Today is the second Sunday of Easter, and we continue our Easter celebration
by turning to the Apostle Peter’s letter to the early church and also to an ancient text of Israel.
Peter wrote to first and second generation believers in Asia Minor, today’s Turkey.
These churches were among the first of those who came to believe in Jesus and follow his ways.
21 centuries later, we still benefit from their faithfulness,
from their willingness to be different from their surrounding culture.

The faithful of Israel always claimed and affirmed their “different-ness”.
Jewish persons proudly claim a different set of traditions and customs.
They identify themselves as a covenant people bound by Torah, the law.
Our Old Testament reading today from Leviticus reminds both Jews and Christians
that it is not only “OK” to be different from the surrounding world,
but that we are commanded to do so, to seek different-ness, holiness even.

Hear the Word of God from Leviticus 19:1-4,9-18:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God…When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the Lord.

The priests of Israel called the normal, everyday people to be holy, to be different,
by obeying the Ten Commandments and loving their neighbors as they loved themselves.
The first century people to whom Peter wrote were normal, everyday folks as well.
Peter wrote to remind them of who they were in Jesus Christ.
Some of them may have been household servants.
Some were “resident aliens”, immigrants, working in Turkey but born somewhere else.
Some had spouses who worked for the Roman government.
Others would have claimed that they had been oppressed by the Roman government.
Many would have claimed that they had been ostracized and even suffered various trials
because they followed Jesus and called themselves Christian.
Peter encouraged them to remain faithful in difficult times,
to be different by seeking to live disciplined and holy lives.

I Peter 1:1-9, 13-16
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls…
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.”

I confess that I had somewhat of a vision or an awakening this past Wednesday.
I have been thinking quite a bit over the past few years about the challenges
that the church in the United States faces in this 21st century.
I have been wondering, often, about the future of the Church, especially mainline, traditional churches.
As we are well aware, the culture of North America is changing.
Culture is always changing, of course, and we will not be ones that dwell on the past,
especially since we claim ourselves to be the church reformed, and always being reformed,
by God’s grace. And I’ll never forget Melanie’s grandfather claiming that:
“the good ol’ days weren’t necessarily all that good.”

My vision, or perhaps just my wishful thinking, is that our nation will not seek to go back
to how things were in a different time, but that we would discover a “return to reverence”.
Why reverence? As Paul Woodruff writes in his book Reverence; Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,
we look to reverence “because we have forgotten what it means.
Because reverence fosters leadership and education, because reverence kindles warmth
in friendship and family life. And because without reverence, things fall apart.
People do not know how to respect eacth other and themselves.
An army cannot tell the difference between what it is and a gang of bandits.
Without reverence, we cannot explain why we would treat the natural world with respect.
Without reverence, a house is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher.
Without reverence, we would not even know how to learn reverence.” (Woodruff, 2001, p. 13)

The pendulum does often swing back, after all.
There have been at least three Great Awakenings during the relatively short religious history
of our nation. Perhaps the people of our nation are ripe for the next “Great Awakening”.
Perhaps the pendulum is ready to move away from coarseness in public life and towards faithfulness.
Perhaps we are ready to move away from crassness and toward thoughtfulness.
Perhaps we are ready to move away from disrespect of neighbor and towards reverence
for each person as a unique and worthy child of God.
Are the people of our nation, or at least of our churches, ready to turn toward that which uplifts
and does not tear down, toward that which appeals to our higher nature and not our base nature?

At the heart of my hope is that the desire to love God would be renewed,
because people would come to know in their hearts that we have been loved by God.
At the heart of my vision is that the people of Atlanta would commit themselves to love neighbor,
because we have learned to value diversity and the sacredness of each individual child of God.
At the heart of my vision is that we would learn what it means to be stewards of a fragile earth.
On this Earth Day Sunday, we cannot underestimate the need for people of all faiths
to care for and not exploit the resources of the earth.
Love for God, love for neighbor, and care for the natural world begins with reverence,
with what we might call a desire for “holy” living.
How we live in this world and what we do will flow from how we think about ourselves.

Peter taught those early Christians in Asia Minor that they had been called out of the world
for the sake of the world.
What might it mean if the churches of Greater Atlanta began to consider themselves
as chosen and destined by God to be “obedient” for the sake of their neighbors?
What might result if all the people of all our churches began to live lives not conformed to our desires,
but conformed to the person and image of Jesus Christ –
the one who was holy, different, set apart for love and service?

During the Easter season, we typically use a different affirmation of faith,
but on most Sundays, we repeat the Apostles Creed.
From week to week and year to year, we claim together, “I believe in the holy catholic church,”
which means that we claim belief in the sacred, universal body of believers
that God has called into existence through Jesus Christ.
The word “church” comes from the Greek word “ecclesia”, which means “called out”.
The word catholic with a small “c” simply means universal, or worldwide.
And the word “holy” means “set apart for a special use”, “sacred”.

When we stand and affirm our faith with the Apostles’ Creed,
we claim that the body of believers – from the country chapel to the suburban mega-church,
from the warehouse church to the grand cathedral –
has been called out of the world and set apart by God for a special purpose.
The Church and her people are called out of the world to be sacred, holy, different –
called out not over against the world nor in any way above the world –
but set apart to be holy for the sake of the world…
The Church has been blessed in order to be a blessing, as it were.
The Church, which means you and me, and all of those other persons who left quiet neighborhoods
this morning to gather in worship, is called to live disciplined and obedient lives,
grateful and joyful lives, trusting in God, setting our hope in Jesus Christ,
enjoying grace and peace in abundance,
and yes, serving as “leaven in the dough” to a world in need.

What we think about ourselves, as the Church, will help determine the destiny of the Church
in the 21st century. How we decide to live our life with God and others
may well determine the future of our nation and our planet.
I am grateful for those early churches of the first century in Asia Minor.
I am grateful that they saved not only the physical letters from Peter and passed them along to us;
but they also sought to embody the message that he wrote.
When I think about those first century house churches,
and how they were sustained through significant trials and persecutions in the decades to follow,
I am encouraged that the One who sustained them,
who sustained the Church and its mission in the first and second centuries,
will also sustain the Church in our particular calling in this challenging, yet hopeful 21st century.
I am hopeful that today’s believers will seek to embody the messages of old,
will seek to live holy and joyful lives,
trusting in the One who came that all may have life and have it abundantly.
To God be the glory as we do so.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
April 23, 2017