We really need grace

17 May

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Do you or anyone you know go by a nickname?  I love the band U2, and both the lead singer Bono and lead guitarist, The Edge, go by the nicknames.  Bono has said on numerous occasions that even The Edge’s mom calls him “The Edge”.

But I wonder how many people with a nickname refer to themselves by their nickname?

As we learned last week, Saint Peter, whose first letter we are studying at Faith Church, had a nickname,   The Rock. Check our 1st Peter 1:1, and look how Peter starts the letter.  With his nickname!  The Rock.  Fair warning…you won’t see the words “The Rock.”  You’ll see the name “Peter”, but in Greek that name means “Rock.”  Peter’s actual name was “Simon”.  Does anyone else find it interesting that Peter used his nickname rather than his actual name?

Sometimes nicknames stick!  After 30 years of Peter being the leader of the church, he was The Rock.

Peter also calls himself an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

So far I have called Peter a disciple of Jesus.  What is this word “apostle”?  It refers to someone who is carrying a special message.  Generally, the 12 disciples became known as the 12 apostles.  These guys who followed Jesus became special messengers of Jesus.  The word we would more commonly use in English for an apostle is ____________.  Can you guess it?  Missionary.  That’s what Peter was. You can read about his mission trips in the book of the Bible called Acts.  Peter was a missionary, a special messenger, an apostle of Jesus Christ.

But who is he writing to?  Look at verse 1 and 2. He uses numerous phrases to describe the recipients of the letter:

To God’s elect, Strangers in the world, Scattered throughout Asia, Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God, Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.

In that short description of these people, Peter packs a lot in.  Did you feel you just jumped into the deep end of the theological pool?  Geesh.

Remember how last week the religious establishment guys in Jerusalem looked down on Peter calling him an unschooled man?  Now listen to Peter.  He is starts off his letter laying on some thick theology.

And what’s more, Peter gets into one of the most divisive theological issues of our time.  Do we choose God or does God choose us?

For Peter that question is easy to answer.  God chooses.  “Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God.”  That’s pretty clear.  “God’s elect” means God elects them.  God chooses them.  What is not so easy to understand is what Peter meant by all this talk of choosing and electing.  There are two main ways that Christians through the ages have used to help us understand.

One is the deterministic way.  God determines everything and we don’t.  We might think we are choosing him, but determinists say that our feeling of choice is basically a mirage.  God gives faith to some and not to others.  That is the deterministic view.

The other way is the free will view.  God gives us free will to either choose him or not.  We think we are choosing him, free will says, because we actually are.

Each method has its difficulties.  Take the deterministic view.  If God chooses us, then how can he punish those he didn’t choose?  Doesn’t seem fair, right?  And it also really doesn’t seem like my act of choosing is a mirage.  I feel like I am making my own free choices.  I see very little evidence of God controlling everything.

The free will view seems to answer those problems nicely.  If God gives free will, it makes a lot more sense for him to punish sin, right?  Because the sinner doesn’t have to sin.  The sinner can choose God.  Also, free will seems to fit our common experience of life, right?  We feel like we are doing the choosing.  But free will has a problem too.  Peter just said God chooses, God elects.  Peter did not say God gave us free will so we could choose.  And Peter is not the only writer of Scripture to teach this.  The problem free will has is that it seems like the Biblical writers teach God as doing the choosing, not us.

So what do we do?  Do we choose God or does he choose us?

I am going to give you the wonderfully satisfying answer of: “I don’t know.”  That’s just a horrible answer, isn’t it?  You want to me to take a side, right?  At least give my opinion, right?

Well, okay, if you say so.

I think Peter is teaching both actually.  I think the other writers of Scripture are teaching both.  What I mean is this.  God gives us free will and he chooses us. That seem impossible?  A logical fallacy?

Here’s what I believe is the best way to make sense of this:

God chooses corporately, not individually.  Usually the determinists, those who hold to God as chooser, God as elector, believe that God is choosing individuals.  God chooses one person to be saved and go to heaven.  And he decides not to choose the next person, so that person will go to hell.

My denomination, the EC Church comes from a wing of the Christian Church that views God, not as choosing individuals, but God as choosing corporately.  In the Old Testament, God chose a whole people group, the nation of Israel, to be his chosen people.  People from outside Israel could choose to become part of Israel.  In fact, from the very beginning, in his covenant with Abraham, the grandfather of the nation of Israel, God said to Abraham, “I have a mission for your family.  I want you to be a blessing to the whole world.”  God envisioned Abraham’s family, part of which would become the nation of Israel, to be a missionary nation, a nation that actively sought out the rest of the world to join Israel in following God.  Sadly, Israel would go on to do an incredibly poor job of fulfilling that mission.

God gave Israel many, many chances to do better, and after eventually God decided to create a new covenant with a new group of people.  But the mission stayed the same for the new group: reach the whole world with the message of God’s good news.

Who is the new group of people that God chose?  The new group is all those who are in Christ. I believe that is what Peter is talking about here.  God chooses not individuals, but instead he gives us free will to choose to be in Christ.  We cannot choose to be outside of Christ and still expect to be in God’s family.  Why?  Because God chooses only those who are in Christ.  One way to put it is that God does not choose individuals, instead he chooses the method by which individuals of their own free will choose him.  And that method is in Christ alone.

Here’s where Peter’s greeting and conclusion are really powerful.  Just because we have free will to choose Christ, it doesn’t mean that God is totally standoffish, wondering what we will do.

Peter talks about another key factor at work helping us to understand this.  Grace.  Look at verse 3, and Peter’s first message in his letter is this: Grace and Peace.  Keep your finger in 1 Peter 1, and flip a few pages to the end of the book, to 1 Peter 5:12, and notice some of his final words of the letter: “stand fast in God’s grace.”  Peter bookends his letter by referring to God’s grace.  Why?  Because God’s grace is at work in the world and in our lives.

The official word for this is Prevenient Grace.  Prevenient simply means “that which comes before.”  Use it as an adjective to explain grace, and Prevenient Grace means “grace that comes before.”  But what in the world is “grace that comes before?”

The United Methodist Church summarizes well when it says that our evangelical forefather John Wesley, “understood grace as God’s active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift — a gift that is always available, but a gift that can be refused. God’s grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God’s invitation to be in relationship with God. God’s grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose the good. God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God’s love and grace. God actively seeks us!”

So we don’t have a standoffish God.  We have a God that seeks us, that woos us, that desires to be in relationship with us.  That is grace.  Grace is undeserved favor.  We don’t deserve a God who so actively chases after we who turn away from him.  And yet, Peter says, look at what God did in Jesus!  Jesus gave his life so that the sin that made it impossible for us to be in relationship with God could be dealt with.  God made things right, out of his gracious desire to be with us.  That is amazing.

We can bank on that, Peter says. More on that in just a minute.  Because I have skipped over something important.

Who is Peter writing to?

Look at verse 1, he calls them strangers, scattered people from many places.  With this opening description, Peter begins a theme that will be very important for him.  Christians need to see themselves as strangers who were scattered.  Peter wrote this letter not to one person or one church, but to Christians at the time who had been scattered around the world.  They were Christians living their lives as strangers in foreign countries, scattered away from their homeland.  Many were refugees.

Why? Because it was a difficult time for the church.

As we will see throughout our study, Peter addresses the fact that the Christians are being persecuted.

Peter is their leader. He lives in Rome. The Roman Emperor Nero lives in Rome.  The historians tell us that Nero, at the end of his life, persecuted Christians.  It is likely that both Peter and the apostle Paul died at Nero’s bidding.  But what we don’t see in the time period Peter is writing is Empire-wide state-sponsored persecution of Christians.  Our best guess is that Nero did not try to wipe out Christianity.  So the persecution that Peter refers to throughout his letter is more likely happening to Christians in the localities where they are scattered. The persecution is not in every town and city.  And it is not like they are all being burned at the stake. The persecution varies.  But it is still persecution.  Many Christians have been disenfranchised or displaced.

You can bet Peter hears the talk wafting through the Christian community.  Christianity is only 30 years old at this point.  That’s not a lot of time to develop a rock solid foundation.  If the persecution continues or gets worse, people could easily turn away.  Peter knows he needs to write the Christians who might be feeling like this Christianity thing is no longer worth it.  And that leads to the letter we are reading now.

Peter is not writing to people who are citizens of one national country or city. Peter wants to give them a higher vision.  He says they are strangers in a strange land.  Why?  Strangers?  They are citizens in heaven, and they should live for a purpose, which he describes in verse 2.  Their purpose is “for obedience to Jesus Christ” no matter what is going on.

That is our purpose.  Are we ready for obedience to Christ?  To get ready, we need to see ourselves not as citizens of a country on earth, but as strangers here.  We need to see our citizenship in heaven.  Our citizenship in heaven is the true citizenship, and we are actually strangers in a nation here on earth.  That can be a very hard reality for Christians to grasp.  We are strangers here.

As strangers here, though we aren’t facing persecution like the people Peter was writing to, we need to be ready.  Jesus talked a lot about this.  Be ready for his return.  Persecution may never arrive.  I hope it never does.  But Jesus taught, and the book of Revelation reminds us, that Jesus’ return could be preceded by persecution.  I know many teachers teach that there will be a rapture, meaning that all Christians will be removed from the earth and escape persecution.  Maybe.  But maybe not. Scholars are VERY divided in how to interpret that.  Persecution could come.  And we need to be ready.  We are called to follow Jesus no matter if life is going really well or if life is terrible.

I also encourage you to remember that there are many Christians being persecuted NOW.  The church is being persecuted around the world. And we need to remember that, pray.

In our church fellowship hall, we have copies of Persecuted magazine.  They send five copies every month.  I encourage you to pick it up and read it.

In my prayer time, I use an app called Prayer Mate, and one of its features you can choose is to bring in a new prayer request each day for someone around the world who is being persecuted for their faith.  I love that.  Imagine thousands of Prayer Mate users praying for the person.  How that must feel to be that person?  I hope and pray they can feel God at work answering the prayer of his people, encouraging that person by his Holy Spirit.

And we return to what Peter’s first message is 1:2 “Grace and peace to you.”  And then we look at how he repeats that message in 5:12-14 when he says “Stand fast in the grace of God…[and]…Peace to all of you who are in Christ.”

Grace and peace.

God’s prevenient grace is at work in the world, wooing us to find peace in him.  We can’t control God’s grace, and we don’t want to!  It is his loving choice to shower grace on us, that we might find peace in him.

And what Peter says is that our response is to obey and stand firm in that grace.  Peter, The Rock, knows who the real firm foundation is.  Not him.  He surely knew that.  Peter, the Rock, found a firm foundation in God’s grace.

If you feel like life is anything but firm, I get it.  I talked about my own struggles with anxiety a few weeks ago.  When anxiety hits, when stress rises, when life gets complicated and difficult, it feels like our lives are built on quicksand.

We all seek a firm foundation in life. If our core relationships are not solid, we can be so tempted to betray those core relationships and find other ones that are rock solid.  If we feel an unsettledness, a dissatisfaction, a struggle, with work, with our homes, with our finances, we often go looking for other things in life that we feel rock solid.

Peter, The Rock, says we have a rock solid firm foundation in the grace of God.  The pursuing, loving Grace of God.

This past week I had an anxiety day on Thursday, and as I walked back the hallway of the church, I saw one of the signs the kids made.  I have walked by that sign hundreds of times.  Never struck me before. You know what it says?  Be still and know that I am God.  Psalm 46:10.  I hadn’t been still.  The previous few days were filled and busy and I hadn’t spent time with God, basking in his grace, knowing that his grace is the solid foundation.  I needed that reminder.

Choose to rest in his grace.  That means actually opening up space and time in your life to be with God.  To rest in him.  To be quiet before him.  It might take practice.  To be silent before God is super hard, especially when it feels like life is falling apart all around you.  In those moments the last thing we want to do is stop and be quiet and listen for God.

Standing firm in God’s grace, no doubt about it, is an act of faith in God, right smack in the moment of our struggle, when it seems like God is not there.  Standing firm in God’s grace in that moment means believing that God is who he says he is, and then choosing an action, or more likely a persistent ongoing series of actions, that show we are placing our faith in him.  That is the obedience that Paul is talking about in verse 2.

What will it look like for to stand firm in God’s grace today?  This week?  I encourage you to have someone like Peter, The Rock, in your life.  Someone who has seen firsthand through the years that they can build their life on Jesus.  Sure, Peter was nicknamed The Rock.  But he knew that Jesus was the real  rock of his life.  Who will that be for you?  Who will help you build your life on The Rock of Jesus?

One Response to “We really need grace”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why being “born again” might not be as crazy as it sounds | Let's Talk About Sunday - May 22, 2018

    […] week I started preaching through the book of the Bible called 1st Peter.  It is actually a letter the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians around the Roman Empire in 1st […]

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