Sunday 25th April, 1999
4th of Easter Year A
St Stephen's Lewisham
Three Sermons on I Peter: No. 2
Conformed or Transformed?
"You had gone astray like sheep but now you have come back to the Shepherd and Guardian on your souls"
We have been looking at the First Letter of Peter from which the Readings for the Sundays after Easter this year are taken. We discovered that it was addressed to people who were on then verge of being baptized into the Christian faith.
We noticed that this was a most serious decision that they were taking, because to become a Christian in those days was in itself to have committed a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment more even death.
Last week we saw that baptism is not just a once-off thing but is like embarking on a pilgrimage together with a whole lot of other people. It's a pilgrimage progressing through this world and towards the Everlasting City, but one which requires us to behave with special respect and consideration not only for our fellow pilgrims but for the world through which we are passing on a journey.
At the same time we ought to think about the particular ways in which the attitudes held by the world in which we happen to been living differ most sharply from those which, as baptised Christians, we have been taught to believe in.
For those differences, between the way in the world sees things and God perceives them, aren't always and everywhere the same. Of course there are some sins like murder, adultery and stealing which are always with us: but things like that are generally agreed to be wrong even by the standards of the pagan world we live in, and laws exist to discourage people from committing them.
However, alongside these so-to-say fixed points of Morality, there are a whole lot of others towards which the attitude of one particular nation, or social group, or generation may be very different from another and from those which preceded or followed it.
In other words behaviour which is widely disapproved of in one time or place may be condoned or even approved of in another and vice versa. For example getting drunk has sometimes been seen as a sign of manliness; fighting duels to the death if necessary has been seen as a matter of honour; and being poor has been looked upon not just as a misfortune but a sign that a person is morally at fault in some way or another.
Such examples should convince us as Christians that it's a serious mistake for us to live a unquestioningly by the standards of the world through which we are passing. Occasionally, it's true, the world will get its ideas right -- but that's more by good luck than good judgment and can change very quickly – as the number of abortions during the last 30 years so clearly shown us.
More often, however, the view taken by the world of a particular moral question will be plumb wrong by the standards expected of us by Jesus Christ as his disciples. And it will be wrong, not because the world has given the matter serious thought and decided that Christians are mistaken in what they believe. It's much more likely that some fashion or attitude has "caught on" in the world: people have discovered that you can get a bit of a kick out of it; whilst others have found that they as easy money to be made in servicing what ever this latest craze is; and before long everyone, christians included are under pressure to conform if only because "Everybody's doing it now".
The urge to do "what everybody else is doing" or, to use the words of the Bible, to be "conformed to the world" lies at the root of far more and greater evils than the mere sins of the flesh. Live by the world and the sins of the flesh will follow up their own accord.
But whereas bodily Sins have a way of being self-correcting: either they make us ill, or likely to lose our jobs, or our friends if we indulge in them, or else we simply grow tired of them or grow out of them.
But "being conformed to the world" is much more insidious and habitual -- so much soul that after a while we don't even realise that we're doing it.
Last week we thought about those people who get so fascinated with the world which they are supposed to to be passing through as pilgrims, that they abandon their journey. If the object of their fascination which distracts them is something obviously wrong then there's a good chance they will come to their senses like the younger son in Jesus's parable of the two brothers one of whom left home and ended up you will remember in a pig-sty.
But if Christians allow the ideas of the contemporary world to become their own the likelihood is that they will be lost to Christ not just for the time being but for all eternity.
So how do we prevent ourselves from getting locked into this particular state of "conformity to this world".
Well the answer lies in the word used by Saint Peter in his sermon "you must repent", or in his letter "you have been going astray like sheep but have now returned to the Shepherd and guardian of your souls".
"We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep". That is a quotation we no longer hear in church these days and yet the thinking behind it is perfectly sound and scriptural. It was the prophet Isaiah who said "all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way".
Repentance means firstly recognising that we have got lost, and secondly allowing ourselves to be found again by the good Shepherd of our souls.
It's comparatively easy to recognise that we are lost when our sin has isolated us from our fellow men. Drink, drugs, adultery and dishonesty all by their very nature tend to isolate us and however difficult the way back maybe at least we realise that we have gone astray.
Much more difficult recognize is when we have been led astray in the company of a lot of other sheep. The fact that "everybody does it" leads us to draw the wholly erroneous and invalid conclusion "therefore it must be all right".
Over and over again, what the world decides is right is not what God has commanded; indeed it's probably the very opposite of what the world itself decided was right 20 or 30 years ago.
We just cannot get a reliable valuation of the rightness or wrongness of something either by "how it feels" or the number of people who are doing it at any given time. In a strange kind of way we recognise this about other people's sins but much less often do we apply it to ourselves. We deplore, rightly, the gun-carrying culture of the United States; we never pause to ask ourselves whether we might also unwittingly been part of an Ungodly cult.
We need to repent, as St Peter's said, repent and return. Return not simply in the sense of rejoining that from which we have become estranged, but in the first place turning round, turning our backs if need be on the world with which we have become too closely associated.
Before the Christians to whom Peter was writing or preaching were baptised they always confessed their sins. Isn't it significant how few Church people today make their confession compared with, say, 30 years ago?
Now there may be all sorts of reasons for this, not the least being that by highlighting particular sorts of sin to the exclusion of others preachers have entirely failed to hit the target with those whose particular weaknesses do not lie in that direction. Going on and on about the sinfulness of adultery, drunkenness or gluttony to a congregation of normally sober, chaste and self-disciplined people is not only going to be like water off a duck's back, but it will serve to conceal from them the fact that they have been led astray by the world in other directions.
In the end there's only one satisfactory way for many people to learn how to repent and that's to allows someone else to help us. It's a bit like getting over an infestation of head lice. You can apply any number of lotions and shampoos yourself but the only way to be sure that they've all been got rid of is to let someone else go through your hair with a fine-tooth comb.
And that's not because we're being insincere or wilfully blind -- it's because we simply can't see what where doing. Being conformed to the world is like harbouring head lice because we can't see them; repenting is admitting that we need help and assistance in getting rid of them.
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