The first letter from Peter to the churches in Asia Minor - modern-day Turkey - is a letter written to Christians who are struggling to live within a society that does not share their beliefs, their worldview, their morals. Whilst there was not widespread, systemic persecution of Christians at this time, being a Christian would likely lead to some form of suffering.
Peter writes to encourage the believers in that suffering, and to instruct them how to live well amongst those who do not share their beliefs. He offers them hope in the midst of suffering, and to see persecution as a chance to show the love of God to others. He encourages them to identify with the Old Testament imagery of the Israelites - that they are a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood set apart to minister to the non-believers that surround them.
As such, this is a fascinating letter to read in our own context, where we are increasingly living in a nation that does not share many of our beliefs, our worldview or our morals. I would hesitate to call Christians a persecuted minority in Scotland - I think that does a great disservice to the many thousands of Christians around the world who face severe persecution - but when I look at the competing worldviews that my teenage daughter is presented with, I know that bearing the name of Christ in 2021 is very different than when I went through high school.
We arrive toward the end of the second main section of the letter, and what we see in our reading tonight is an exhortation to live lives marked by grace.
In verse 8, we are told to love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins. Now - this is a phrase that is often used today to imply someone has been blinded by love and does not see someone’s failings. I don’t believe that is what is meant here. This is about adopting a posture of grace towards others, remembering that we have been forgiven much. That this is how God looks upon us, because of Jesus.
Debra Hirsch, wife of Alan Hirsch, both of whom are missiologists, is fond of saying that we should lead with embrace, not theology. Not that theology is not important, but that our opening posture - government Covid restrictions notwithstanding - should be one of open arms. One of grace. Loving each other deeply.
The letter goes on to encourage us to offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. The Greek word here is philoxenos from philo - to love - and xenos - stranger. Our English word xenophobia is a fear of strangers, but hospitality would be xenophilia - a love of strangers.
Loving a stranger is risky. It’s a love without the context of the person. It isn’t a transactional love - where I show love because you have first done something for me. It is not a dinner party at mine expecting a dinner party at yours. We should be showing love to one another without grumbling, without expectation, because that is gracious love. That is graceful love.
So we should be living lives of grace - extending love and hospitality to each other freely. Then in verse 10 we are encouraged to be good stewards of the grace that the Father has shown us by using our gifts in the service of others. These are the gifts of grace - the gifts of the Holy Spirit - that God pours out upon Christians for the building up of the church.
Throughout the New Testament the message to those who would follow Jesus is simple - repent, believe, be baptised in His name, and receive the Holy Spirit. Not always in that order! But you see it over and over in the book of Acts. And the Epistles often remind us that with the Holy Spirit we receive gifts that are for the building up of the church. They’re not for us, but for God’s people. We should not withhold them, for they are not ours to keep.
This is what Peter is saying here - that we have these gifts of grace, and we should steward them well. He then gives 2 examples: verse 11 “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” Now - this is not saying that anyone who is a skilled speaker should puff their chest up in arrogance because they speak for God. No. This is humility for those who have been given a gift - an undeserved gift of grace, but a call not to hide that gift but to treat it with the respect that it is due, not speaking their own words, but using the gift that God has given them for the building up of the church and to point the church back to Jesus.
The same with serving. You may not think that serving is a gift of God, and I would argue that we all should seek to serve regardless of gifting, but here we are talking about specifically being gifted in that way. And if that is your gift, then you should use it in God’s strength and for His glory.
Tonight we are come to celebrate the induction of Neil Watson into Rutherglen: Stonelaw. What is this, but a celebration that God has called Neil here, and given him gifts that are for the building up of the church here in Stonelaw? He heard that call. You heard it too. Presbytery also. It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit. God has called Neil here, and has given him gifts that are for the building up of this church.
But God has also called all of you who are members of the church here. He has given each one of you a gift for the building up of this very church. He is calling you to be good stewards of that grace - not to hide your gifts, or to sit back and let others get on with it. The gifts you hold are not for you, but for the church. You each have a responsibility to this church.
David Cloutier, an American theologian of whom I know virtually nothing outside of this quote, said that every member of a church should feel that they are vital to the survival and flourishing of that community. Do you feel you are vital to the survival and flourishing of this church? God has called you here. God has given you gifts that are for here. In the body of Christ, there is no appendix - no vestigial organ that serves no purpose.
We each have a part to play, no one person any less vital to the survival and flourishing of the church. For ultimately all of us, whether ordained or not, members of Presbytery or not, members of this church or not - all of us are God’s sheep. He is our shepherd, as it says in our Ezekiel reading. There’s no hierarchy among sheep. He rescued all of us. He called us out. He leads us through dark places to the good pastures.
Likewise, we all come as members of Christ’s body. He is our great High Priest, He is the head of the church, and there is no other. Neil is not being inducted as head of this church, but as one who seeks to steward the gifts that God has given him. And in stewarding those gifts, he will point you back to Jesus so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
For He is the ultimate representation of the grace that has been shown to us. It is His love that covers a multitude of sins, for it was His death that paid the price for them. It is His hospitality that that shows the way, for whilst we were still sinners - estranged from God - He gave His life, without grumbling, for us. He truly spoke with the very words of God, and He got on His knees to serve.
The only response to such amazing grace is to live lives that reflect that grace, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Video of the full service below. Readings begin at 11m33s and the sermon starts at 14m08s.