As we walk through 1 Peter together this fall, we will see how the apostle paradoxically expects the churches of Asia Minor to be both compelling (2:12, 18; 3:1-4) and repelling communities (2:15; 3:16; 4:3-4). Even more paradoxically, the very thing that makes us compelling to the world will be precisely what causes us to be repelling to so many. Namely, our difference from the world. This difference is a moral one (e.g., 2:1, 13-17; 3:8-12), as we follow directly in Christ’s footsteps (2:21-24; 3:18; 4:1, 14). The world finds this both beautiful and troubling (read 3:13-16).
Peter variously describes this difference by referring to the congregations as “chosen exiles,” “resident aliens,” “strangers,” and “sojourners,” (1:1-2; 2:11), dispersed in their earthly pilgrimage (1:1, 17), as they wait “for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.” The churches’ exceptional character and hope made them quite alien in this world.
The Compelling Community of the Early Church
The outstanding character of Christian communities continued beyond the apostles. The Greek philosopher and critic of Christianity, Celsus, once countered Christian claims that Jesus was God by asserting that He was no different than Hercules or Dionysius. He was just a mortal who “became” a god after his death, by the larger-than-life esteem of his followers. Origen of Alexandria’s response was bold and beautiful: “Can they support their claim to be gods by proving that there are people who have been reformed in morals and have become better as a result of their life and teaching?”
The early church could! And they changed the world. Observing the amazing impact of early Christians on the Roman Empire, historian Michael Goheen writes, “the most characteristic element of mission in the church of the first three centuries was the attractive power of the local congregation.”
Maybe you’re wondering whether you can find such a congregation today – or have ever seen one. You’re not alone. “The crisis of evangelism we face in the Western world is not a lack of information,” one writer observes, but a lack of transformation “that would provoke others to ask, ‘How did you discover this remarkable new way of life?’” The early church, however, seemed to possess this provocative quality to a remarkable degree.
Reflecting on the “intriguing attraction of early Christianity,” Goheen writes, “this did not come naturally,” but rather “was instilled by way of a painstaking catechetical process.” The attractive and transformative character of the Christian community resulted from sustained instruction and intentional practice.
The primary way the early church did this was through catechesis. In this process, new converts were trained in both sound doctrine – built around Scripture and common creeds – and sound practice. In cultivating practice, they applied their faith through everyday obedience to Jesus’ commands, as instructed by trained disciples, and exercised themselves in regular prayer and fasting.
Such discipline has always been necessary for Christian formation. As Paul encourages Timothy at Ephesus (4:6-8):
…being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. … train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
We too need to train ourselves for godliness, if we would become a compelling (and repelling) community for the gospel.
One helpful component to such training has historically been fasting. Until the modern era, fasting has always been a regular practice of the Church. For a variety of reasons, the 20th century saw a dramatic decline in this spiritual discipline among Western Christians. However, in the past 50 years or so we’ve seen a new appreciation and renewal of the ancient practice among some evangelical leaders (e.g., Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ) that continues to grow today.
Fasting is especially helpful to, in Peter’s words, “prepare your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Remember your mother’s line, “Garbage in, garbage out”? What are you feeding your mind on … your attention and focus? Is it on your hope in Christ? Or is it on something far less substantial? Together with prayer and Scripture reading, fasting refocuses our attention and energy from the routines and rhythms that so often keep us distracted from the eternal, and engrossed in the temporal. It changes up those rhythms and challenges our unconscious reflexes, which are so often reacting to our earthly appetites.
To this end, we are calling Riverside to a church-wide fast from August 26th through September 22nd.
As a first level, we are asking everyone to prayerfully consider abstaining from social media (unless it is required during work hours by your employer). Unplug for one month. See how God fills that time.
In addition, as an optional second level to the fast, consider giving up or significantly decreasing time spent watching television (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.) or playing video games during that month.
An optional third level would be abstaining from certain foods (sugar, carbohydrates, meat, alcohol, etc.) for the month, as a way of growing in the spiritual fruit of self-control.
The purpose of this fast is not merely to abstain. It is to feast! It is to pursue God in prayer and read/memorize Scripture. Pray for yourself, your friends, your family. Pray for the items on this fall’s Prayer Cards (handed out at Family Meeting).
Instead of checking your phone, scrolling Instagram on your iPad, or watching late night Netflix, ask yourself, “What am I feeling inside that makes me want to retreat or distract myself with this outlet?” Take time to explore this honestly. And ask also, “Is there somewhere else I can turn that might better satisfy this anxiety?” Reach out to a friend, to your spouse, or a member of your small group to talk about this internal conversation.
Rather than lying in bed looking at your phone or falling asleep while watching Netflix, read a good book on your faith; if you’re married, debrief your day with your spouse; engage with God either through prayer or journaling about the things in your day which made you most anxious or sad, and what made you thankful and happy.
Remember to Plan your Fast!
Consider your daily and weekly rhythms. Take note of when you are most likely to Netflix binge or go to social media. Make plans now to involve someone else in an activity during those times. Maybe take a walk around your neighborhood and try to talk with at least one person on your street. Maybe print off a list of the members of your small group. Instead of turning to Twitter or Apple TV, pull out that list and pray for the members of your group.
Maybe select a passage from 1 Peter that you want to commit to putting to memory this fall. Rather than turning to Facebook or Netflix, take out a copy of that passage. Meditate on it. Try to memorize a few verses that are meaningful to you.
We will then celebrate our “break-fast” on Sunday, September 23rd after the second service with a church-wide picnic at Heathwood Park.
For more on fasting, see here.