from above.” This is not simply a one-time thing, any more than baptism is a one-time event. It’s a one-time event in time, sure, but its effects are meant to be lasting. This is the image that is operative here. Take off your old clothing. In early Christianity, new followers of Christ were baptized without clothes. They took their old clothes off and entered the baptistery. Upon exiting they were given new clothes. Like newborn babies. New clothes. We are called to a life that is in the process of being transformed by the Holy Spirit of God.
This is key I think. What’s the mark of a good church? Why would we want people to come to our church? To hear the great organist? To admire the architecture? To hear challenging, thought-provoking, well-crafted sermons? For the community? These are all good things to have of course. I think the key thing though when looking at our church or any church is this question – “Is transformation happening here?”
Is God changing us? This is one of the things that make us peculiar. Is God changing us? Being baptized is a type of being re-born. This is what I’m saying when I’m saying that baptism is not really a one-time event. Its effects are meant to last. Dying to self as we go under the water and being brought to life with Christ, in Christ. Being made new. This is what we mean when we talk about being born again. And again. And again. The Christ following life is one of transformation.
Longing for pure, spiritual milk, just like a baby longs for milk. We need to be reminded of this (unlike a baby). The word for long here is the same word used in Psalm 42 – “As the deer longs for pure, flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Ask God to create in us this longing. If indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good, the letter continues. Again a Psalm – 34:8 – O taste and see that the Lord is good. If you’ve tasted it, do you not want more of it? Do you not want to tell people about it? To invite them to taste it too? To be made into someone new? We all have that idea, don’t we? That we’re in need of transformation. Something is wrong. Something is wrong with the world. Something is wrong in us. It’s not unfamiliar. I often think that’s why we see so much about transforming ourselves as we go about our day to day. Long for pure spiritual milk – the milk that is the word of God. The milk that is the Living Word of God. Note that the letter writer doesn’t counter the vice list with a virtue list. The way to counter the vice list is not simply to try really hard to do something else. To do better. The way to counter the vice list is to long for the Word.
How to do this? In his book The Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryan Smith suggests taking two hours each week to spend time with God alone – whether it’s two one hour blocks, 4 half-hour blocks, eight 15 minute blocks. To find a quiet place. To pray – it could be the Lord’s Prayer or the Doxology. To praise. To tell God for what we are thankful. To spend time in God’s word. To stop. To ponder. To ask God what God would have to tell us and to take time to listen for the still small voice.
We need to look after our souls. Soul care. Opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit working in and through us. Caring for our souls as one would care for any living thing. Like living stones.
This is the next image that Peter uses. What makes us peculiar? That we come to God like living stones. “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Living stones. Images of the church in the Bible are often of living things – a family, a body, a bride. Living stones. The body of Christ. Even here the work of building the church is God’s. Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house. A spiritual house doesn’t mean that our activity is all otherworldly and ethereal and up here. It means that we’re indwelt and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. A peculiar people! A place where the Holy Spirit lives and calls us to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light!
We do this together. The image here is of a bunch of stones being built into a structure. We are called to enable God to build us together. We’re all stones in the wall. Bricks in the wall if you like. A brick on its own isn’t good for much except maybe to weigh things down or prop a door open. God builds us up together. The importance of the local church, wherever it meets – a group of followers of Christ near us who get together regularly. Missing out on this means we’re missing something fundamental to our identity. One writer notes that some people “do not consider identification (or participation) with a particular church community central to their identity even though they describe themselves as practicing Christians when asked. God may be at work in building up the church in some global sense, but they feel that local churches are human institutions.”
This is an erroneous view. We need to have a robust view of the church’s foundation and purpose. This is why these images are so important. Images like this one inform how we view the church. We’re not simply a club. We’re not simply a group of people with shared interests or a shared interest. We are a group of living stones that rest on our cornerstone Christ, that is being built up by the Spirit of God in order that we may be instruments through which God makes his saving purposes known and that we may offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable and pleasing to God for this is our spiritual worship.
This is who we are friends.
Chosen. Because both God and we have a role to play in the mystery of faith. A royal priesthood. A holy nation. Different. Set apart. God’s own people. Belonging to God.
This is who we are friends.
So that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. In praise. In what we do and say when we go from here. In listening to God’s word. In gathering around the Lord’s Table.
Where we thank God for mercy.
Because once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people.
Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.
The prophet Hosea (2:23) put it like this – “I will have pity on Lo-ruhama (Not pitied), and I will say to Lo-ammi (Not my people), “You are my people”; and he shall say, “You are my God.” This is grace friends. This is God’s unmerited love and favour and goodwill. Our call is to respond. Our call is to find the foundation of our lives in being caught up in God’s great saving plan. This is our peculiarity friends. May this be our response as we gather at the table. This is who we are. This is the Christ to whom we belong.