Have you noticed that a significant portion of our population has been melting down over the past few weeks? To put it another way, many in our nation seem to be going through an identity crisis. Just a couple examples. Just over two weeks ago thousands of women stormed the streets of Washington D.C. and cities around the world to protest…what? I’m not exactly sure what they were protesting. If actress Ashley Judd can be considered the spokeswoman for that protest, I guess they wanted the world to know that they are a bunch of “Nasty, loud, vulgar, proud women.” Ok. No argument here. The other is the ongoing debate over whether gender is a biological fact or a psychological theory; which has resulted in the fact that some people are having an identity crisis when it comes to deciding which bathroom to use. But as highly publicized as those examples are, they are only symptoms of a deeper problem. They are evidence of a world lost in the darkness of sin and unbelief searching for personal identity and purpose. This shouldn’t surprise us. Identity is important – it’s who you are. So…who are you? How do you identify yourself? Male, female, son, daughter, father, mother, white, black, rich, poor, high school dropout or college graduate, employed, employer, jobless, retired, Republican, Democrat, Independent…the world demands that you identify yourself according to these categories. Is that really all we are? The sum total of our body parts, our skin color and politics? Not according to God. This morning Peter helps us rediscover our Christian identity, first to know it and then to live it.
In an example of the foolishness and inconsistency of unbelief, our society encourages people to identify as whatever they want while simultaneously denying the right of any institution or authority to identify you as such. For example, I am free to identify myself as a Caucasian, heterosexual, monogamous, Christian male – but don’t you dare label me as a Caucasian, heterosexual, monogamous, Christian male. It’s absurd. But not as absurd as people who claim the ability and right to self-identify before God – and demand that he accept it. There are blatant examples: the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons – cults who have hijacked the label of Christian while denying Jesus’ identity as God and Savior – which is the central doctrine of Christianity. But there are more subtle examples too. People who attend church but secretly idolize power or position or wealth. People who claim Jesus as their Savior even as they live as Jesus’ enemies. And, maybe most humbling of all, people who claim to be Christian and yet by word and deed join St. Augustine in his honest but unbelieving prayer: Lord, make me good…but not yet.  There is a theological and logical lie behind these claims. It is the lie that creatures can claim an identity different from that given them by their Creator. That was the lie that led to Satan’s fall from heaven, Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden, Israel’s fall into destruction, and countless Christians’ fall from faith. We creatures don’t have the right or authority to identify ourselves before God. Only God can truly identify us. And he only has two categories.
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. Once upon a time we had no standing, no rights before God. We were less than nothing in his eyes. We not only didn’t recieve his favor and love, we received only his wrath and judgment. We didn’t possess citizenship in his kingdom or membership in his family. We could assert every imaginable claim, we could grumble and protest – but none of it could change the fact that by nature we were not God’s people, we were not entitled to his mercy, we could not call on him in prayer, live a life pleasing to him, or hope to live with him in heaven. We were lost, dead, and blind; doomed to a meaningless life on earth and imprisonment in hell forever. By nature, damned sinner is the only identity we own. That’s the true identity crisis every human faces.
What changed? What happened? Did we somehow manage to slip across the border from God’s wrath into God’s grace? No. What happened was that little word “but.” Did you notice it there 3 times in verses 9 and 10? But, but, but. What stands behind that but? God. God happened. God changed us. He didn’t just change our label, he changed our hearts and, as a result, our lives. He called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. Peter explained this in the beginning of this letter, where he addressed God’s elect, strangers in the world…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood. (1 Peter 1:1-2) Whether you can pinpoint the moment this change occurred is not important. The important thing is acknowledging who is behind this change, this conversion. God chose you. The Spirit sanctified you – set you apart from the rest of the world. Obedience to Christ, called faith, was planted in your heart through water and the Word. Having been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, your old identity – along with all its sinful desires, words and actions – has been torn up and thrown away. While once we were like refugees standing outside God’s kingdom carrying only our dirty, worthless, sinful rags as identification, we now stand before God clothed in the perfect robes of Christ. We are God’s people. Not because we have claimed it or earned it, but because we have received his mercy.
Now, that might sound a little abstract. What does that mean? Peter explains: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. You are a chosen people. Our world condemns discrimination. God practices it. Out of 7 billion people, God chose you. And unlike the world’s groups, marches and protests, this choice wasn’t based on your birthplace, gender, skin color, or politics. Look around at the proof. God has chosen men and women, married people and single people, those who never went to college and those who have received their doctorates, white and black, nurses, mechanics and artists, young and old. The Christian church is the most diverse organization in the world. And yet none of those things played a factor in God’s decision to choose you, Jesus’ decision to die for you, or the Spirit’s decision to bring you to faith, keep you in the faith and give you the hope of everlasting life. In a world that divides people along lines of race, gender, and social status – God unites us under one banner: undeserving sinners chosen by God, sanctified by the Spirit and saved by Christ.
You are a royal priesthood. In the OT, the only people who could properly, personally approach and serve God were the descendants of Aaron, members of the priesthood. If you wanted to pray, you had to go through them. If you wanted to offer a sacrifice, they had to do it on your behalf. But in the NT, God threw out that rule book. You don’t need a priest to pray for you, you can pray directly to God through Jesus. You don’t need the blood of a lamb or a black robe or an altar to serve God – your life is a living sacrifice and the world is your temple. Wherever you go and whatever you do – you do it as a royal priest.
You are a holy nation. Holy? Really? Didn’t we just identify ourselves as natural born sinners, disobedient in thought, word and action? Yes. But Jesus’ blood has washed you clean, has replaced your filthy rags with his own righteousness. Maybe we need to emphasize this for a moment. We are so accustomed to what we were that this is really hard for us to accept. On top of that, our world calls us delusional, Satan calls us guilty and our own consciences condemn us. But Jesus died to make you holy and sinless. It is finished (John 19:30) applies to your sins and your forgiveness. Don’t listen to what anyone else says – not even your own conscience. God has declared you to be holy and holy is what you are – right here, right now.
Finally, you are a people belonging to God. That brings us full-circle. Humans have an inherent need to belong. We want to belong to our families, our group of friends – and when that doesn’t satisfy – Facebook groups and political groups and groups marching in the streets. But whenever you turn on the TV you see the hopelessness, helplessness and confusion that results from belonging to the world. So don’t. Don’t identify yourself according to the world’s categories. You belong to God. Whatever else you might be, you are first and foremost a Christian. No one can take that from you. That is your identity. Know it. Believe it. Cherish it.
And live it. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 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. One of the greatest lies that Satan has sown in the church is that once you become a Christian, the struggle is over. Peter says just the opposite. Becoming Christian isn’t the end of the struggle, it’s the beginning. God made us Christians, now we are to live as Christians. Christians abstain from sinful desires and live good lives. This means war. And the fiercest and longest struggle is not against the unbelieving world but right here, in our own hearts – it is a war against the person we see in the mirror. The sinful nature doesn’t want to belong to God – it wants to be its own god. And the way it rebels is by leading us to live and believe everything that is contrary to God. In other words, it tempts us to sin. Now we may argue: “I can’t stop sinful desires from popping up in my heart and head – especially in this godless world.” True. No one is denying that. Martin Luther compared sinful desires to birds: “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest there.” (LW 42:73) You won’t be free from sinful desires until God buries your sinful nature in the ground. But that’s not an excuse for giving in to them. Remember who you are! Remember what Jesus died to make you and give you! You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) And, when you fail, come back to the cross, come to his holy Supper, drop your sins at Jesus’ feet in confession and leave forgiven, refreshed and ready to continue to struggle.
But, be warned. When you do that, people will notice. The world, which struggles with its own identity, will recognize you as something alien, a stranger in their darkness. It will hate you and accuse you of doing wrong because you don’t join in their evil ways. Don’t be surprised by it. Embrace it as proof of your true identity. And, know that this good living that Peter refers to is not some set of special, heroic good works. He’s not calling us to solve poverty or end violence or leave our homes and families to march in the streets in protest. He’s talking about living as a Christian in your average, every day, normal life. If you read the rest of this letter you see what Peter is talking about: quiet submission to governmental authorities. (1 Peter 2:17) Respect for employers and supervisors, even the bad ones. (2 Peter 2:18-25) Honoring marriage – whether married or single – and living our gender in a way that glorifies God. (1 Peter 3:1-7) And, in general, carrying out whatever role God has given you in life: child or parent, husband or wife, employer or employee. Even things as simple as changing the dirty diaper, taking the time to instruct and discipline your children, and patiently putting up with your spouse’s irritating habits and forgiving their sins – all are offerings God welcomes from his chosen people. But remember why you do it. It’s not so that the world may see your good deeds and glorify you. It is so that the world may see your good deeds and glorify God. Your quiet, moral life may lead your unbelieving neighbor to ask you why you live the way you do (and what a great opportunity to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness) – but it may not. Either way, in this life or on Judgment Day they will join us in giving glory to God. And for us, there is no higher calling and purpose in life.
Our nation appears to be melting down in an identity crisis. It is grasping for identity and purpose in gender, race, nationality, political affiliation – even in whether you are backing the Patriots or Falcons this afternoon. They’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t look in the mirror for your true identity. Instead, look to Jesus. Let your Creator and Savior identify you. You are so much more than your body parts and life experience. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. From your baptism to your grave you are a Christian. And wherever life leads you, you have a purpose: to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Amen.