A Royal Priesthood

Easter 5          May 14, 2017

1 Peter 2:2-10

Throughout the Easter season this year we find ourselves reading through the first letter of Peter, that passionate letter of encouragement to newly baptised Christians facing persecution.  Last week we talked about the section addressed specifically to slaves, at the end of chapter two; but our lectionary seems to be jumping around a bit, because now we are back at the beginning of that same chapter, with the passage that is the heart of the whole letter: the one that talks most fundamentally about who we are as Christians, what it means to be church.
As we discussed last week, it is always important to look at whom any biblical passage was originally addressed to.  The letter was written to Christians in a number of Roman provinces in what was then called Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  We know that they were new Christians, for the most part Gentiles: they had come to accept and embrace the gospel in the midst of a culture that offered them no better alternative for how to understand their lives and the world they lived in.

And we can infer something else about these people.  Presumably they came from all different backgrounds, as that seems to be a characteristic of the early church.  But later on the letter addresses two kinds of people specifically: slaves, who have found their way to the church on their free time; and women whose husbands are not believers, so again, who have found this for themselves. In the slaveholding, class-conscious, patriarchal world of the day, these are two groups of people who live subordinate, disadvantaged lives. That suggests that in these churches, as Paul says of the church in Corinth, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”  These are ordinary folk, and that matters.  Because the Saviour and Messiah they are called to follow is just like them.
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight”.  ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’ Rejected by mortals – that is something these early Christians would have understood very well: what it means to be second-class, not to be taken seriously, to have one’s life placed at the disposal of others.  And what this new gospel offers them is not one more distant and glorious authority figure to worship – the emperor fulfilled that role already – but a Saviour who did not hesitate to share their lot, to live with the poor and disadvantaged, to experience rejection and the contempt of others, even to the very bitter end on the cross.

And this is the secret to the growth of the gospel: it did not offer just an abstract ideology to believe in, but the figure of a Saviour who was just like them, was rejected, but chosen and glorified by God, and who was calling them to share in his glorification.  It was a gospel that in a very direct way gave them the dignity and worth that society denied them.

How would these words have sounded to them: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people?”  How would they sound to a slave, snatched perhaps as a child in a long-ago war, and dragged to serve in a foreign country where your freedom, your language, your dignity, your dreams all count for nothing?  How would they have sounded to a poor labourer, struggling to make ends meet, dreaming perhaps of a better life, but told to know your place and not get ideas above your station?  How would they sound to an intelligent woman yoked to a man who sees her as little more than the first among the slaves, the one whose job it is to see to the household and the children?  Clearly there is something wonderfully empowering and liberating in this gospel!

And what of us?  We are not slaves; many of us are women, yes, but in a much more egalitarian society.  And yet, for all the differences, I am sure there is something fundamentally the same in our response to the gospel.  Though our lives are vastly better than theirs, we are here, I think, because in our hearts at least we also know something of rejection, what it is to be hurt or despised by others, what it is to be vulnerable, what it is to be insignificant in the eyes of the world.  If we haven’t experienced it ourselves (but who hasn’t, in some form or another) we know in our hearts that it happens, and that it is not right.  What else has attracted us to this Saviour who was rejected by the powers that be, who was sent to die on the cross, without form or beauty that we should desire him – except the beauty of his infinite pity and love?

And how about the words of promise in this passage: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”?  How do we hear these?  Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, we say at the end of the reading.  Well these words are meant for us, too, because they speak of our baptismal identity as members of the church.  It is one thing to imagine what these words might have meant to those early Christians – it is something else, and seemingly far more difficult, to hear them spoken to us, spoken by the Spirit from the heart of God to our own heart.  You are a chosen race.  You are a royal priesthood.  You are God’s own people.  How strangely difficult it is for us to really hear these words, not just to process them in our heads but to let them land in our hearts and to believe them, to let them define us and shape us.  There is an intimacy here that we draw back from.

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  What a wonderful image that is for who we are and what we are here for.  When we think of the church, I think we often think first of the building, although we know of course that the building is just the building and the church is us.   But this image merges the two, the building and the people: think of the church as a living structure, made up of you, the living stones, fitted together to form something bigger than the sum of the parts.  It is us, you and you and you, together, who form the Temple of God in this place.  We have not built this Temple – it is God who has taken us, living stone by living stone, and put us together to form this greater whole.  We simply need to allow it to happen.  And what God is building here, in this community of mutual care, is a temple that will bear witness to the Spirit’s power to transform lives.

What this passage makes clear is that our faith is never just about ourselves, never just a private matter between the individual and God. Me and Jesus – some have suggested that this is the heresy of our modern times.  The language of this passage remind us again and again that we are in this together.  You are not a holy person: we are a holy nation.  You are not God’s chosen one – we are God’s chosen people, and you have been chosen to be part of it.  I am not a priest on my own, even though it is my job title: we are together a royal priesthood – and the point of my priesthood is to encourage and enable your priesthood, our common vocation to bear witness to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

We do not exist as Christians for ourselves alone; but neither do we exist as a church for ourselves alone.  We have a role to play, a job to do: as a living Temple, our role is to glorify God, and to bear witness in this community to the power of the Spirit moving in our lives.  This is what it means to be a royal priesthood: that our faith is something not to be kept to ourselves, but shared with others.  We are called to witness not to abstract doctrine and ideology, but to the ways in which our lives, individually and collectively, have been changed – and are being changed, but the Spirit of Christ moving among us.

All of that, I know, is starting to sound like the usual mission sermon, which feels like a task and a burden.  If it is sounding like a burden, then we are thinking about it too much as something extra we are supposed to do.  But really, it is not so much what we do, but who we are, and what God is doing with us.  It comes down to listening to these words again and again, to really hearing them as the Spirit speaks them to our hearts, and just letting them shape us as a living community: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”