1 Peter 1:13-16
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
“You’ve got a brand-new life with everything to live for!” Do you believe that? “You’ve got a brand-new life with everything to live for!” That’s what the Apostle Peter says to us as we look over the shoulder of those first century Christians reading his letter to them. It was his encouragement to keep going forward with the Way of Jesus in a time that was a real struggle to do so. It was all still very new. Its future very much in question. Could they maintain the energy of faith to keep going… to be holy like Jesus was holy… to be set apart for something amazing? They found a way to live up to that calling… not perfectly of course… but we’re here today so we know they did their part. “That’s all well and good,” you say, “that brand-new life stuff, but you don’t know what I’m going through. I don’t have time to imagine anything brand-new, let alone a brand-new life.” I hear you. This very week I was on the phone with someone who was thinking about cashing it all in. There was no way out. No way forward. No possibility of a brand-new life. And I’ll admit… it is gut-wrenching to be in such a place… certainly to be in such a place yourself and also hard to be the one walking through such a valley with someone else. “You’ve got a brand-new life with everything to live for?!” Thanks for the enthusiasm, Peter, but not me. Not now. It sort of makes this, well, a difficult situation. Difficult situations make for difficult conversations and we just don’t have those conversations well.
Sheila Heen literally wrote the New York Times best seller on this subject, aptly titled, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. She is a founder of Triad Consulting Group and has spent two decades at the Harvard Negotiation Project. Her husband teaches negotiation at MIT and, as she notes, they are “both schooled regularly in negotiation by their three kids who are 7, 11, and 14 respectively.” I heard her speak at a conference a couple of months ago and she told this story about her book tour following the release of her book about difficult conversations. By this point, she had been on Oprah which was the pinnacle of relevance at that time. She dreamed of a book tour of packed auditoriums and lines of people wanting her to sign their new books, just enamored and grateful for how she had changed their lives. She was especially excited to launch this tour in her hometown with a book reading. The publisher reserved a huge auditorium for the event and when the night came and she finally walked out on the stage of this huge auditorium that had the capacity to sit hundreds of people, she was received with the applause of 18 people who comprised one row of that huge space. Only 18 people showed up! She’d been on Oprah! She was a big deal! This was her hometown. 18 people? And eleven of them were her family. At one point, her three kids got up to take a break and because the space was hollow without any bodies to absorb the sound, before the back door of the auditorium could close behind the children, her own child, the youngest, says way too loud, “That stunk!” To which her oldest child responded, “It was supposed to stink.” And there was their mother, down to fifteen people in the room, cracking a smile as she realized, “This is supposed to stink.” Who gets excited about difficult conversations? The masses don’t flock to hear about hard things.
But to be set apart, to rise to the challenge of being holy as Peter suggests is our charge, won’t come without some hard conversations, some gut-check moments, some sacrificing commitments on our part. So, where are you this morning? Are you up for being holy? And I don’t mean holier than thou. Nobody grows or benefits from a holier than thou spirit. But Peter had the audacity to believe he was a holy vessel… that everyone was a holy vessel, capable of far more than we readily give ourselves credit for. This is why he could say, “You’ve got a brand-new life with everything to live for!”
We are in week two of a new series we’re calling “in, not of, but for”. I know. Worst title ever, right? Worse yet, though we launched the series last week on World Communion Sunday, I didn’t even make mention of the series title itself. I was all excited about the extravagant welcome of Christ at the Table and just couldn’t fit it all in. Even so, this four-week series continues our quest for IDENTITY – our over-arching theme of the year as we’ve imagined who we are individually, collectively, in relation to Creation and world and certainly who we are in Christ. This series considers our role as Christians in the world.
Christians have long, and fairly, been accused of using insider language. To some degree, every entity has some language that they’ve come to understand as their own. Christianity is no different and, admittedly, such can be nostalgic at times; like when singing hymns from our childhood that use phrases that today’s ‘never-churched Charlie’ might find utterly confusing. “In the world, not of the world,” is one such phrase that we’ve been known to toss out as idyllic. In brief, it means: ‘though we must exist in the world, we shouldn’t take on the non-Christian habits of the world.’ Like many clichés, this phrase may be used more to cast judgment than inspire faithfulness. The question we’re pondering in this series is this: Might we redeem the phrase? If God so loved the world (as we so often quote from John 3:16) perhaps there is challenge in such reality to exist in the world, resist the injustice of the world, and become advocates for the world that our God loves. Can we be in, not of, but for the world? That’s what we’re considering even today as we imagine the difficult idea of being set apart. Many of us spend a great deal of time trying to fit in, not be set apart. Others of us want to be set apart in terms of success. We want to be the best in our given careers. We expect our teams to win every time. We already understand some of this tension between fitting in and being exceptionally set apart from the masses.
But Peter tosses out this reminder that we are to be holy. Now we’re talking something deeper. And I’m not sure any of us think we are holy at all. I cannot ever recall anyone describing themselves to me in that way. Have you? “Hi. Name’s George. I’m an engineer. My hobbies include stamp collecting and Olympic-style Curling. And, I’m holy.” We leave holy for Jesus. I understand that. I wouldn’t describe myself as holy either. We may be what Nadia Bolz-Weber calls Accidental Saints … but holy? Not so much. But Peter has no space for excuses. He didn’t get it all right, himself. He fell. He sinned. He failed. But he was determined to keep after it. And that’s where you and I need to start this morning; where we are. In fact, that’s our only chance for there’s no going back… only forward. For you, it may be starting in a very foundational place of recognizing that you need God. If you’re going to be holy, you’ve at least got to admit that you can’t get to such a state on your own. You may need to have that difficult conversation with yourself.
Some great and respected scholar was once asked by another if there was a God. He responded, “I would advise you to ponder whether your conduct would change in any way depending on your answer to this question. If it would not change, we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can at least help you by saying that you have already decided that you need a God.” Have you reached such a point? Just because we’ve gathered in this house of worship this morning, doesn’t mean each of us is in a place of acknowledgement that we need God. Maybe you’ve never thought such a thing in your whole life – maybe this whole concept is new to you. Maybe you’ve gone through the motions for years and have sort of lulled your spirit to a point of hibernation… asleep to the Spirit and not all that concerned with a need for God or a desire to be set apart for some holy purpose. I cast no judgment here – my own spirit has walked the gamut of these realities at times. Sometimes it’s just a bad day or a heavy season. Sometimes it can be a state of depression. I’m just asking for us all to make that initial honest assessment. If I can recognize that I can’t do it alone… that I need God… then we’re on our way to fulfilling that purpose that we are made to fulfill.
Author Shauna Niequist says, “It’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.” This is what Peter is saying in this first letter he writes to the Church. “Hey!” he says with great enthusiasm – don’t you just see Peter as this speaker with dynamic energy? “Hey! You’ve already got Christ. You’ve got the potential in you. You’ve got the Spirit of God in you. What are you willing to give up, to sacrifice, or to take on to do the things you really care about?” You’ve been set apart for something meaningful and extraordinary. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. It just has to be yours. You have to own it. And whatever it is will require some discipline… some spiritual fortitude. But I’ll tell you this. Anyone who’s engaging their life with that spiritual energy has never said, at least not to me, “Eh, it’s not worth it.” What do you need to commit to today to begin that quest forward?
I have a friend who is quite successful by any standard… life full of steep responsibility and yet she was missing that spirit piece that she longed for and which she knew would require some re-shuffling of her life to be set apart in a new way. She determined on her own that alcohol was going to have to go. She was incredibly functional but knew in her own spirit that alcohol was holding her back from being the next best version of herself – set apart for something more. She told me about it at that time as a point of accountability. And when she checked in this past week she says to me, “I’m 200 days dry and never felt better.” As we talked more, she shared what she’s devoting that space and discipline to now which is serving a purpose far beyond whatever purpose alcohol was serving in her life. And somewhere Peter is shouting, “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about… a brand-new life with everything to live for.” For what are you set apart? When one of us gains that clarity, owns the discipline required, and gets after it, we all get better. Will Willimon, known best for his years as the University of Duke Chapel preacher and now Bishop in the United Methodist Church once said, “Imagine that if even one person acted more Christian in the church, the church could be totally transformed.” The questions for you and me: How do we need to grow? What do we need to let go of? What can we take on?
I know it’s hard to imagine making a life change… it’s hard enough just to show up to the world each day as we are. Even so, I don’t want to miss the chance to challenge you… someone is ready for this… somebody needs this challenge today (and maybe it’s me!). I just know that I spoke with a church saint one time, lived a long life in the church – a good life – but he says to me, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to make my faith easy. The truth is,” he followed, “it’s not.” This is why Peter says, “Gird up the loins of your mind.” That’s sort of an old way to say it and mostly lost on our culture. In Peter’s day, the clothing most people wore was robe-like and flowy which means if you had to do some tough work it would get in the way. So you girded up the loose clothing and tucked it into your belt so you could do the hard work that was required. Peter is saying to do the same thing with our minds; not to be content with a flabby or unexamined faith but to set things out, think them through; discard what doesn’t hold, cling to Christ which is not the same as clinging to human-made doctrine. Clinging to Christ is a growing dynamic as we become more and more familiar with his Spirit at work in us.
This will not lead to perfection… in fact, it may bring about more failure along the way at times. Anything that takes effort will not come without flaw. But holiness, in Peter’s request of us, is the spiritual pursuit: broken and healed, set back but stronger, sinned but redeemed. What we need to inspire in each other is a drive to work toward this goal, not discourage each other when we’re not there yet. The great Maya Angelou said, and I paraphrase, “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better. We’re all a work in progress. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to offer enough grace to each other in this regard. That’s why someone said very honestly to me: “I don’t trust people to accept who I am in process.” We need to create an environment where we can trust the process of each and every faith journey. We need to pray into that journey with one another and encourage our movement forward without expecting perfection. I knew of a man who was trying to work out the call of ministry in his life who was struggling with some of his failures and a friend spoke a word to him that made all the difference. He said, “I made a decision about ten years ago. I vowed that I would never again follow a pastor who had not known failure. Failure is essential in forming great people.”
Most everybody has a story and it’s often not the one they’re telling. My prayer is that we can find space together to share our honest stories and how we are growing through the struggles. That’s how we get better. It is why Peter includes hope and grace among the qualities that move us toward that holy spot where we are in the groove of the life for which we’ve been set apart.
Fred Craddock was the preacher hero to many would-be-preachers who took that big gulp to grace local church pulpits and attempt to voice the holy hope of God in Christ. My father was one of them. In Fred’s stories, he would often personify animals or inanimate objects for it was often easier to receive a word about ourselves when it appeared to be about something else entirely. On one occasion, Fred described in detail a nine-pound sparrow walking down the street in front of his house. Fred asked the sparrow, “Aren’t you a little heavy?” The sparrow said, “Yeah, that’s why I’m out walking, trying to get some of this weight off.” Fred said, “Why don’t you fly?” And then, as Fred described it, “The sparrow looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Fly? I’ve never flown. I could get hurt!” Fred asked, “What’s your name?” And the sparrow said, “Church.”
Church, we were made to fly. We may be a bit anxious or tired or afraid or resistant but those are all just things getting in the way of us becoming who we are fully designed and capable of becoming. Let today… let this moment… be different than all of the times you’ve wondered before about flying. May you be filled with courage. You can fly… for you, and me… well, we have a brand-new life with everything to live for.
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 As introduced by Eugene Peterson in his Introduction to 1st Peter as found in The Message. Navpress. Colorado Springs. 2002.
 Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen. Penguin Books. 2000.
 Supported by William Barclay’s “Commentary on 1 Peter.” Westminster Press. 1975.
 From Craddock Stories. Edited by Mike Graves and Richard Ward. Chalice Press. St. Louis. 2001.