Christians in the West today increasingly finds ourselves living on the margins. It was the same for the readers of 1 Peter. In a series of posts I’m identifying principles from 1 Peter for developing a gospel and missional DNA in our churches. The first principle is to proclaim the gospel to one another with the Christian community.
Proclaim the gospel to one another
Make gospel talk normal. Or, practice speaking the word to unbelievers by speaking to believers. If we are not in habit of speaking the word of God to one another in ordinary conversation then we should not be surprised if we find it hard to speak the word to unbelievers. After all believers, in theory at least, should be happy to hear God’s word!
Look at 1:23. It’s the word of God through which we’re born again. The word gives life and the word continues to give life. Peter’s emphasis here is on the enduring nature of the word of God. In contrast to perishable seed, it is imperishable. Human beings are born through the sperm of their father, but this is perishable seed and human beings are perishable. But Christians have been born again through the word of our new Father and this is an imperishable word that endures for eternal life. Look at 1:24-25. Human ideas, trends, fashions, accolades are all fleeting. But the word of the Lord stands forever and this is the word that was preached to us.
What is Peter’s application? It is to ‘love one another deeply’ and ‘to crave pure spiritual milk’. Look at 2:2. We are well placed in our church to understand what this means! How do babies long for milk?
The word that gave us life is the word that continues to give us life. This is the word that will sustain us. This is the word that will bind us as we live at the margins. So we should crave it.
It is not just that the Bible provides us with information. Look at 2:3. In 1:23 the perishable is contrasted with the enduring word of God. In 1:18-19 the perishable is contrasted with the precious blood of Christ. The word of God is where we discover the precious blood of Christ, where we see the goodness of God in the cross of Jesus.
We don’t read the Bible simply to fill our minds, but to change our hearts. We don’t read the Bible simply to be informed, but to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Read your Bible until you are moved. Read it to stir your affections: your fear, your hope, your love, your desire, your confidence. Read it until your heart cries out, ‘The Lord is good’!
‘Those who dream of [an] idealized community,’ warns Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.’ He continues:
[We] can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ … Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 36-38.)
Christians have been born again into a new inheritance that makes us strangers and aliens within the wider culture (1:1-4). We are called to live on the margins. But that act of rebirth also births us into a new family (1:22-23), an alternative community of belonging. This new family is God’s demonstration of the gospel. It is the beginning of, and pointer to, the new world which will be our inheritance.
So the gospel community matters. But this does not mean the gospel word is less important. Quite the opposite. In 1:22-23, where Peter explicitly links our new birth and our new family, his emphasis is on the means by which we are born anew: the enduring word. ‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ (1:23) The word gives life and the word continues to give life.
What forms and sustains Christian community is, perhaps paradoxically, not a commitment to community per se, but a commitment to the gospel word. Sometimes people place a big emphasis on the importance of community and neglect of the gospel word. Community then becomes a goal to which we work. But Peter says human activity cannot create life that endures. An exclusive focus on community will kill community. It is only the word of God that creates an enduring community life and love.
Yet we all know people who attend church every Sunday, but are not involved in the life of the Christian community or its mission. We have people who are hearers of the word, but not doers of the words (James 1:22). Hebrews 3:12-13 says: ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ These are sobering words because it suggests we are all just a few steps from being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. What is the remedy? Encourage one another daily. Not weekly! Daily.
Practical action: Make the sermon the agenda for everyday discipleship
People often ask me about the discipleship programme in our churches. I think they’re asking what courses we run. I wonder how Jesus or Paul might have answered that question. For them discipleship involved living and working together. The gospel was applied to people’s lives in the course of everyday life.
So encourage people to see the weekly sermon as our discipleship programme. This is what then sets the agenda for one-to-one discipleship through the week. The Sunday sermon gives a natural platform to apply God’s word to specific issues in people’s lives.