Well, this is our second welcome night for students who are newly arrived, or newly back, in town. And if that's you, this time of year sets two questions.
And the first is: Who are you going to be?
A few years back I got a call from the mother of a guy called Simon. She said, "He's coming to study in Newcastle. Would you look out for him?" And she said, "He's easy to spot because he's just re-invented himself and now has blue hair." So when he first came along here, I went up to him and said, "Hi. This may sound odd, but I have the feeling your name's Simon – is that right?" And he looked horrified and said, "This isn't one of those churches where God tells you everything about people, is it?" So I said, "No… he only tells me names." And he looked even more horrified. Until I said, "No, that was a joke. Your mother rang me."
But coming, or coming back, to uni does give you the chance to re-invent yourself, doesn't it? So who are you going to be – especially if, so far, you've identified as a Christian. Is that who you're going to be now you're here?
The other question this time of year sets is: What are you here for?
So another new student once said to me, "I don't really know why I'm here. It's the next stage of the education sausage machine, and it's what everyone else at my school was doing, and what was expected of me. But that's the only reason I'm here."
Now the freshers' week committee would have told him, 'No, the big reason you're here is to have fun' – and that the definition of fun is drinking to excess and going to bed with people.' I trust you've got better reasons for being here – like getting a good degree, learning to manage your life independently, making good friends, playing some sport or music on the side.
But if you're a Christian, everything you do – work, play, friendship – should be shot through with God's over-riding purpose for your life – which is: that you know him better, live for him, and make him known. So we're going to look tonight at 1 Peter 2.9-12 – which is all about God's over-riding purpose for us, if we're trusting in Christ.
And if you're not sure that's you – if that's the big area where you've still got to decide who you're going to be – can I encourage you to keep coming to church while you do that. Because we don't think that church is just for the already convinced and committed. And plenty of people join us who need space (maybe away from family) to sort out what they really believe and grow into their own convictions. And we aim to be that space. So we won't assume anything of you. And if you just need to lie low and listen and think and question, please do.
1 Peter 2.9-12 says two things to people trusting in Christ. And the first is:
1. Who we are and what we're here for
So look down to 1 Peter 2.9. The apostle Peter has just been talking about the majority of people around us, who are living in God's world without any reference to God. And then to Christians, he says, verse 9:
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God's] own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."
In other words, while most people around you are saying, 'I don't want God in my life,' God has taken possession of your life, if you're a Christian, so that you'll live for him, and speak for him, so that those around you might come to know him, too.
And partly that happens by us being 'holy' – to use that word in verse 9, which means belonging to God and so being different. So, for example, I remember a student who put her trust in Jesus here one evening. She'd been weighing that up for a while. The big issue had been the boyfriend, whom she was sleeping with – against her better judgement. But she finally saw that it was infinitely more important to have Jesus than the boyfriend. So she committed herself to Jesus and went to tell the boyfriend she wasn't going to sleep with him anymore. He said that was outrageous. So she said, "Then we're not going out anymore, either." I met him here the following Sunday. And I said, "What's brought you along?" And he said, "My girlfriend's just dumped me for Christianity and I want to know what's got into her." To which the answer was: Jesus. He'd forgiven her and come into her life, and she now wanted to live differently, for Jesus.
So being holy – living differently because we belong to Jesus – will point people to Jesus. But only if they know we're Christians. So a while back, one of the Christian Unions here got into 'service evangelism' – 'We're going to tell people about Jesus just by serving them,' they said. So they went around the kitchens in halls washing up and cleaning the place. Which, on some boys' corridors, is like mucking out pigs – so people really did notice and appreciated it. But if that's all you do, people won't make the link with Jesus. They might think you're nice, or weird, or both – but they're not going to think you're Christian and hear about Jesus unless you actually speak about him, or invite people to events to hear about him. So verse 9 again:
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God's] own possession, so that you may proclaim [speak] the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."
So if you're a Christian student: in your time here, or the rest of your time here, will you make it your purpose to make Jesus known? And all of us, will we keep plugging away at that?
Now in a new place or with new people, it's not easy to know how to begin that. So, let me tell you about my goddaughter Suzie. She's just graduated. But I was on the phone to her in her freshers' week. And she said, "I'm a bit worried I haven't said to anyone that I'm a Christian, yet." She said, "My flatmates have seen my Bible out in my room, and they know I've been to church – but I haven't sat them down and told them I'm a Christian, and 'let them have it' – because that doesn't seem very natural." To which I said, "Relax, and give it a month." I said, "I totally agree about not sitting them down and 'letting them have it'. Just give it a month and then ask whether they know you're a Christian." And I said, "If you're open about going to church, and the Bible stays out in your room, and you have friends around from CU and they ask how you know them, they'll soon know you're a Christian – and might even start asking questions." And just two weeks later she said three of the five had already invited themselves along with her to church or CU because they were so intrigued – they'd never met a Christian before.
But here's one of the most important things I want to say: this bit of the Bible isn't speaking to me and you individually – but to us. It says we are "a people for God's own possession". And to know God better, live for him, and make him known, you need other Christians around you – so you've got to belong to a church. There are Christian Unions which can help you find the other Christians in your uni, and do events on campus. But your spiritual base needs to be in a church.
And we'd love it if you settled here for that; but can I say: settle in some church soon. Because the great thing about church is that you can move halfway up the country – or for some of you, half way round the world – and yet find instant family in God's family. I know it still takes time to make friends in church. But there is that instant head-start of having Jesus in common, which makes it a base to make Christian friends – which is what you most need. And that then gives you confidence in making friends out there in halls and teams and so on. So: settle in some church soon.
OK, that's, 'Who we are and what we're here for.' The other thing Peter tells us is:
2. How to blow that and how to show that
Look on to 1 Peter 2.11:
"Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which war against your soul."
This Bible we use is a translation that aims to be accurate, word for word. So it does kick up not exactly everyday vocab – like, "sojourners". 'Hi, how's your sojourn in Newcastle been so far?' We don't talk like that – despite having pews and singing the odd hymn. But "sojourners" just means = 'temporary residents' – like students in term-time. And "exiles" just means = 'you don't belong, this isn't home'.
So Peter is saying, 'If you're a Christian, you don't belong to this God-rejecting world and its way of life.' So verse 11 again,
"Beloved, I urge you as ['non-belongers'] to abstain from the passions of the flesh [in other words, from following your fallen desires for the wrong things], which war against your soul."
And to see what Peter had in mind, just turn over the page to chapter 4, verse 3. 1 Peter 4.3-4 – where he says:
"For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you…"
Which is a snapshot of freshers' week, and of some of the parties you CYFA guys and girls get invited to, and of a lot of life in uni and beyond. It's a picture of people swimming around – apparently happily – in this pool of passions (including the predictable ones like drink and sex), and saying, 'Come on in, the water's lovely!'
I don't know about you, but I'm a cold water wimp. So when I'm on holiday with family or friends and they plunge into the sea and say, 'Come on in, it's lovely,' I see through it. Because we don't go to the Caribbean. We go to Ireland. And I know that, without a heavy duty wetsuit or a lot more global warming, it won't be lovely.
And whether or not we're cold water wimps, God wants us to be 'sin wimps' – so that when we hear the non-Christian world saying, 'Come on in, it's lovely,' we see through it and think, 'No.'
But that's not easy, is it? So I remember in my first few weeks at uni, someone asking if I wanted to come to a film with a group of people. And I stupidly said 'Yes' without asking what film. But when we got to the cinema it was obvious from the poster what kind of film it was. It was an 18 – and my default is to avoid them in general. And on the poster was a scantily clad female whom I guessed, as I read the blurb, was going to become even less clad in the film. So I knew should walk away but was worried what they'd think of me if I did. Plus I'd seen a couple of them at the Christian Union, so I thought, 'Maybe if they're OK with it I should be.' But turn back over to chapter 2, verse 1. What does it say?
"Beloved, I urge you as ['non-belongers'] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which war against your soul."
And I stewed for a while as the queue moved forward. But I finally said, "Look, now I've seen what it is, I don't actually want to watch this." And I headed back to my room.
And there's nothing worse than being on your own is there? No, that's not true. It's far better to be on your own than to be where you know you shouldn't be. It's far better to be on your own than to lose your freedom and self-respect to peer-pressure. And actually, I didn't feel on my own at all. I remember feeling especially close to Jesus – which is what obedience to him always does for you. It's disobedience, end of verse 11, that "wars against your soul" – we all know from personal experience that a compromised Christian is a miserable Christian. Whereas in obedience you know Jesus more closely – and know that you're free from just following the crowd.
Well, look down to verse 1 Peter 2.11-12 again:
"Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable [another translation says, 'Live such good lives among the Gentiles'] so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
So that's how the Lord wants us to live among the non-Christian people around us. And here's the first way we can blow it.
Transcript readers will have to imagine the pictures…
Meet Will the Worldly up there on the screen. So Will's a Christian – he recognises Jesus as King of him (that's the crown above him). And he wants other people to know Jesus. So he thinks, 'That means being 'out there' and doing what they're doing – otherwise they'll think I'm weird and won't listen.' But doing what they're doing includes Will getting regularly drunk. Which means people don't see him being any different – don't see Jesus being King of him. Plus, he's now ashamed to say anything Christian.
Then next up on the screen, meet Pete the Pious – floating somewhere off the planet, playing his harp. Because he can see how Will's blown it. So his solution is to live in a bubble of Christian friendships and meetings – not realising that he's also blown it, too. Not by failing to be different. But by failing to be visible to any non-Christian people. With the same result: he's pointing no-one to Jesus, either.
So thirdly on the screen, meet Barbara the Biblical. Trust the women to get it right! And she says, 'You've got to do verse 11 and
"abstain from the passions of the flesh" –
so Pete's got a point. But you've also got to do verse 12, and
"Live such good lives among the Gentiles (NIV)" –
so Will's got a point, too. You've got to live among them. But you've got to keep your holiness rather than lose it.'
Now what if you've already blown it, like Will – maybe during the whole of last year if you're a second or third year wanting to make a fresh start now; or maybe during this past summer; or maybe during your first week here if you're a first year?
Well, if you've blown it, the answer is always: trust God's forgiveness and start again. Because look at the end of verse 10. What does it say?
"you have received mercy."
And "mercy" means God's commitment to forgive you every time you need it this side of heaven. And he can do that because Jesus his Son anticipated your whole lifetime's sin, past and future – including the things you think are most unforgivable – and he paid for its forgiveness when he died for you on the cross. So if you've blown it, and however you've blown it, trust God's forgiveness and start again.
So years back, one Christian fresher, Ben, messed up badly in freshers' week. He got totally drunk and was utterly ashamed of himself. And I remember him telling me he'd blown all hopes of pointing his friends to Jesus. And I said, "No you haven't." And he said, "But they've seen me drunk; how can I be any kind of witness to Jesus after that?" And I said, "That depends what you do next. If you pretend nothing happened, or that it doesn't matter, you're right, you'll have no Christian impact on them. But if you tell them what you've told me – that you're ashamed, and that that's not what you should be as a Christian – and if you show them by getting going again that Jesus forgives and gives fresh starts, then I think they'll get the gospel loud and clear." And he went on to be the president of his CU and then a missionary to Japan.
So if you've blown it, and however you've blown it, trust God's forgiveness and start again.
Just look down to verse 12 to end with some more Bible realism:
"Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
In other words, 'so that… they may come to glorify Jesus as their own Lord and Saviour.' That's the aim of all our Christian witness. But notice that middle bit –
"so that when they speak against you…"
Which is saying that even if non-Christian people respect the way you live, they may still 'give you stick' for it. So they may respect you for not getting drunk, but mock you for not being able to take your alcohol. They may respect you for believing sex is for marriage – but mock you for not being able to 'pull' a girl or guy, or for still being a virgin, if you are.
So let me end by telling you about a student here a while back, called Tim. For two years he was the only Christian in a very non-Christian lads' house. And he had to contend with everything: porn, drink, drugs, girlfriends moving in, you name it. And I knew how much grief they gave him for being a Christian. And he was constantly discouraged about whether his witness was having any effect at all. Well as you've heard, after this service we have a student supper. And at the last one of Tim's final year, I met this guy I'd never seen, and asked him what brought him along. And he said, "I'm Tim's housemate." And Tim was on another table, so he didn't hear any of this. And this housemate said, "I'm here because for two years all I've done is give Tim stick for his faith. But I actually respect him more than anyone I know. Because he has real integrity, and the rest of us don't. So I knew that before I left uni, I owed it to him to come along and hear what he believes." And Tim couldn't believe it when I told him that. Because he had no idea what was going on beneath the surface of that housemate.
Which is a reminder that, by and large, we won't know what's going on in people, either, as we try to live out what we've heard tonight; and that this is a long game – sometimes lifelong.
But what a purpose to live for – that for the rest of your time here, and for the rest of your days on earth, people hear about Jesus, and some come to know him, through the impact of your life.
If you're a Christian, that's who you are and what you're here for. So settle with your Christian family in some church soon, and live out that purpose together.