Text: 1 Peter 2: 1-12
1 Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house [a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 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. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 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.
As you may have heard, this year is 400 years since the Baptist movement began. That we think together about the role of history in the life of the church is surely appropriate.
It is good to look back. Ronald Knox was a boy of four when asked what he did if he couldn’t sleep. He replied, ‘I lie awake and think about the past’. A rather unusual boy – and he became a great Catholic scholar. But that is a good strategy for us – not necessarily to lie awake, though I would encourage that for the next little while – but to think about our past as a denomination.
Not that we want to sink into a mindless nostalgia for the past, rather as the present Archbishop of Canterbury has remarked, ‘To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future’.
One of my daughters and her family a few years ago returned from an overseas holiday and the grandchildren presented me with a couple of little souvenirs. One was a small badge that simply reads, ‘history matters’. I later discovered that the badge was part of a national program in the UK. Museums, heritage centres as well as historians are combining to promote the idea that history matters.
The program was launched with a magnificent speech by the actor Stephen Fry:
. . . How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don’t know who we were? . . . Historians are prophets looking backwards . . . The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters.
So – let us ask:
Why does history matter to Christians?
Basically because the God of the Bible is a God who has acted in history to achieve his saving purposes. Central to the OT is the story of the Exodus – when God delivered his people from bondage. It is presented as an historical event – an interpreted event, of course – the Egyptians may well have had a different understanding of the escape of those Hebrew slaves – but then all history is interpretation. They remembered and repeated this story – it was crucial to their identity. The Hebrews were taught that history mattered to them: ‘God brought us and our fathers out of Egypt’. And in the NT is a very particular history that has as its central focus a brief time span in a specific location on earth. The Christians preached that God acted in history in Christ to deliver his people.
We can see this belief that history matters at work in the literature of the NT. Take 1 Peter 2. Here is a letter addressed to largely unknown little groups of Christians living in parts of Asia Minor, what we call Turkey. It is striking that the writer links them with all the rich heritage of the OT people of God. Their story is part of the greater story. Drawing on familiar OT images and stories they are described as the people of God. Verse 10, drawing on Hosea, declares: once you were ‘no people’. You had no identity. You didn’t belong. You had no purpose. But now – after the remarkable action of God in history – in the OT stories, in Christ and in the gospel at work in their midst, they have been made ‘THE PEOPLE OF GOD’.
They are called, as the OT Israelites were, to live as if in a foreign land (literally Babylon in the OT), to be like ‘aliens and exiles’, to be a people whose identity is not defined by any political border, who are not subject in any absolute sense to any earthly authority. Their identity defines their mission. As people of God they are called to a life of mission (vs 9: ‘to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’) to be a people of compassionate service and moral living (vs 12). As a later Christian writer put it, Christians were to be ‘a third race’, not Jews, not Gentiles – but to be ‘the people of God’.
So discernment of God’s activity in history is, in a sense, what the Bible calls faith. It is believing that in Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – God was present. His love was found not in the great power bases of empires but in the man who died as a criminal on a specific spot at a particular moment that you could have timed with a clock if you had been there. An event of history that determined their whole existence – as here in 1 Peter 1:3: ‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’. He died for us on the Cross and was raised again – an event of history that determines our identity as Christians. This is the fundamental theological reason why history matters. The God of the Bible and of our experience is not cavorting around in some distant celestial heaven but is active – often in mysterious ways that puzzle and bewilder us – but active right here in the muddle of this earth and our messy lives. And what about the years since those determinative events of 2000 years ago? God has not left his people. The vocation of the church historian is crucial to the life, health and identity of Christians in every age and place.
The church is called to be a community of memory. There are other family and cultural institutions that traditionally have played this role and some of these are faltering, but the church’s role as a community of memory is crucial to our life together.
History matters to Australian Baptists
We too need to see our story linked with the larger story of God’s people. Stephen Fry observed, ‘History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory . . .’ So, as 1 Peter reminded those scattered Christians in Asia, you too are part of that long and significant story. The phrase ‘aliens and exiles’ recalls the past. This is where you belong.
Perhaps in Australia, of all settler nations, we should resonate with this language of being exiles. Those tough convicts, and all who have followed to these distant shores, knew what it was to be away from home. At times Baptists have drawn on this exile motif. When Baptists began the church in Canberra things were tough. Most of the population was transferred from Melbourne and those public servants had to build a new life. In 1929 A J Waldock reported to the Baptist Union of Australia what it was like: It was a population of exiles, who sat down by the river Molonglo and wept when they remembered Melbourne, who said, ‘They that have carried us away require from us song and mirth. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Melbourne, let my right hand forget her cunning.’ Into this atmosphere of discontent we were required to go, and with very little material to start with, build up a Baptist church worthy of ourselves and the Commonwealth.
Moreover, if history matters, we need to know why there are Baptists. We are a denomination which admires the insights of others but we also insist that there are truths and emphases that we feel obliged to maintain. If we want to leave denominationalism behind us, as many do today in Australia, it is even more important to know what our heritage is, to realize what we bring to the church’s collective memory and experience and what remain challenges for our contemporary life and mission. In a time of bewildering change – as these days are – it is even more important for Baptists to remember that history matters.
You see, we are in grave danger of not knowing who we are as Baptists. Of course Baptists have often reinvented themselves, just as we are doing at present – freedom to do so is part of our legacy for we are not a movement restricted by formal creeds and hierarchical government. But the risks of being such a free people are great. We can be manipulated by the dominant culture in startling ways. We are exposed to a lazy or uncritical adoption of the newest fad in being church. My plea is that history matters. If we change we need to know what we are leaving and why we are doing it.
What have Baptists historically stood for?
Here many approaches might be offered. We share belief in the historic faith of the church such as enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed. We affirm the distinctives of the Protestant Reformation with an emphasis on the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. But beyond this?
This is a generation that likes to think visually but many years ago a great Baptist theologian Wheeler Robinson set himself to depict Baptist beliefs in a diagram. The result is seen in a large wall diagram in Regent’s Park College in Oxford which summarizes Baptist emphases (in Greek, of course, after all this is Oxford). It is in the form of a five-pointed star imposed on two concentric circles. The points of the star spring from the inner circle on which is inscribed ‘Lord Jesus’, suggesting that at the heart of all Baptist faith is that central affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ and a determination not to accept any other authority as absolute. Jesus is Lord. The Lord still guides and directs his people by Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
On the five points of the star are other words. One is ‘faith’ which emphasizes the necessity for each individual to confess the faith personally. ‘Baptism’ is the next word and reminds us of the characteristic Baptist teaching that baptism is for believers only, a belief which they hold derives from Scripture and a belief for which many have literally given their lives. The third word is ‘Fellowship’ a reminder that the Baptists’ message is that whilst we must come to faith individually we are not to live as solitary believers but to covenant with others in the life of the church. This fellowship embraces every aspect of our life and reaches out to all who follow Christ. The fourth word is ‘freedom’ which again is a major Baptist distinctive and also a truth for which from their beginnings many Baptists risked all, including their own lives. Many Baptists might be recalled here but Martin Luther King was an outstanding Baptist from last century to illustrate this Baptist characteristic. The final word is ‘gospel’ or evangelism, a clue that for Baptists evangelism and mission have always been central to their identity, whether it be a missionary like William Carey or an evangelist like Billy Graham.
And the outer circle is meant to convey that the Baptist message is universal and reaches out to the whole world. Surely these are important matters which still need to be stressed in our modern church communities.
History matters – because it dares us to remember what it is like to be a Christian in other places and times. The miracle is that as we remember we are propelled forward to be true to our destiny as ‘People of God’ in our own age, even us – with that mix of faith and foibles that has always characterized God’s people – as the history of Australian Baptists, I suggest, more than amply demonstrates.
I hope that our Baptist story will remind us that wherever we are – these little lives of ours have an eternal meaning and hope. That is why history matters.