Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2017
1 Peter 1:17-23 Commentary
Years ago I read a book by the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. And it became clear in reading it that he is someone whom I can describe only as a thoroughly secular person. This particular book was a kind of memoir in which Bourdain narrated his story. Of course, I read books all the time that are written by people who do not share my Christian faith, and this comes through in various ways. So I am accustomed to that. Even so, this memoir struck me as an exceptionally vivid example of watching a secular, god-less person in action. Even though I found some of this book to be distasteful, sometimes it is instructive to be reminded of what life can look like when people are shorn off from not just Jesus as Lord but from any sense of God whatsoever.
But here is a key impression I took away from this reading experience: what saddened me was not just his cocky flippancy regarding just about everything. What weighed on me was not just his casual reporting of lurid sexual goings-on nor his frequent use of coarse and profane language. In the end, what made me sad was not what showed on the outside of his life but the way that external behavior revealed his lack of a moral center or core. My gut feeling was that if you walked into this man’s moral control room—kind of the moral equivalent of the emotional control room depicted in the animated movie Inside Out–you would discover an empty room, a vacuum, a hollowness of character, nobody pulling the control board levers or throwing the switches on the panel.
Peter directs us to ponder our own core or center. In the verses just prior to where this lection begins in verse 17, Peter lifts out of the Book of Leviticus what had long been a central verse for the Jews: “Be holy, as I am holy, says the Lord your God.” Even as holiness was a defining feature to God’s people before Jesus arrived, so it must remain now for those who follow Jesus as Lord. Holiness matters. But what is it? If we were pressed to define holiness, the odds are that most of us would quite quickly begin talking about outward behavior. Being holy would soon become equated with being moral. We’d say that being holy involves being separate and distinct from the wider society. Indeed, in the past holiness was commonly defined negatively in terms of all that Christian people did not do.
And so in certain eras we were told that holy people are the ones who do not smoke, do not drink, do not dance, do not attend movies, do not play games of chance. Holy people follow the Ten Commandments, especially the laws about stealing, adultery, and lying. Holy people do not work on Sunday nor engage in activities that require other people to work such as going shopping or eating out in a restaurant.
Of course, there is more than a little something to all that. The same Book of Leviticus that tells the people to be holy as God is holy is chock-full of rules governing outward behavior. For ancient Israel, holiness was defined by following a rigorous set of laws that would create lifestyles very distinct from the surrounding nations of that time.
The holiness code covered everything. No segment of daily life was exempt. Holiness rules applied to how you conducted yourself sexually but just as much to how you patched a torn pair of pants. The laws that pointed the way toward a holy lifestyle hit on the kinds of activities you’d expect (like not stealing your neighbor’s stuff) but also addressed matters you might not expect at all (like the fact that you could eat a grasshopper if you wanted but not a beetle). The distinctiveness of the holy life before God ran the gamut from how to treat a skin rash to dealing with mildew, from the treatment of strangers to the length of the hem on a priest’s ceremonial robe.
Given all of that, how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking that holiness is all about the following of a bunch of external rules. It is easy to think that you could determine a person’s relative holiness by way of a checklist. Just write out all the laws governing behavior, put a little box next to each one, and then see how many boxes you can check with a red pen. The more boxes you can check, the holier you are.
But as it turns out, that’s not what holiness means after all. This is something Peter learned, and it is reflected in verse 13 (again, just ahead of this lection but vital to understand what follows). Peter tells his readers to get ready for action, which all by itself sounds like the focus is going to be on outward, visible behavior. But a closer look at that verse shows that Peter locates this “action” within people’s minds. Actually, Peter invokes here a kind of oxymoron to help make the point very vivid. Some translations have opted to render this as “prepare for action,” but in the original Greek, Peter wrote, “Gird up the loins of your minds.” In the ancient world, if you were told to “gird up your loins,” what that meant was you would hoist up your robe and tuck it into your belt so that you could run without getting tripped up by your own clothing. Today we might talk instead about “rolling up your sleeves” so you could get to work.
So this is a very physical image. The image really is one as literal as taking off your suitcoat and rolling up your sleeves so that you could dive into some task at hand. But the oxymoron part comes in that Peter is telling the people to roll up the sleeves of their minds. Holiness begins not with what we do on the outside, not in a set of actions that anyone who is looking can observe and evaluate. Holiness begins on the inside. In fact, if being holy does not begin there–if what we do on the outside is not rooted within our minds– then no matter how moral any given action might appear to be, it is finally just a shadow of the real thing. True holiness shows itself in how we behave but only because that action on the outside flows seamlessly from how we think on the inside.
That’s why there is that tight linkage in both the Old and New Testaments between the nature of God’s holiness and our holiness. When we are told to be holy as God is holy, this extends well beyond just outward acts. One of the key characteristics of God that makes him holy is that there is never any contradiction between who God is at his divine core and how he acts and speaks. God never thinks one thing but does another. God never does something that, in the back of his mind, he would really rather not do.
What’s more, as theologians have always asserted, God can never be compelled to do something. God, being God, cannot have an external obligation, he cannot have a set of rules outside of himself to which he has to conform. God can be obligated only to God’s own self because if there were some higher (or even some other) set of rules that even God was obliged to obey, then the source of those external rules would be the real God.
In other words, God is holy not just because of what he does but because what God does always reflects who God is. God does not perform an act because it’s the holy thing to do, rather God’s acts are holy simply because God is the one who does them. God never has to stop himself before doing something so as to ask, “Let’s see now, should I do this or shouldn’t I? Maybe I’d better check the rulebook first.” No, the moment God is motivated to do something, it is by definition holy because it flows from the divine core. God defines holiness because of the utter consistency God has within Godself and because God is, of course, perfectly good and loving at his core.
So if our holiness is to mirror God’s holiness–if we are holy as God is holy–then we must begin on the inside by rolling up the sleeves of our minds because that is precisely where any God-like holiness is going to start. God’s holiness flows out of his core. Ours must do the same if it is to be God-like. That is why in verse 14 Peter goes on to say that his readers must not revert to behaving the way they used to before being transformed into new people by God’s Spirit. But even there did you notice that Peter does not target simply bad behavior but he says that their prior bad behavior was the result of their ignorance. Again, Peter is directing his readers to the inside of their minds. Holiness begins by having rightly ordered desires, God-shaped thinking processes.
But if we aim at thinking God’s thoughts after him, of leading lives in which our behavior reflects first of all our thinking, then although we should still be conducting our behavior along certain lines, we will sense also the joy that comes only when you do what you do not because you have to, but because you want to. We want joyful holiness and we want that joy to flow from the inside. As Peter says so poignantly in verses 18-21, the joy of it all stems from the knowledge of just how we became God’s people to begin with. We were bought with the precious blood of the Lamb, and so now everything we do stems from the enormous love we feel for that Savior who gave up his all for us. It’s love for Jesus that makes us finally want to get beyond obedience and into the joy of a holiness that reflects who we are as people who love the Lord God.
In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey tells a poignant story that illustrates this pretty well. The story was told by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the famed Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. When he was a teenager, Arun Gandhi lived in South Africa. One day, not long after Arun first got his driver’s license, his father asked him to drop him off at a meeting in the city and then to take the family car in for some repairs at a nearby garage. “Once you drop the car off,” Arun’s father said, “you can spend time downtown doing whatever you like. But be sure to pick the car up when it’s finished and then pick me back up here not later than 6:00pm sharp.” Arun jumped at this chance to spend some time in the big city. But he lost track of the time and next thing you knew he was late getting the car back from the garage and a half-hour late picking up his father. “Sorry I’m late, father,” Arun said, “but the car took longer than they thought and I had to wait a whole hour at the garage. That’s why I couldn’t get here at six like you asked.”
What Arun didn’t know was that his father had checked in with the garage already at 5pm that day and found out that the car was ready to be picked up then already. So not long after they drove out of the city, Arun Gandhi’s father asked him to pull over to the side of the road and he then explained to his son that he knew the truth. “I am deeply troubled,” the father said. “What would cause my son to lie to me? How have I failed as a father that my son would not trust me with the truth? I must reflect on this.”
The father walked the rest of the way home, but told his son to follow him slowly in the car so that he could see by the car’s headlights. It took six hours to get home with Arun driving the car at a snail’s pace, all the while seeing his father’s hunched back as he pondered his failure as a father. But Arun knew this was not some stunt meant to induce a guilt trip within his teenager’s heart. He knew his father was a man of utter integrity and if he said he was going to reflect on his own failures, he meant it. Arun was stricken to the core and hence, he later testified, “I never told a lie again.”
In the end, Arun changed his outward behavior, but not so as to obey an external rule. His father’s loving reaction caused him to re-orient his mind. He no longer told lies not because he wanted to avoid getting punished but because he loved his father and the change in his behavior stemmed from this love. He stopped lying not because he knew he mustn’t but because he no longer even wanted to do so. So also for us: our holiness must stem from love. And our love comes because, as Peter says in the end, we have now tasted that the Lord is good.
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