1 Peter 2:9-12
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
I come to today’s passage with humility and love. Humility in that I know that my interpretation is just that, my interpretation. I want to be very intentional right up front to make sure that everyone knows that what I am going to say is how I understand scripture and I recognize that a lot of very intelligent and seasoned readers of the Bible have come out at a different place than I have. I respect that and I respect those of you that will disagree with me. My hope is that at the end of the worship service today that, even if you disagree with me 100%, we can still love each other and call each other brother or sister. All I ask of you is that you hear me out and don’t write me off as a heretic, liberal, socialist, communist, or anarchist. I believe that none of these labels applies to me as I am simply a humble interpreter of the text seeking to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Let’s get to the text.
Verse 9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” When you read this verse the first thing you should be asking yourself is “Who is the ‘you’ that this is referring to?” 1 Peter was written to both Jewish and Gentile Christians scattered throughout the region so we can assume that when he writes that “you” are a chosen people that Peter is addressing both of these people groups, both Jewish and Gentile Christians. We might say that he is writing this to the church. So Peter is telling the church that they are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
From the time that God called Abraham to leave his home for a land He would show him, the Jewish people (called Hebrews at the time) have been known as God’s chosen people. Through them God would bless the entire world. And indeed, God has. Perhaps no blessing is greater than the fact that through the Jewish people the Savior of the world was born and we know him as Jesus. Now Peter, and in other places Paul, is saying that this group of chosen people has been opened up to include people from outside of the Jewish family. Now God’s chosen people includes anyone who names Jesus as Lord, the people that we call the church. The church, God’s chosen people, are to be a holy nation.
If we jump ahead to verse 12 we find how the church is to live among non-believers, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” I don’t know that I just love the way that the NIV translates ethnos as pagans in this verse, as the same word can be simply translated as “gentiles” or “nations”. The point is that these Christians are living among non-Christians (pagans, gentiles, nations…). And these non-Christians are probably going to accuse the Christians of all sorts of things, mostly bad things. But the Christians are to live like Jesus, to live good lives, so that when the non-Christian sees the way that the Christians are living that they may glorify God. This is a lot like what Jesus says in Matthew 5 when he instructs his hearers to be a city on the hill, letting their light shine so that others will see their good works so that others will give God glory.
But let’s back up to verse 11 where Peter calls the church foreigners and exiles. This seems to be a strange way to describe the church, doesn’t it? The Jewish Christians would surely know a thing or two about being exiles. They would have heard the stories of when their people were taken from their land, the Promised Land, and carried off into exile. They know what it is like to a part of the minority religious group in a land as they were forced to settle in strange territories. I believe that in referring to the church as foreigners and exiles that Peter is encouraging the church to maintain the faith while they are living within the Roman Empire as exiles in their own land.
The Bible talks of two different kinds of kingdoms: the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’s day the dominant kingdom of the world would have been the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, with its strong military, marched through all of the known world, conquering city after city, region after region. They usually gave the people two choices: become a part of the Roman Empire or die fighting us. Jerusalem became a part of the Roman Empire around the year 63 BC.
During his ministry on earth Jesus talked about a different kind of kingdom which we commonly refer to as the Kingdom of God. These two different kingdoms are often vastly different. The kingdoms of this world spread and expand through a “power over” model. The power over model is forcing people into doing what the people in power want. It is like the Romans taking the land through force. The kingdom of God spreads and expands through a “power under” method.
To the average observer, the power under method might seem very ineffective. Jesus showed us what it looks like to practice power under another person on the night that we call Maundy Thursday when he took on the role of a servant and washed the feet of his disciples, even Peter who would verbally betray him, even Judas who would turn him over to the Roman army to be crucified. Jesus further exemplified the power under method of kingdom expansion when he allowed himself to be beaten, spit upon, tormented, and ultimately killed on a cross.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he could have called down legions of angels to save himself from the pain and suffering that he had to endure on the cross, but that would have been power over. And the kingdom of God does not grow through power over methods. So instead, the love of Jesus is made known through his sacrifice on the cross. Power under looks like servanthood. Power under looks like sacrifice. Power under looks like the cross. Power under looks like love. Power under looks like Jesus. And power under is the way that the kingdom of God spreads. Like I said, this method does not look effective to most people on the outside. As Paul says the cross looks foolish to those on the outside.
The reason that I come to this subject today is because tomorrow is the 4th of July, the day which we celebrate the birth of our nation. I want to say that I do love our country, so please don’t accuse me of anything other than that. And as far as kingdoms of this world go, I believe that America does things as good, if not better than every other country. I am thankful that we live in a country where I have the freedom to worship as I want and that I can speak freely. I am glad that I have the freedom to speak against my country when I believe I need to. I am very thankful that every couple of years our country asks my opinion on how I believe that this country should be run and I have the option to give or not give my opinion through voting. So I say again that America does this whole kingdom of the world model better than any other country that I am familiar with. But America is not now, nor will it ever be, the kingdom of God.
I believe that there are a lot of good debates out there as to whether the United States is a Christian nation or not. I think it really boils down to how you define Christian nation. If you believe that the United States is a Christian nation because a large number of the Founding Fathers were Christian, I can understand that. It isn’t hard to name a few who were not Christians, but there is some truth to what people say when they say that there were founding fathers that were Christians and that they developed our Constitution based on Christian principles. So if that is your definition of Christian nation, I wouldn’t argue with you.
Others might say that this is a Christian nation because something like 80% of Americans claim to be Christians. I would debate this a lot more intensely. If you give the average American a survey and tell them to check the box that best applies to them and you give them three or four options, sure, they will check that they are a Christian. But I believe it was a Barna survey that pushed this number out a bit and started asking those that checked the “Christian” box things like, “If you knew that you wouldn’t get caught, would you cheat on your spouse? If you knew that you wouldn’t get caught, would you steal from work?” And the Barna survey found that a surprising and unsettling number of people who called themselves Christian also said that they would cheat on their spouse if they knew they wouldn’t get caught.
I would say that regardless of whether or not this nation has ever been a Christian nation is irrelevant because what we see today is anything but Christian. And I would go further and say that it was never God’s intention to have a Christian nation. God would much rather have a nation of Christians.
If we go back to the early years of Israel, we find that after God brought the people out of Egypt, they survived for a while as a people group, a chosen people group with God as their king. We call this a theocracy. But that wasn’t what the people wanted. They grumbled day and night, We want a king like all the other nations! God resisted this at first, but eventually gave in and Saul became the first king of Israel. And it wasn’t long before the power went to Saul’s head and he started doing things outside of the will of God. In fact, I would say that much of the monarchy of Israel was plagued with idolatry and sinfulness.
So we fast-forward 1,000 years and along comes Jesus and people begin to recognize him as the Messiah. They believe that he is going to release the Jewish people from the oppressive rule and be the new king of the Jews. He is going to use power over the Romans to drive them out of the Promised Land! But every time the people tried to push Jesus toward that option, he went the other way. He said things like “My kingdom is not of this world.” And when his disciples, who often don’t seem to understand what Jesus is doing, tried to use the power over methods of the kingdoms of this world, like when Peter cut off the ear of the Roman guard with his sword, Jesus rebukes Peter and heals the guard. You have to think that made the guard wonder about what they were doing there! We don’t know, but maybe he because a follower of Jesus! Maybe, like the guard who witnessed Jesus’ death, Malchus said, “Surely, this man was the son of God.”
There will be times when the kingdoms of this world call us to do things that do not coincide with the teachings of our King and how we are called to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. Like Peter and the other apostles say when the governing authorities are trying to keep them from preaching the Good News, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). This doesn’t mean that we don’t ever obey government. This isn’t a call to anarchism. As long as the government tells us to do things that don’t differ with what God tells us to do, then we are to follow the government. But when they differ, our choice should be clear. We must follow God.
As many of you know, I am a fan of the greatest football team in the world, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Even though my team is going through some tough stuff right now, I will stand beside them and support them. I will wear the scarlet and grey come fall. Ohio State is a part of a conference known as The Big Ten (which is now made up of 12 schools). Early in the season, the first four games, the schools usually play what they call non-conference games. For instance, Ohio State plays teams like Miami and Colorado. And during non-conference games, I usually cheer for the other Big Ten teams like Indiana, Illinois, and Penn State. I cheer for all of the Big Ten teams with the exception of evil personified, that is Michigan. My favorite team is Ohio State, my second favorite team is whoever plays Michigan. So through the first few games of the season, I will cheer for Illinois. But when Illinois plays Ohio State on October 15th, when these two teams compete against one another, there is no doubt in my mind who I will be cheering for.
I hope you can make the connection between my football reference and the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. I am first and foremost a member of the kingdom of God. My primary allegiance is to my King and His kingdom. And as long as the kingdoms of this world do not compete with that allegiance then I will support the kingdoms of this world. But if I have to make a choice, I am always going to choose being faithful to God before I make the decision to be faithful to my country.
Now this is where I move from what the scripture says to my interpretation of how this should be lived out. So if you disagree on some of the details, I hope that you won’t call me names and storm off but recognize that we just disagree on the particulars. I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance. My allegiance is to my King and His kingdom. Now the question is Can we have secondary allegiances? I believe we can. It is like when I cheer for other Big Ten teams in football. As long as the other team isn’t competing against my team, I can cheer for them. And as long as my country isn’t competing with my God, then I believe I can have an allegiance to my country. But my allegiance to my country isn’t my secondary allegiance. It is more like my fourth or fifth allegiance.
My primary allegiance is to my King and His Kingdom. My secondary allegiance is to my family. My third allegiance is to the world-wide church, then to the well-being of others, and probably then to my country. And if we were all honest about it, I would bet that your primary allegiance wouldn’t be to your country either.
Our country tells us that we are to not steal. But what if your child was sick and dying and the only thing that could save your child was a series of medications that will cost you over 1 million dollars? Your insurance won’t cover that, but without the medication, your child will die. This becomes a competition of allegiances. Which wins out? Your allegiance to your child, who needs this medication, or your allegiance to your country, which will throw you in prison if you try to steal it?
Some people might say that I take it a bit far by not saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and you are allowed to think that. Some might say that the Pledge isn’t trying to make you choose between your God or your family and your country. But the language of the Pledge is very clear. It says “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Unites States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The “under God” part is tacked on their as an afterthought.
I prefer the work of J. Nelson Krabill and June Alliman Yoder. Together they wrote a “Christian Pledge of Allegiance” that states: I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, And to God’s kingdom for which he died—One Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible, With love and justice for all.
I love my country, but I do not put my country before my God. Tomorrow on the birthday of this nation, I will eat my hotdog, watch the parades and the fireworks, and I will be thankful for the freedom that I have been given to speak the words here today that I have spoken. But my ultimate allegiance is to the King of kings, Lord of lords and His Kingdom. Everything else comes after that.
“It is time the world recognizes that we are not God…America today is the closest the world has ever seen to God. But, alas, the gap remains great.” –Time columnist Charles Krauthammer.