Last Sunday we talked about the role given by God for the newly created Church, formed in that first century after Christ’s life, to be witness to and proclaim the resurrection of Christ as tenants of the Kingdom of God. From the walk to Emmaus, on which Christ met with the two disciples, enlightening them to the mighty work of God in Christ, to the story of the new church in Acts where over 3,000 new believers joined in the genesis of the church of believers in Christ as Lord, we have seen the growing nature of the community of believers.
In 1 Peter, our author is laying out for us the foundational requirements for the church to continue to grow and to continue to have the community impact Christ exemplified himself in his life and death. In her commentary on 1 Peter, Dr. Pheme Perkins reminds us that the churches to whom our author is writing are part of a conversionist sect – that is, they were converts to the faith, encouraged to turn from other pagan and secular worship to worship the Lord Almighty.[i] They are not told to leave the larger society in which they are already apart, they are not called out as nomads to wander in the wilderness, instead they are called to live in community with other believers to be a witness of Christ for the larger society.
In this morning’s text, the author is going to make a claim for what the nature of the church should look like and in doing so, make a claim for how the church is to live in community with God, with one another and with the rest of the world.
Just as Jesus argued for the necessity of his death and resurrection in light of the scriptures for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our author is writing to new converts to help them understand their situation in light of the life and death of Jesus, and in doing so, also makes a claim of who Jesus is in reference to the biblical texts.
The first claim made is that coming to faith is like a newborn needing pure milk. Newborns have an innate knowledge that their mother can provide for them the sustenance they need to grow – especially in the early days of life. However, newborns cannot find the milk by themselves – they need to be pointed in the right direction. Once they have tasted and learned the source, it becomes second nature for them. In the same way, new converts to the faith know they need sustenance for their faith to mature, but they do not always know from where – as our scriptural author calls it – the pure spiritual milk may come from. The pure spiritual milk is the love of God in Christ, and we’re told in verse 3 that like the infant who has tasted and knows the milk is good, if you indeed have tasted of the love of God you will know that the Lord is good, and the sustenance of God’s love may lead you to grow into salvation. The author is connecting the love of God in Christ to the psalmist; Psalm 34:8 reads, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” Those who are new to the faith, seeking the Lord are called to find the good of life in Christ, and to live in His name.
The sustenance that will grow new believers that they may grow into salvation is the love of God in Christ. The author calls to the conversionist sect, to those who are seeking for the good of life to “Come to him” – to Christ.
Christ is called a living stone; and though mortals reject him, he is chosen by God, and precious in God’s sight. In the same manner, those who believe will be like Christ – we will be like living stones, built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. The call by Peter is not for the believers to build a structure out of brick and mortar to become a physical church building, they are not called to segregate themselves from the larger society, but instead they are called to be the living stones that will be built into a spiritual house – that all who are a part of this body of believers will be the church, the community of believers, and they may be a holy priesthood, and will offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ. And the foundation of this church body will be Christ.
Listen carefully to the language our scriptural author uses, we are not building for ourselves a spiritual house. Did you hear the nuance? We are not building for ourselves a spiritual house. The author uses the word oikodomeisthe (oye-ko-dough-mace-they), which Dr. Pheme Perkins notes is in the passive imperative voice.[ii] Put your middle school English thinking cap on … the passive imperative voice. The author says we are to let ourselves be built into the Church. To let ourselves be built. It is not our work that will create a Church to offer refuge to the lost, comfort for the suffering, help for the hurting and the Word for the seeking – it is Christ who will build us, and he will do so as the cornerstone of the Spiritual House to be built.
Pulling from Isaiah 28:16, we hear, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whosever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Joel B Green, out of Fuller Theological Seminary, says that we must remember there are two purposes for a cornerstone in the building process.[iii] Having a cornerstone is not only about aesthetics – it should be a smooth, well-built stone. But more importantly, cornerstones were chosen specifically because they were cut at perfect 90° angles ensuring a solid foundation for the structure. They needed to be the perfect stone. As the perfect stone, it becomes the foundation that will ensure the remainder of the structure maintains its integrity.
Again, tying in Christ’s role to become the foundation of the new community of the Church, our scriptural author pulls from Psalm 118:22, which we referenced last week, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Though Christ was rejected by the builders – a reference to the leaders of the synagogue, the religious leaders who were to lead the people of Israel – Christ has become the chief cornerstone, the sure foundation of a new community to lead God’s people into right relationship with God, with one another, and with the larger society.
Having laid out for the new believers, the conversionist sect, what it means to be built by Christ as a community of believers, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood – what it means to be living stones, we then hear what the result will be for this newly formed community in the final two verses of today’s text, verses 9 and 10. What is laid out in these two verses defines for us “a meaningful role for Christian identity [both for the first century church and us] today.”[iv]
Verse 9 tells us we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. We are called upon to remember Isaiah 43:20, in which God names the community out of Israel as the chosen people. We are called to be a royal priesthood – all believers are called to fulfill the priestly role of being holy and offering mutual love.[v] This is not a call for only ordained pastors to live the call of God, it is a calling upon all who are a part of the community called the Church. The author calls the Church a holy nation – we are a people with whom God has entered into an eternal covenant, with whom God has rescued time and time again that we may be made holy. And we are God’s own people – God cares for the distressed and the formation of the people chosen by God.[vi]
With this type of language used to describe the Church, language that describes God’s people as ‘elect’ and ‘chosen,’ it should come as no wonder that people outside the walls frown at those who are a part of the Church and at God we serve. The ‘elect’ and ‘chosen’ often set up the walls of the physical church building to serve as a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Dr. Perkins offers this thought, “By emphasizing God’s mercy and election, readers can understand the hostility shown by outsiders as a sign that others have not been chosen to receive this precious gift, [Eternal Life through God’s love].”[vii] She goes on, “[But] this passage also points out that the obligation that follows from being God’s people [is to] ‘declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into light.”
In fact, not only does the author of today’s scriptural text tell us that it is an obligation to declare God’s love, in verse 9, we read that “[we] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” To not praise God – to not proclaim his mighty acts – to not worship God for calling us out of darkness and into the light – is to live a life that is not befitting of the Church. By being made into a spiritual house by choosing Christ as our cornerstone provides us no alternative option – for when Christ is the foundation of the Church, that is, when Christ is the foundation of our connected lives together, we will live into the purpose of proclaiming the Good News of God as offered to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As I named at the start, this text today not only offers us a foundation to understand the nature of the Church, it also offers us a glimpse of how to relate to the world around us. If the nature is that we are an elect body of holy priests who profess the Good News of God in Christ because Christ is the foundation of our structure, how then do we, as this connected community of believers, connect with the wider world?
Making one final connection to the Hebrew Texts, our author pulls from Hosea 2:23 in verse 10 of today’s reading, which says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
I love this phrase, “Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people.” We – the people of God – the chosen and elect – at one time were just another scattering of individuals. There was a time when we were not God’s people. But God saw what was happening to the people Israel in the time of slavery and exile in Egypt. God saw the horrible acts of the good creation to which God had given life. And God formed a covenant and called the people – our people – into a new life, a new place, and God made a promise of providing for them eternal life.
At one time, we were not a people – but being saved by God, we are now God’s people. The number in that group has grown – and grows every day as people profess Christ as Lord.
One would think that coming out of slavery, whether from slavery to the Egyptians or from the eternal slavery to sin and death, the people of God – those new and old – would know the promise of the Good News for all people who still live in slavery to the evil of the world.
Truly I believe God’s people, from time to time grasp the good of being rescued. But the truth is there are examples all around us of people who are seemingly invisible, groups who only become a people we care about because they live through some form of unexpected evil.
For example, the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were not known as a people prior to December 14, 2012. They were just children going to school. But now, two and a half years after the shooting in Connecticut, they are a people. They are more protected, more closely bonded, and more thankful for the life they still have. They will be watched more carefully, monitored more by parents, teachers, and friends – they were not a people, but now they are a people.
The passengers on Malaysian Airline Flight 370 were not a people until the plane went missing on March 8, 2014. As the news spread of the planes disappearance, they became a people – 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers. Each person was given a name, a face, and as a whole, the 239 people were prayed for and mourned over. They left Kuala Lampor not a people, but today they are known as a people.
Prior to April 14, 2014 the 276 girls in Nigeria were not a people – they were unknown, lost in the sea of faces in their homeland. But now – having been taken from their homes, perhaps taken from their country, they are now a people. They are a loved people who are being sought by those who would desire their safe return and promise of new life. They were not a people, but as the hashtag #bringbackourgirls would remind us, 219 still missing, these girls are a people.
Prior to June 17 this year, very few (if any) of us would have known the name Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The people of that church were an unknown people. But after nine church members were shot in their church building following a Bible study, this group of unknown individuals is now a people.
So far in 2015, 558 people have been killed by police officers. These are not all believed to be unwarranted and challenged deaths, but with the increasing attention drawn to deaths by the hands of public safety officers, a group of people who have no previous connection or knowledge of each other have become a well known group of names. This group of individuals was not a people, but with rising awareness around justice and public safety, this group is now a people.
What happens when people who were not a people become a people? We start to care about them. When we know of a people who have suffered, like those in Charleston, SC, we offer them the same mercy that God offers us – we send help, love, support, and supplies. When we know of a people who have gone through hardship – whether it be because of a major tragedy like some of these stories or simply a neighbor living through a broken relationship – when people experience the evil of life, they become an important people with whom we want to engage and offer love. We proclaim to them the same love God has offered us, and the same promise God has offered us in the resurrection of Christ – we have hope for a new and better life to come, and we want to share that news with others who are in need of hope for a new and better life.
As we get further and further from Easter Sunday, a day in which we vibrantly celebrated the good work of God in Christ, as the Alleluias fade from our voices, as the chant “Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed” gets softer and softer in the background, as we come to a point where we may wonder ‘what happened to the joy I felt on Easter morning?’ I want us to remember that we were not a people until God claimed us and called us as a chosen people. We have reason to celebrate that God has called and confirmed us. But let us remember that we are not living as the Church, founded on the love of Christ, unless we are offering the witness we have to the goodness of God to the world around us. Let us not wait to proclaim God’s mercy until others become a people for the world in the wake of tragedy and heartache – may we proclaim God’s promise to all today that all are invited to be someone in Christ. May we remind ourselves that we are not to be so exclusive as a community with brick and mortar walls – as beautiful as they may be – that God’s mercy should only be offered for the hope of new life of those in the building, but that as Christ seeks to claim everyone as one of his own, so too should we be living as the church was intended, as a community of Christ founded believers, seeking out those we do not even yet know as people to claim for them that they are loved by God.
So may we, in the midst of all we are and do in life, remember there was a day when we were not a people – but in Christ I can tell you, today, we are a people. We are a people with a cornerstone that is seeking to build us into a holy people. Let us proclaim the power of the resurrection and the everlasting promise of new life for all that all may be known as God’s people. Amen.
[i] Pheme Perkins. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: First and Second Peter, James, and Jude. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
[iii] Joel B Green. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[iv] Joy Douglas Stome. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[v] Joel B Green. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 2. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[vii] Pheme Perkins. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: First and Second Peter, James, and Jude. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.