Embracing the Character of the Kingdom
In our sermons on 1 Peter, we have so far focused on our character as “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” Peter has reminded us that we are the same as our fathers in the Faith: wanderers and sojourners on the earth, strangers in a strange land, nationless despite living in a nation which we might be tempted to think of as “ours.” We belong to a heavenly kingdom waiting to be fully revealed in the return of Christ.
What does it mean for us to be members of this heavenly kingdom? All kingdoms have a common character: Germany is known for science, engineering, and humorlessness; France is known for the arts, food, and wine; America is known for muscular independence and big helpings. What is the kingdom of heaven known for?
Our basic answers to this question come from the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are bookended with descriptions of the people who will inhabit the kingdom of heaven: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mat 5.3, 10-12).
The first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is one of Jesus’ most cryptic sayings. It is hard for us to see our own spiritual poverty. It is humiliating for us to think of ourselves as poor—truly poor, not the “poverty” that we know here in America. “Poor” in the Scriptures means someone whose life depends on the generosity of others. The poor man cannot sustain himself; he will die without help. Jesus says that the kingdom citizen is “poor in spirit,” that is, helpless and doomed to die unless someone intervenes. In the first Beatitude, we recognize our utter spiritual dependence upon God.
But even when we understand what “blessed are the poor in spirit” means, understanding how to live it out is exceptionally difficult. Peter gives us some ideas of what spiritual poverty means: recognizing our own ignorance and the futility of life outside of God’s holiness, seeking to become holy, waiting on the day of the Lord, submitting to human authorities, and generally living humbly. All of these ideas we will cover in coming sermons, Lord willing.
Jesus’ final description of the kingdom citizen, “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” is one of Peter’s major themes. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet 3.13-17).
We commonly use 1 Pet 3.13-17 as an exhortation to evangelize. Peter shows us how to address outsiders: begin by honoring Christ in our hearts; be ready to offer a defense to anyone who asks; make our defenses with gentleness and respect. All of this is framed by our Christ-like suffering. Our suffering is an opportunity to invite outsiders into the kingdom, and we make that invitation by modeling Christ’s suffering. The Crucified Christ is what we are advertising when we defend the Faith to outsiders. If we want to be in the kingdom, and if we want to bring others into the kingdom, we have to get good at suffering as Christ suffered.
Since these kinds of bookends in lists usually characterize all the things in the middle as well, it is fair to say that all of the Beatitudes describe the sorts of people who belong to the kingdom of heaven. We are to be meek, grieved, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pure, and peaceable. Beyond this, Jesus spends the rest of the Sermon on the Mount detailing life in the kingdom of heaven: it belongs to the one who shows God’s glory in his life; it belongs to the one who keeps his covenants; it belongs to the one who loves his enemies; it belongs to the one who worships humbly rather than for show; it belongs to the one who has faith in God’s provision for us.
It’s impossible to overstate how challenging it is to live out all of these ideals. We can begin by making sure we have embraced the values of the kingdom as our values. What’s important to you? What makes you who you are? The world tells us that freedom and wealth are the most important things in life. Are you affirming that, or are you affirming what Jesus says: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mat 6.33)?