Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 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. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner’,
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But 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.
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.
Stones for Building
As I read today's scriptures, I was reminded how Jesus' followers have been wrestling with some questions for a very long time. In our reading from 1st Peter, there is an important cluster of questions that the earliest Christians were navigating that also seems important for us to consider. You see, for a long time, we who follow Jesus have been trying to figure what it means to live out our faith within a context where all of our neighbors don't share the same beliefs we do. We understand that our faith in Christ affects our behavior, not because we need to act right to earn God's love but because we are invited to be reflectors of God's love into the world. We know that we are constantly being invited to align and realign our lives in accordance to God's orientation of love, justice, and mercy, changing our behaviors to reflect that realignment. What we have also learned that is occasionally this means that the behaviors we value as extensions of our faith can be in conflict with behaviors prized by our families, our ethnic communities, our neighbors, and our broader culture.
At best, the external response to our change in behavior is positive, inspiring healthy conversations, rich service, and curiosity about the faith that is powerful enough to get us to live life in a new way. At worst, in certain eras, in certain places, the change in behavior has made non-Christians, or differently practicing Christians, suspicious, with the suspicion leading to unhealthy conflict and, sometimes, persecution. The book of 1st Peter was written to help a group of churches through a time when they were being viewed with suspicion. It wouldn't have been easy for them to choose to be a part of a religious community that was understood to be problematic. This author wanted to provide them with comfort and inspiration to continue in the faith.
Traditionally, this letter has been credited to the disciple Peter. It's probably not actually written by him, but, it is probably written by an elder in the Roman church who followed Peter's teachings about Jesus. The believers in the churches who needed support were Gentiles living in five cities in Asia Minor. Many of us may be familiar with terrible stories of persecution of the early Christians in Rome (like the stories about lions eating Christians in the Colosseum); most of those atrocities happened well after the period in which this letter was written. However, at this point in history, life was getting harder for Christians, particularly since local Roman governors were permitted to severely punish rabble-rousers. According to at least one historian I read, at this point in history, Jesus' followers were getting reputations as rabble-rousers and disturbers of the peace. That is why people were getting suspicious of local Christian churches.
What exactly to historians mean by disturbing the peace? Well, sometimes they mean causing public disturbances with their preaching. The books of Acts and 1 Thessalonians record several such occasions. Some early Christians preached such contentious messages that the crowds who came to listen became angry mobs. Early Christians were also disrupting ideas about family. According to scholar Bart Ehrman, many of Jesus' earliest followers understood that following him could mean that they completely abandoned typical forms of family in order to more fully commit themselves to the church. Remember that part of Matthew where Jesus said, "I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother..." Well, people took that seriously. Threatening the stability of families certainly would have caused friction with the broader community.
If rejecting family values and angering mobs wasn't enough, Christians had also begun to reject Roman civil religion. In ancient Rome, it didn't matter what religion you followed as long as you also participated in required governmental religious rituals. Christians began to refuse to honor Roman gods, the gods who were presumed to protect the Empire. In leaving their families' local religions, the gods of whom protected the local communities, and refusing to honor the national gods of Rome, the gods who protected Rome, according to scholar Bart Ehrman, Christians might even be seen as repudiating the very empire in which they lived. It was not wise to get on the Empire's bad side.
This was the world these early Christians were living in. They were part of a religious community that was seen as anti-social, unpatriotic, and maybe even little seditious. They were feeling ostracized and targeted. They needed help figuring out how they could maintain their faith when following Jesus made them a target for suspicion. They needed help figuring out how could they stay safe and still follow Jesus. Here's how this author offers these churches assurance. First, he assures them that, even as their place in the wider community has come into question, even as they have left their old households, they have a new household in Christ. In today's reading, the author says that once they were not a people, but now they are God's people.
This new identification as people of God trumps all of their previous affiliations and stratifications. This is a stronger relationship than even the relationship between them and the families into which they were born. When times get hard, they can take solace that even as they lost some significant relationships in their lives, a great relationship has taken their place in the form of Christian community. So, rather than be tempted to pull away from Christian community in order to mitigate their frustration, this author encourages Christians to drink ever more deeply the spiritual milk offered in Christian relationships. This is where they will find the sustenance to survive.
This author goes on to use a beautiful metaphor of God's people as a stone building, with Jesus as the cornerstone. They could not stand up without him. The author also encouraged people to remember that Jesus, too, had suffered for his ministry. They should not understand suffering as a punishment meant to stop their good work. They should understand suffering as a consequence of doing what was right in an unrighteous world, just like Jesus did. If they follow Jesus' path, they may suffer like he did, but they also will become the stones with which God with build a spiritual house for all God's people.
In reminding people of Jesus' suffering, this author helped give the people a new way to understand their suffering, making the suffering and surviving the ostracism so much more manageable. In this country, when we look at the history of Africans who were enslaved, one way they often described being able to survive terrible oppression was by remembering that Jesus suffered, thereby identifying themselves with Christ, and not according to the racist standards meant to destroy them. This is not the only way to survive suffering, but it is one way. And, it seems to have helped these communities. It is as if they believed that if they could be adopted into God's royal priesthood, a priesthood that surpassed even Rome, than surely they could survive. Surely they could continue this journey with Christ.
Our modern context is drastically different than the one in which this letter was written. Today, at least on this continent, Christianity is not a struggling minority religion. Despite the waning importance of institutional religions as a whole, as well as regular shouts that Christianity is under attack by everything from marriage equality laws to calls for equal pay for equal work, in reality, there are very few negative consequences to publicly describing oneself as Christian. While I could cite several examples of the ways Christianity is privileged in our country, I'll just name one sticks out to me as someone who regularly wears signs of my faith in public. While some Muslim woman agonize over whether to go out in public in hijab, less they be harassed for wearing clothes that visibly mark their faith, most Sundays, I walk around town in my clerical collar, a symbol of my faith and Christian vocation. While I occasionally get a sideways glance from people unaccustomed to seeing women in clericals, no stranger has ever touched me to try to remove it or said anything threatening to me about it. Muslim women in hijab are regularly harassed in public, with people even ripping off their head coverings while claiming that the women are threat to religious freedom.
No, at least in this country, Christianity is not a tiny minority religion with a seditious, dangerous reputation. Christians are understood to be law-abiding citizens who respect their family obligations, as well as their civic obligations, and who typically don't stir up mob violence. No, in this country, all too often, we act like the people who once ostracized us. It's like we've forgotten what it means to not wield significant cultural power and we are not better Christians for it.So what do we do with a text like this one, one intended for people living outside of the good graces of their broader community? What lesson do we take when we aren't the minority anymore?
Perhaps it's enough to be reminded that we were once afraid. Maybe this will help us empathize with people who are afraid now. It's like the Jewish tradition that says they offer hospitality to immigrants and strangers because they were once strangers in a foreign land. Maybe, in remembering that we were once harassed, we learn to stop harassing others. Or, maybe, it's simply a reminder that Christ's mercy is our foundation and we are called to reflect the mercy we've received. Mercy always seems like a good place to start. How will you be merciful this week? How will you build, once again, Christ's house with God?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Jeannine K. Brown- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3254
Rod Boriack: https://www.workingpreacher.org/print_questions.aspx?lectionary_calendar_id=702
The Introduction to 1 Peter in the Oxford Annotated Bible
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.