1 Peter 2:9-12
There’s a nasty cold and flu going around. Between the viruses and these temperatures, a lot of people are sick, missing school and work, and generally feeling lousy. There’s a poster on the Tube that makes Ian laugh—it’s a guy sneezing…a real messy one. It’s a sign about how to keep from spreading the flu to other people.
The worst kinds of flu spread through the air—germs that we cough or sneeze get breathed in by other people. The worst outbreak in history was the Spanish Flu Epidemic, right at the end of the First World War. It killed far more people than the war—estimates are anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people between 1918 and 1920. William Randolph Hearst’s mother died from it. So did the president of Brazil at the time. One of the most famous victims was Max Weber—the father of modern sociology. Franklin Roosevelt survived the flu and lived to be president of the US. Woodrow Wilson survived it while he was president. Mary Pickford and Walt Disney survived the flu and became stars in entertainment. Can you imagine the last century without Walt Disney?
The Spanish flu was one of the most contagious diseases in history. People caught it from other people that they didn’t even know—one carrier could infect an entire urban neighborhood or small town.
9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once 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.
11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live 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.
This letter was written to Christians in modern day Turkey. At that time they were in danger of being persecuted for their faith, and so this letter was designed to be an encouragement to them during hard times. The focus of the letter is to comfort Christians who are realizing they aren’t welcome in their own culture anymore—Christians who feel like strangers in places that used to feel familiar.
Last week we talked about topic sentences and I shared the statement that I want to place at the very beginning of this new year: True happiness begins with an acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship in our lives and in our church. That’s it. That’s our ‘single, controlling idea’ for the year. We read the opening sentence of Mark’s gospel last week: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ That’s what I hope will become the foundation for what we believe and do in this place. That’s the true source of happiness for our lives. It’s what we mean—or ought to mean—when we say Happy New Year.
I mentioned Dennis Prager here last week. In his book Happiness is a Serious Problem he said this:
As important as happiness is, if you make it your most important value, you can never attain it. Happiness is only achievable when it is a by-product of something else, and you must hold that other something to be more important than happiness.
Does that make sense? You can worry about being happy, or you can build your life on a foundation of important things like faith, family, friendships and service. The point here is that shifting our focus to more important things has the potential not only to make ourselves happy, but also to become contagious—having an impact on people we come into contact with whether we know them or not.
There was a study published at the end of last year in the British Medical Journal. The research showed that happiness spreads pretty quickly through social networks of family members, friends and even neighbors. The co-author of the study said this:
‘Your emotional state depends not just on actions and choices that you make, but also on actions and choices of other people, many of which you don’t even know.’
Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself. When one of your friends has a happy friend, your odds for happiness go up 9.8%. Even your neighbor’s sister’s friend can boost your happiness by 5.6%.
Now none of this means you should cut off ties with your friends who might be unhappy—we know that’s not what we should do. But I think it’s important to be aware that how we’re feeling can be caught from someone else, and that our own emotional state can impact others—maybe even people we don’t even know.
I’ve been seeing posters all over town about the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Next month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and he’s getting the sort of attention he deserves as one of the truly original thinkers of the last few centuries. Christians have been arguing about Darwin since the Origin of Species was published in 1859, but the important issue at stake there isn’t really whether Darwin’s observations about natural selection and evolution are true. The issue is whether they’re the complete truth. I’ve said this before here: If God made everything in six days, then who are we to be surprised by that? If he made the world and everything in it over millions of years, who are we to say that those processes aren’t an example of his amazing creativity and power?
It’s important for all of us to remember, every once in a while, that if God really is who he says he is—and who we say we believe him to be—that he might be able to do something that we can’t fully grasp or understand. Let me put that another way: If we could understand all there is to know about the God we worship, he wouldn’t be worth our time.
The argument about evolution over the last 150 years or so has clouded the really important belief that whatever happened, the God of the universe was in control—the God who came in the form of Jesus, who lived and served and died and rose and reigns in heaven right now—that same God is in control.
I say all of that because the advertisement for the Darwin explanation says this:
‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’
Have you seen that? It’s a great example of confrontational marketing. But it’s also an important question for us as followers of Jesus Christ. ‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’
There’s plenty in the gospel of Jesus Christ to outrage just about anyone. To people who believe in an eye for an eye, Jesus said to turn the other cheek and allow yourself to be weak in the face of oppression. There’s a happy thought. You can find that in Matthew’s gospel, right at the start of the New Testament.
To people who have received an extra measure of material and financial blessings in this world, God says ‘whatever you do for the lowest or the least of the people around you, you do to me.’ Great. That’s also in Matthew.
To a world that says do whatever makes you feel good—everything’s OK as long you really want to do it, God says not so fast. ‘For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.’ That’s in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
To a church that might want to turn their noses up at other people’s behavior and take on God’s role as judge, God says: ‘You have no excuse…because you who pass judgment do the same things.’ That’s in Romans, too.
Mostly, though, in a world that thinks that this life is all there is—that Darwin’s brilliant discoveries are the only explanation for all of this—and that no one really cares about what happens here, we’ve been reminded again this Christmas that the God who created the heavens and the earth actually loves us and wants us to live forever in his presence.
There’s plenty in the gospel of Jesus Christ to outrage just about anyone.
And so I’ll ask the question from the billboard one more time: ‘If you had an idea that would outrage society, would you keep it to yourself?’ Hold that thought. Think on the line from our text today: ‘Live such good lives that you outrage your society, and it sees that God is behind the whole thing.’ OK, that’s my translation.
There are a handful of reasons why the church exists. To worship God, to gather in Christ’s name, to teach and shape character, to provide community. There are dozens of identifiable reasons that the church exists.
But the most important, the one that really defines who we are and why we’re here, is this: The church—the gathered body of people who are seeking to follow Christ—the church exists to make the gospel of Jesus Christ contagious—to spread it around and get it on everything. We exist to reverse everything we’ve learned about keeping our faith to ourselves, to doing our best not to offend anyone by sharing our belief with them, to hiding what God has done and is doing in each of our lives so that we don’t outrage anyone around us.
The Church exists to play its part in making the gospel of Jesus Christ as contagious as the flu. You want to outrage people in a good way? Get some of the gospel on them. Sharing the gospel of Jesus, with all its grace and love and mystery and even doubt—sharing that good news is the way to really mean it when we say ‘Happy New Year’ to each other. It’s a way of making the blessings of our lives of faith contagious to the people around us—exactly as God intended them to be.
Over the next four weeks we’re going to take our annual trip through what it means to be the church—what it means to be a contagious community of faith. I’ll skip ahead and tell you what I’m going to say: The contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and is expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.
Let this be the first sentence you memorize in 2009:
The contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and is expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.