As I was preparing for this evening I realised I wasn’t going to get through in my preparations the part that the reading came from. I was still reading in chapter 1, and there I stayed. So if you would like to turn to the first letter of Peter, chapter 1, I am going to read the verses that I would in fact be speaking from this evening, chapter 1 of 1 Peter, verses 22 to 25 and we have these words:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again not of perishable seed but of imperishable through the living and abiding word of God, for all flesh is like grass and all it’s glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains for ever. And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:22-25)
And I want to remind each one of us, as I share with you this evening, that the Christian faith requires belief in the bible and the bible’s unique understanding of truth. And that is why in churches like Jesmond week by week, in study groups and sermons, we are taught from the bible. And in the process we discover that we can trust the bible, for through scripture God has spoken. Listen to the words that are at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews. This is Hebrews chapter 1, verse 1:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”(Hebrews 1:1)
And it is as we read the bible and we begin to think about bible passages like that one, that we begin to change because we are released from contemporary western confusion about truth, into understanding what truth is as God has declared it. As we read the bible we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God. We grow in our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and of the very nature of truth and how that affects the whole of life. Any one of us will have done some basic study at school or beyond that at University which means that we have an understanding of scientific investigation and research that can teach us a great deal about the created world around us. And there is a proper procedure for understanding that aspect of the way God reveals his greatness. But through the bible we learn about the one who speaks to us not only through the natural world around us but also through his written word, telling us with clarity what he is like. And I want to remind us this evening that the Christian perspective is this – this is a knowledge and understanding of God that we can acquire no other way. It complements what we can investigate using, as it were, scientific method. And as we listen to God speaking through scripture we see and understand that unique biblical dimension that makes sense of who we are, and we gradually begin to identify with what we hear, because it really is Good News. Now it is with that in mind that I began to read the final verses of the first chapter of 1 Peter. Let me read them again:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
Now as we hear those words read, those of you who came forward this evening for baptism, for confirmation, the laying on of hands, to renew your Christian commitment, can see that they apply directly to what you have been doing this evening, and what has led you to this point. You purified your souls as it were by your obedience to the truth and the consequence is that you begin to understand what Christian love is really about. We become obedient to the truth by believing the good news of the gospel. And that has led us not just to grow in knowledge of God and of the cross of Christ. But it has led us to put our trust in God through Jesus Christ. We have been, as Peter puts it, ‘born again’. We have become spiritually alive, the Holy Spirit of God has been at work in us, and we are different. Now that sometimes comes as a surprise to those around us because they know us or knew us as we were, and they are trapped as maybe we once were into thinking, ‘We never change basically.’ We have fallen into the kind of fatalism in this land which is common in other parts of the world as –a shrug of the shoulders – ‘That’s the way I am. That’s the way things are. What can we do about it?’ But as Christians we are not fatalists. We do not believe, and the bible does not teach us, that ‘Que será será!’ – ‘Whatever will be will be!’ Through our trust in Jesus Christ and our obedience to the truth we are beginning to live differently, and we know that. Outwardly of course we will look back to something like the events of this evening, our baptism, confirmation, the laying on of hands, as a moment that reminds us of the time when we got on out feet and we stood up as Christians. We were prepared to be known as followers of Jesus Christ. And each of you will be able to say not only that the living and abiding word of God is meaningful for other people. You will be able to say, “This is truth that I now understand and which I intend to live by.”
But if you look at those words at the end of 1 Peter 1, you will also realise that they don’t just apply to our initial experience of becoming Christians. Obedience to the truth is also about our growth as Christians in what the bible calls godly living. Now it is never easy to talk about obedience. It reminds us does it not of childhood, of being told what to do. And it is rather out of favour in our contemporary society. We prefer to think that we are free to do and believe whatever we like. And that surely is one of the greatest deceptions that the evil one, the devil, has sown into contemporary western society. But then, as now, we need the reminder that obedience to the truth, living by the truth is what really counts. It is the truth that transforms what we believe and the way we behave. Earlier in 1 Peter 1, you may like to look at verse 14. Peter puts it like this,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
We now know as Christians that we are to live differently. We know how we should live, and the world around us desperately needs the example of Christians living Christianly; whether it’s about the way we live in our families; whether it’s about how we see marriage; whether it’s the way we do our work or study. These are things we work on differently simply because we are Christians, and in that process we learn how to relate, not only to God, but to each other as God has planned for us. And that is also the thrust of these verses at the end of 1 Peter 1. We are to understand what the bible means by love and holiness. Look again at verse 22, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart”, and in the original he pours one word with subtle differences from one onto another to get across the force of what he is saying. The belief you now have will affect the way you behave, and others will see the difference. We are to understand what the bible means by love as holiness, for according to Peter genuine love between us depends on knowing God who is holy and becoming more like him.
Now I began sharing with you by reminding us that Christian faith requires belief in the bible and belief in its unique understanding of truth as revealed by God, for God has spoken. But I want to end by urging you at the most practical and perhaps obvious and basic level to understand that this means that not just the folk here at the front but all of us are to take the bible seriously if we ever want to understand what Christianity stands for. If you are not a believer, if you are not a Christian, you will never get to the heart of things unless you open the bible. And if you are a Christian, and this perhaps is obvious for those who have been baptised or confirmed this evening, then get into the habit of regular bible reading! Habits are not formed in a day or two. Those who study these things tell us that it takes months to establish good habits. So don’t give up if there are days when you don’t feel like reading your bible. There may have been days when you don’t feel like working or studying, or doing anything else for that matter. So our feelings hardly come into it. It is about forming Godly practical bible reading habits, and as we do so we grow in our Christian faith. But of course we need that reminder if we have been Christians for many years. It is incredibly easy to get out of good Christian habits, and here we need to help each other to pray and to read our bibles. And if we have read our bibles for many years, the whole point is to go on reading them so that we more and more see the world around us through that biblical perspective that makes sense of it all.
The moment we stop reading our bibles we drift. And we live in a society that is drifting dangerously close to paganism. You see, the one thing, and Peter is anxious to underline this, the one thing that is permanent is the word of God. That is the point of his quotation in verses 24 and 25 from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. Let me read again what he writes, “For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains for ever,” And to new Christians and longstanding Christians alike I say this, and I need the reminder daily, there is in scripture this constant reminder of the transient changing nature of culture, every culture, not just western culture. And every culture has its whims and fashions and so called values, and these are contrasted time and again in scripture with the permanency of the word of God.
So I urge you to trust the bible enough to let it challenge you and correct you. Let it challenge and correct your thinking so that in turn your behaviour becomes increasingly Godly and Christlike. For through scripture God will stand up to you and tell you what’s wrong, every bit as much as he will stand with you to defend you in the world. Strength, power, wealth, beauty, fame, all that this world holds dear, we are told by Peter as was said previously by the prophet Isaiah, all these things will fade, “But the word of the Lord remains for ever.”