Tuesday, July 06, 2010

1 Peter 2:9-10 We the People: The Church's Declaration and Constitution

Sermon from July 4, 2010 (audio available here)

It was 234 years ago today that the founding fathers of America issued the Declaration of Independence which stated the case for America’s liberation from the British Empire. This, of course, precipitated the Revolutionary War in which that independence was secured. Shortly thereafter, in 1787, the Constitution was issued that laid the foundation of the laws that continue to govern this land today. And so for most Americans, the Fourth of July is a celebration of heritage, a celebration of freedom, and a time of remembrance and honor for those who served, who fought, and who died to protect and defend these freedoms. Indeed, all who dwell within America’s borders can be thankful for the rights and privileges we enjoy here which are unique compared to most of the countries in the world today and throughout the world’s history. The sun should not set on this day without each of us taking time to celebrate together and meditate individually on these things, and to pray for our country and its leaders as we are commanded to do in God’s Word.

In the providence of God, who authored the biblical text through divine inspiration, and choreographs the events of our lives according to His divine purpose, we have come to this particular text, 1 Peter 2:9-10, on this particular day. While we do not want to manipulate the text to suit our calendars, we also do not want to ignore the very clear significance of this text on a day like today. Some two hundred or so years ago, the independence and establishment of this nation was secured. But some two thousand or so years ago, another nation was established that not only existed before this one, but will survive long beyond this one. The nation of which I speak was not merely founded upon vague Christian principles; it was founded by Jesus Christ Himself. The nation of which I speak is the Church of Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to you for me to refer to the church as a nation, but that is the exact terminology that is used here in the text. And the verses we investigate today provide for us a concise summary of the Church’s Declaration and Constitution.

Throughout the history of Christianity, persecution of the church has abounded where governing powers deemed the church’s highest allegiance to Jesus Christ to be treasonous. While I am not calling us to commit treason today, I do desire today to make a clear line of distinction between our temporary and less-significant citizenship in America, and our more permanent and greater citizenship in God’s Kingdom. Though we may pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, there should be an infinitely deeper sense of allegiance to Jesus Christ in the heart of every Christian. We are blessed to live in a country and at such a time where those two allegiances do not necessarily contradict one another. This is not true for many of our brothers and sisters around the world, nor has it been true for our fellow Christians in most of the world throughout Church history. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, if the day should come when being an American and being a Christian begin come into conflict with one another, which allegiance will we pledge? Will we be willing, if, God forbid, we must, to declare with boldness and with much potential personal risk that our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere in the Kingdom of God?

The Christians who received Peter’s letters had most likely been citizens of Rome, but because of their faith in Christ, had been deported to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) where they became the pioneer colonists of a new Roman territory. Like many of those who first came to America, they were persecuted by those in their homeland, and they lived in uneasy tension with their neighbors in the new land. They had no true place to call home, no place where they were truly free. But Peter writes to them to remind them that their greatest allegiance is not to Rome where they were kicked out; nor to Asia Minor where they had been placed; but to Jesus Christ who saved them and made them His own.

So, as I read these verses today, I find sentiments here that are remarkably similar to those which the founding fathers of America expressed in the founding documents of our earthly homeland. So I have adapted language from those documents as headings for our consideration of this text today in hopes of using ideas that are familiar to us as Americans to broaden our understanding of concepts that may not be as familiar, but which are infinitely more important, to us as Christians. And so, this is the declaration and constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of which we, the people who belong to Him by faith, are members and citizens.

I. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ have been declared to be independent.

In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of America set forth the conditions under which they had been living that led them to the radical decision to dissolve the political bands that connected the with Britain. They stated in the most famous words of American history, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And they went on to say that when a government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to abolish it, and to institute new Government. But they wrote of the long train of abuses and usurpations that had reduced them under absolute despotism. And they set forth their indictment against the King of England that made this Declaration of Independence necessary.

Now, as we look at our text today, we are reminded that, spiritually speaking, humanity as a whole has endured a long train of abuses and have been reduced under absolute despotism. The oppressor is not a tyrannical earthly king or corrupted government, but rather, we are oppressed by our own sinful condition. Following the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, humanity has been suffering the wicked effects of sin in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities and in our cultures. We come into this world separated from God because of sin. Our lives are fractured and splintered because of its effects, and we are therefore “not a people,” as Peter says in v10. Our separation from God, our isolation from one another, is severe and threatens to be eternal. Hell is the final, eternal destiny of those who die separated from God. People will often ask, “How can a loving God send innocent people to hell?” The answer is that He doesn’t. The fact is that there are no innocent people. We are all sinners by nature and by choice, and hell is what we deserve. Therefore, if there is to be any hope, it must be found in receiving from God that which we do not deserve. This is mercy. Mercy is God’s withholding of the penalty that we have earned because of our sin. But Peter says here in verse 10 that we “had not received mercy.” In verse 9, he describes our condition as one of “darkness.” When you consider that three times in the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase “outer darkness” to describe hell, we may well say that a life that is being lived in separation from God is hell on earth, and it leads eventually to the final and ultimate judgment of hell itself.

The founders of America reached a point in which they determined to set themselves free from Britain by a strongly worded declaration and the ensuing war for independence. But when we speak of our spiritual condition, we must understand that we cannot declare ourselves to be free, nor can we do anything to make ourselves free. We are doomed to languish under sin’s tyranny unless we are set free by God Himself. Jesus said in John 8:36, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” And in His Son, God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, God has declared us free and accomplished our liberation. Blood was shed for our liberty, but it was not the blood of human warfare. It was the blood of Jesus on the cross where He died for our sins. He received in Himself the just penalty of our sins, so that as a result of His sacrifice, we could be free from sin forever and reconciled to the God who made us for Himself. Once reconciled to Him, we are reconciled to each other in this new family, this new and free people that God has formed from all the peoples of the earth. He has called us who were not a people now “the people of God.” He has shown mercy to us who had not received mercy. He has withheld from us the penalty we deserve and taken it upon Himself in the cross. He called us out of the darkness of sin and into the marvelous light of His eternal and unconditional love, the light of eternal life, and the light of His eternal glory. Those who have heard that call of the Gospel and responded by placing their faith in Jesus Christ to save them have been set free from bondage to sin and made to be the people of God by His mercy.

II. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ have been constituted as a more perfect union

The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War did not establish America as a nation; it merely severed the ties with Britain. The hard work of making a nation was still to come. As the Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed rooms where the Constitution had been drafted and debated, and was faced with a question from a citizen: “Well, Doctor,” she asked, “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That republic was established on the Constitution of the United States of America, which described how the American government was to operate and what the rights of each citizen of the republic would be. Its opening words are well known to most of us: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The framers understood that a government which Abraham Lincoln would later describe as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” could never be perfect. There are no perfect people, and therefore, no government created by people and carried out by people could ever be perfect. Their aim was not to create a perfect union, only a “more perfect” union that what they knew before.

But in our text today, we are reading about a new nation which was not formed by faulty human hands. We are reading here about a nation that was formed by Jesus Christ. He is not flawed by sin as we are. Therefore, when He establishes a “more perfect union,” it is more perfect than anything human beings can create. And this nation is constituted here in this brief verse using four biblical depictions that are borrowed from Old Testament passages. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, these titles comprise your truest identity above and beyond the claims of culture, ethnicity, occupation, or nationality.

We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race. We’ve heard a lot of discussion about race here at Immanuel over the last few weeks. We were encouraged and challenged to embrace and pursue the vision of being a church for all people. Dr. Woo uses the term “multiracial church” to describe a congregation that includes people of many diverse ethnicities. In his opening talk he used a text from Ephesians to describe how Jesus has torn down the walls of separation, so that now, having been reconciled to God through Christ, we can be reconciled to one another regardless of our native language or the color of our skin. I have often preferred to use the word “ethnicity” rather than “race,” because I believe it is a truer reflection of the biblical language that describes our varied human backgrounds. Still, Dr. Woo and I are using different words to describe the same reality, and that is that church is no place for segregation or separation of people according to skin color, eye-shape, socio-economic status, or any other factor. There is one Savior, one way to God, one Gospel, for all of humanity, and a church that is characterized by diversity provides a visual picture of this gospel to our society. So, a church that refuses to embrace ethnic or racial diversity hinders the gospel and is in disobedience to Jesus Christ and the Word of God. We ought to be a church that consists of all races in this sense.

But then there is another sense in which we are one race. I need to explain that very carefully. I do not mean in any way that the Church of Jesus Christ is to be white or black, any more than the Apostles Paul or Peter would have meant that the Church is to be Jewish or Gentile. The Church cannot be American, Chinese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Canadian, or any other single earthly culture. The Church is a race all its own, and is Christian first, before it is anything else, and exclusive of anything else. In Christ, God has swept across the races, the ethnicities, the nationalities, and chosen for Himself those who will make up this new race of people. The Greek word we translate as “church” literally means “the called out ones.” We have been called out of our various backgrounds and into this new race of the people of Christ. When we think of humanity in biblical terms, there are only two races. There is the human race, and then there is a special subset of the race of human beings whom God has chosen for Himself. So, racism and airs of nationalistic superiority have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ. If you are inclined to look upon other people whose skin is a different color, whose eyes are a different shape, whose hair is a different texture, or whose native tongue is different from yours, and think you are better than them, then you are not right with God; you have not embraced the Gospel fully, and you have no part in the Church of Jesus Christ. Repentance is the only cure for this, as you search your heart and discover the roots of racism, take it to the cross of Jesus and lay it down there and leave it there. We are a church of many ethnicities, and God-willing, we will be even more in the future; but ultimately we are one chosen race of people in Jesus Christ.

We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are also a royal priesthood. Within Old Testament Israel, there was a special class of priestly people. But as a whole, Israel itself also had a priestly function to represent God to the nations of the world. Throughout their history, they failed this task repeatedly. They either cut themselves off from the nations in an attitude of superiority, or else uncritically embraced the practices of the pagan nations around them. As one commentator describes it, “Because His people acted like the pagans of the surrounding nations, they were to be sent into exile, scattered among them.” But now, in the church, God has reestablished a priesthood for Himself—a people that will be His representatives in the earth. For centuries, the Church also failed at this task, erecting an artificial hierarchy of clergy and laity that entrusted the work of ministry to a privileged few. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that the doctrine of the priesthood of the believers was restored and reemphasized. Martin Luther was a part of the Roman Catholic system that obscured this reality, but he became the loudest voice for the priesthood of believers in church history. He said, “Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests.”

So, does the priesthood of the believers mean that you can interpret the Bible to mean whatever you want it to mean? Does it mean that you can take any action you desire and do it in the name of the Lord or the name of the church? No. The congregation as a whole, and those who have been appointed by the congregation as leaders, have a responsibility to hold each of us accountable in the exercise of this priesthood. You and I have a responsibility to hold one another accountable for representing Christ well, upholding His Word faithfully, and preserving the unity of the church before the eyes of a watching community and world. So, we are individually priests of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to act in Christ’s name as we have the opportunity; but we are collectively a priesthood that holds one another accountable in this ministry.

And notice that the priesthood is “royal.” A royal priest of old was one who was in the particular service of the King. But we are not in the priesthood of earthly kings, but rather the King of all Kings, Jesus Christ Himself. We are a royal priesthood because we work for Him. He is sovereign over us in our priestly duties.

Notice that Peter also states here that we are a “holy nation.” Let me remind you that when he says this, he is not speaking of Israel as a holy nation or of America as a holy nation. He is speaking of His Church as a holy nation. Holiness in this sense has to do with being set apart for God’s particular purposes. God has chosen the church, wherever in the world that believers in Jesus are found, to be His nation, and this nation is devoted completely to His sovereign purposes. Our primary citizenship is not in the nation in which we were born or the one in which we live, but in this nation to which we have been called. We are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, and it is to this nation that we owe our ultimate allegiance. First century Christians were not always persecuted simply because they worshiped Jesus. There were so many gods worshiped in ancient Rome that adding one more was no matter of great concern. The most intense persecution stemmed from the fact that the Christians declared their loyalty to Jesus Christ and His Kingdom above and beyond the Roman state. We have been duly constituted by God Himself as a free and sovereign nation that exists for Him alone in the world. Thankfully, in America, there are few times we will face in our lives where our dual citizenship creates a conflict. But, those times will come, and will come increasingly in years to come if present trends continue. And when they do, we need to be prepared to say that our citizenship in heaven is infinitely more important than our citizenship in these United States.

Then notice the fourth phrase: We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a people for God’s own possession. “You are not your own,” the Apostle Paul stated, “you have been bought with a price.” The price that was paid for you was the blood of Jesus Christ. In Him, God has taken ownership of us. We are not rugged individualists, living out the pursuit of the American Dream. We are not the slaves of earthly lords; we are not the subjects of earthly empires; we are not the blind followers of earthly leaders. There is no claim on our lives greater than this one: We belong to God through Jesus Christ.

And so this is our constitution, Church: We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.

III. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are called to the free exercise of our faith.

As the United States Constitution was being drafted and debated, George Mason and others felt strongly that the Constitution needed to include a description of certain rights of the citizens that the federal government could never violate. So in 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights. None of these has been more precious in the intervening centuries than the first, which reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means, of course, that there will never be an official religion of the United States of America. Many of the earliest settlers in America were fleeing persecution from the Church of England, and they wanted to be sure that the government would never have the power to enforce religious dictates against conscience. But it also stipulates that Congress cannot pass a law that restricts the free exercise of one’s religion. We may not realize fully what Christian brothers and sisters through history and in the world today would give for a protected freedom like this! Many of them are daily being persecuted for worshiping Christ and for speaking in His name. Though forbidden in their homelands, they do these things anyway out of obedience to Christ. Ironically, here where we are free to worship openly and speak boldly for Christ, we often fail to do so. In that sense, while we cherish these rights, they are being wasted on a lethargic American church which is caught up in the enjoyment of other personal rights to the exclusion of these precious ones regarding our faith!

Well, what is the free exercise of our faith? To put it biblically in relation to our passage, what have we been called to do for Christ? He has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light; He has shown mercy to us who had not received mercy; He has made us who were not a people to be the people of God, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. But for what? The text makes it clear with the words “so that.” All of this has taken place so that “you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” Our Christian task, our duty (but even more than duty, this should be our delight) is to proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ. This is really our only task, but it encompasses so much in the carrying out of it.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to God, this is worship. Worship is about so much more than singing the songs we enjoy! In worship we are proclaiming the excellencies of God in Christ to God in Christ, and we do this through our songs, through our prayers, through our offerings, and through the proclamation and listening of His Word. Our guide for song selection in worship should be this: Does it recount to God Himself His own excellencies? When we place our offering in the plate, we are declaring to Him that He is infinitely worthy. When we carve aside a sizeable chunk of time for the purpose of proclaiming and hearing His word, we are declaring to Him that He is precious to us, and that His Word is necessary for our lives. So we proclaim His excellencies to Him in worship.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to each other, this is fellowship and edification, or discipleship if you will. Is our Christian fellowship enriched by the simple knowledge that we like the same football teams or the same kinds of food? Not any more than any other human relationship is enriched. But we grow in fellowship with one another as we learn of each other’s love for Christ that we observe as we talk together about His countless excellencies! Is there a need for Christian growth in our congregation? It doesn’t happen through workbooks and DVD series. How does it happen? It is contagious as we spend time with one another hearing and recounting with each other about the excellencies of God in Christ that we have experienced in our walk with Him.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to those outside the church, this is witness. Call it missions, call it evangelism, call it what you will. We obsess over “how to do it,” but the Bible tells us how to do it. Proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to those who do not know Him, and the Holy Spirit will use that to call out those whom He would save. So, what do we find ourselves speaking of when we talk to those who do not know Christ? Politics? Sports? Current events? Ourselves? Are we always complaining about something? Does the lost person we speak to know how excellent we find Jesus Christ to be, and why we find Him so glorious?

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to ourselves, this is spiritual discipline. I have found that there is no better motivator for me to do right for Jesus than to rehearse in my mind His excellencies. There is no greater tactic to employ in the battle with temptation and sin than to confront those momentary weaknesses with a litany of the excellencies of God in Jesus Christ. Contrast the fleeting appeal of sin with the abiding glory of Christ, and examine your heart’s truest desires. We are inexplicably helped in moments of spiritual struggle by proclaiming the excellencies of God in Christ to ourselves.

Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament do we find a more succinct description of what we are called to do as believers than these brief words: “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This encompasses our worship, our fellowship, our discipleship, and our witness to a lost world.

In closing, as we mark the birthday of the United States of America today, let us be reminded from God’s Word that through faith in Jesus Christ, we have become a part of something that transcends our earthly citizenship. We are the recipients of greater blessings, greater freedoms, greater rights and greater privileges through God’s grace that has been demonstrated for us through Jesus Christ. He lived for you, He died for you, He rose again for you, and He longs to live inside of you to transform you into His likeness and bring you to Himself for eternity. Through Jesus Christ, we become citizens of a heavenly kingdom that will never pass away. This is a reality that the Christian should celebrate every day, not just once a year. So perhaps this day, as you gather with friends and family to celebrate our American heritage, God will give you the opportunities to speak of His excellencies in Jesus Christ, His Kingdom, and our citizenship therein.

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