With privilege comes responsibility. Apparently the Queen Mother's last words to the young Princess' Elizabeth and Margaret before they would set of for parties were these, "Royal children - Royal manners". With the privilege of being royal comes the responsibility of behaving royally. So there was no need for a long list of rules and regulations, no need to spell out curfew times. The matter was simple - Remember your privileges and act appropriately. Which is exactly the point that Peter is making in the opening chapters of this letter: "Remember your privileges and act appropriately". Which, of course, is easier said than done.
You see the Christians that Peter was writing to were living in a non-Christian culture. And they were starting to suffer for being Christian. It is not easy to remember your privileges when you are losing your friends, your jobs and possibly your life. Peter's words to them are as contemporary today as they were when they were first written. We here in Jesmond live and meet together amidst a non-Christian culture. It presses in on us and can easily cause us to forget how privileged we are. But if we forget our privileges then the whole Christian life comes crashing down like a pack of cards. Peter's readers need reminding of what they received when they became Christians - and that is what Peter outlines in the passage before us tonight. We receive privileges, purpose and perspective - and those are my headings.
First, THE PRIVILEGES OF THE CHURCH
Look at how Peter describes the church in the first half of v9:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.
Now listen to how God describes Israel in the reading we had earlier:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Do you see the point that Peter is making? He is saying that the church has replaced Israel. All the privileges that were once Israel's, her special relationship with God, her unique status before Him now belongs to those scattered Christians in Turkey and to us here tonight. We need to know who we are if we are to know what our appropriate behaviour is. So Peter tells us.
Notice first that, we are chosen. Look around you - you are in the presence of people whom God Himself has chosen. If you are a Christian here this evening then know that you have been hand-picked by God. Even though the whole world is His from which to choose, He chose us. God has set His love upon us in a way that He hasn't upon other people. When we are in the classroom at school or in the office at work or wherever it might be Peter wants us to know that we have God's own seal of approval upon us. We have a privilege that they do not share.
Secondly, we are a royal priesthood. Look around you - you are sitting in the presence of royalty! And not ordinary run-of-the-mill royalty at that. We are not children of mere Kings but of the King of Kings. If we are Christians we will know that God who is King over all, is our father. And that makes us heirs of a Kingdom, not an earthly one but a Heavenly one. Never was it more true to say "Royal children - Royal manners" than to a Christian! And notice we are not only royal, we are also priests. Every Christian sitting in this building tonight is a priest. We are all as Right Rev. as any Bishop. You might be thinking, where is the privilege in that? The privilege lies in who we have access to. We often rate people's importance in life with respect to who they know or have access to. Magazines print lists of who's in and who's out which depends on the people they socialise with. We look in envy to the one in the office who has the boss' ear. As priests we have unrestricted access to God - we can speak to Him in prayer and hear Him in the Bible. Surely the world can offer us no greater privilege than that.
Thirdly, we are a holy nation. Look around you - you are sitting in the company of Saints. Every Christian in this building tonight is a Saint. Whether you have been a Christian for two years or 20. We have been set apart from the rest of the world, that is what 'holy' means. Which is why Peter calls us aliens and strangers in v11 - this world is no longer our home.
Finally, we are a people belonging to God. This really summarises the first three privileges - we are God's people, we belong to Him, we are to use the language of Exodus - His treasured possession. I don't know if you have an object at home that you particularly care for, something not necessarily of high monetary value but something which is especially precious to you - maybe an heirloom or a photograph. It's the one thing that if you were burgled your mind would immediately turn to. "Have they taken the ring?", "Have they taken the cat?". That's the idea behind the phrase treasured possession. That's what God thinks of us.
Peter has told us who we are - we are chosen, royal, priestly, holy and treasured. The question is, do we believe him? Do we really believe him? It's very easy to nod our heads in agreement with Peter. But it is one thing to agree with the him quite another to believe him. To believe him when we are in school - to know that God's love rests on me in a way that it doesn't rest on the other kids in the class. Or to believe him when we are in the office - to know that God has set me apart from the colleagues that I have lunch with. Or to believe him in the home - to really know myself to be royal as I raise my family.
You see I think that it is actually very difficult to believe these things. And I think it's difficult for two reasons: Firstly, our outward appearance - How must those small groups of Christians meeting in houses have looked to the outside world? Do you think they looked like a great nation. As they lost their jobs/lives - did it look like God loved them in a special way? No. And as we look at ourselves, do we look greatly different to the world around us? Unfortunately, all too often the answer is, no.
Secondly, our inward experience - What causes me to doubt those privileges most is my own inward experience. You see all too often I don't feel chosen, I don't feel God's special love for me. I don't feel royal and if I'm honest there are many times when I doubt the reality of heaven, let alone that I am an heir of it. There are certainly times when I don't feel particularly holy - when I have failed God again in an area of my life. I certainly find it very difficult then to believe that I am a Saint. What with outward appearances and inward experiences it can be very difficult to believe that those privileges are real and mine.
Which is why it is so important that I ignore what my eyes tell me and I ignore what my feelings tell me and I listen instead to what God tells me. We need to take seriously His view of us because that is the view that counts. Peter is at pains to tell us who we really are because he knows that if we understand and believe what God tells us about ourselves it will profoundly affect the way that we live - it will inform our goals, priorities and principally our purpose as a church, and it is to our purpose that Peter now turns.
Secondly, THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH
Have a look at the second half of v9:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
You see these privileges are not the ends to which God is working but the means to an end. Privilege and responsibility are inseparable like two sides of a coin. We can not sit on our privileges and do nothing - that is not the nature of privilege. When we confer privilege upon people we expect them to live up to it. That is why we think twice before taking a promotion - we realise that with the bigger pay packet will come greater demands on us. And the same is true of us as a church.
If we want the titles of God's people, then we must also take on the task of God's people. And our task, says Peter, is to declare God's praises. But what does that actually mean? Well the word praises here is better translated 'mighty deeds or acts'. So we are to declare God's mighty deeds. But which deeds in particular? Well the next part of the phrase tells us. We are to speak of God's deeds by which He brings people out of darkness into the light.
Now darkness in the Bible is a picture or symbol of God's judgement upon people. Light on the other hand is a picture of forgiveness or acceptance. So, we are to make known those mighty acts of God by which He rescues people from a position of living under His judgement to a position of being forgiven and living under His acceptance. In other words, our responsibility is to make known the gospel, we are to speak about Jesus Christ. Why do we find evangelism difficult? Because let's be honest we all do. Part of the reason is fear.
I am an Arsenal fan. My father-in-law is a Newcastle fan. I am very fortunate that he has a couple of season tickets and when Arsenal come up to play he invites me along. Now I won't tell you what they think of the Arsenal team at St.James' Park but suffice to say, their opinion differs from mine. Now when Arsenal score, as they invariably do, I am gripped by two feelings. My heart says, jump out of your seat, punch the air and cry 1-0 to the Arsenal. My head says, if you want to leave the stadium in any thing other than a stretcher, stay still, shake your head and commiserate with the guy next to you. I am, in effect, an Arsenal fan on the inside but a Newcastle one on the outside.
I find being a Christian is a bit like being an Arsenal fan in the Newcastle end. We are surrounded by people who think differently to us and who fundamentally oppose us. Evangelism requires us to stand up and be counted. And we know that that will lead to persecution - not necessarily leading to a stretcher but maybe to ostracism or being passed over for promotion at work or whatever it might be. And that is painful - it hurts as sure as any punch. We are a minority group and the temptation is, it seems to me, to close the doors, form a self-preservation society and hope that the outside world doesn't notice us. The temptation is to be a Christian on the inside and appear like the world on the outside. That would have been the great temptation for the churches then and it is the great temptation for us today. But Peter is saying - that is not legitimate behaviour for the people of God. Christ did not die to form a social club that looks inwards but a rescue party that looks outwards.
The question that we should always be asking ourselves here at JPC is, do we resemble a social club or a rescue party? We are going to be tempted to look inwards rather than outwards but that would be to act contrary to what God has made us. Which is why the youth team are running 'Spaceship Discovery' - a week of activities for children through which we can declare God's praises. That is why as a church we run the autumn mission - laying on events that we can bring people to, where speakers will declare God's praises. But friends just as the privileges are ours individually as well as corporately so the responsibility for evangelism is ours individually as well as corporately. We are not to be a social club for 50 weeks of the year and a rescue party for two. Which is why a little later on in the letter Peter says,
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
We each of us are called to speak about Jesus. If we are not looking to rescue people 52 weeks of the year then either we are ignorant of our privileges or we are ignoring them. Having thought a little about our privileges and our responsibilities, it seems to me that two dangers come into view.
The first danger is that we focus on our privileges and forget our responsibilities. If we do that then our life together will be marked by a feeling of easiness and complacency. Our meetings together would contain a lot of back slapping but no wrist slapping. And slowly, but very surely, the church would die.
The opposite danger is to focus on our responsibilities and forget our privileges. If we do that then our Christian life together will be marked by a feeling of obligation and anxiety. The Bible ceases to be a book of comfort but becomes purely a book of commands. Christian fellowship together ceases to be an encouragement but becomes a guilt trip. Both these views are poisonous and lead to an unhealthy church. The antidote to this poison is having the right perspective from which to view our privileges and responsibility.
Thirdly, THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE CHURCH
Have a look at v10:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 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.
Remember the basis on which you are a member of God's people. Remember that it was : not by birth - We were not born into this community. Prince William was born into the royal family, his royal privileges come to him by birth and that is his perspective for viewing them. But it is not the same for us - remember says Peter that once you were not a people - you were not born into this community. not by works - We have not earned our way or worked our way in this community.
I worked out recently that by the age of 18 I'd been to church nearly a 1000 times. It was not my attendance at church or my abilities as an altar boy which led to my membership of God's people. And that, unfortunately, was a lesson I didn't learn until later. Not by choice - Perhaps the most surprising one of all. We live in an age of choice - if we are bored with our job we move, we will, I gather, soon be able to choose exactly what characteristics our children will have. But our membership into this community was not by choice. We don't enter by birth, works or choice but by God's mercy. Where did we find God's mercy? We found it in the person of Jesus Christ. Who, dying on the cross took that dark cloud of judgement that hung over us so that by believing in Him we can become people of light.
If you are just looking in to Christian things you may have been thinking as Peter outlined the privileges that belong to Christians - how arrogant. How arrogant to say that Christians are loved by God in a way that others are not. What right do you have to say those things? Well, I hope that you can now see that the answer to that is that we have no right what so ever. The issue is not one of rights but one of mercy. It is the point that Peter has been making throughout the opening chapter and a half of his letter - the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, between being under God's judgement and in the right with Him, between being in the dark and being in the light is simply whether we have accepted God's mercy, whether we have accepted Jesus Christ.
For the majority of us here tonight who are Christians: Do you see how grace is the antidote to those two dangers? On the one hand, grace stops us from ever adopting a 'better than you' attitude to the world outside. We were like everyone else - living under God's judgement until He saved us. And as rescued people surely our primary desire is going to be to tell other people how they can get rescued. On the other hand, grace stops us from ever despairing. We all miss opportunities to talk about Jesus when talking with friends and colleagues. I know I have, many times. But does that drive me to despair? Well it would if I thought that my privileges depended on my success as an evangelist. But they don't, they depend on God's mercy. Notice the order of verse 9, grace first then purpose. That is the way of Christianity. Grace is the lens through which we must view our privileges and responsibilities.
It was Shakespeare who said, "To thine own self be true". I want to say this evening that that is terrible advice to the world. We should not be true to our rebellious nature that rejects God and finds no place for Him in our lives. However, it is very good advice to the church. It is exactly what Peter is saying. Know yourself - you are chosen, royal, priestly, holy and treasured. And that by God's grace. Be true to it - declare God's praises for it is to that task that you have been privileged.