10/15/17 “Chosen, Royal, Holy”

1 Peter 2:2-10

Is there anyone here who doesn’t remember being the last kid picked for a team in school?  I was never an athlete, so I always expected to be picked last in gym class.  But the moment of rejection that I really remember is when I tried out for a school play in high school.  I had had some bit parts before and had done a lot of behind-the-scenes work on other plays, but I really wanted the role of Lucy in the New Philadelphia High School production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  I worked hard to prepare for try-outs. I did a good job at auditions. Everyone who was there said I was a shoo-in.  I was sure I would get the part.

And then the cast list was posted, and I wasn’t on it.  I still remember standing in that group of students all excitedly checking the list and seeing that Cindi McKimmie had gotten the part I wanted so badly. I was crushed. And the drama teacher’s invitation to be her Assistant Director didn’t make me feel any better, even though I accepted the job.

Rejection hurts. In fact, researchers have found that rejection activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain does.  And we meet that pain of rejection all through our lives—from the time when we’re not invited to a classmate’s birthday party to when we aren’t accepted as members in some organization or when no one leaves a space for us at the lunch table.  Rejection hurts, and we try to avoid it if at all possible.

Although we may experience rejection at the hands of the world, there is one place where we need not fear rejection, and that is in our relationship with God.  Instead, we are included in God’s kingdom in the most remarkable ways.  Peter’s letter is full of the ways that God includes us and gathers us—to God’s self and to each other.

There is debate about whether the apostle Peter wrote this letter himself, or whether it was a later writer who wrote in Peter’s name—not an uncommon practice in ancient times.  The Greek that the letter is written in is pretty sophisticated—more so than might be expected of a 1st-century fisherman. But, there’s nothing to say Peter couldn’t have picked up that ability in the multicultural world he lived in.  The letter quotes heavily from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), and many scholars think Peter would have stuck with the Hebrew or Aramaic. But, the writer clearly claims to be Peter the apostle, and the Church adopted this letter very early on as Scripture.

Whoever the writer was, he knew that the churches he wrote to were struggling with rejection.  Like the recipients of the other letters we’ve read, the Christian communities in the area we now know as western Turkey were experiencing difficult times.  The Christian movement had already begun to stir up trouble with their neighbors, but they hadn’t yet come under the systematic persecution that would come later.  They were misunderstood by the culture around them, and the people they had associated with before their conversion had turned away from them.  Based on the rest of Peter’s letter, it sounds like the churches were made up of more slaves than slave-owners, and more wives than husbands, which likely would have created a great deal of tension in everyday life and relationships. It was tempting to go back to the old, familiar, easy ways of life.  Basically, they were encountering the problems all Christians face when we try to live out a life of faithfulness to God in the midst of an unbelieving world.

Peter’s letter is one of encouragement to people who are feeling rejected. It is full of advice for how to live well and peacefully within their broader communities. He gives advice about how to navigate the uncertain waters of belonging to an unbelieving master or being married to an unbelieving spouse.  But, most of all, he reminds them that they are God’s beloved community.

After all, he tells them, they are not alone in their rejection.  Even Jesus himself faced it.  “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by mortals,” Peter says. He reminds them that the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to this all along: that God would choose a stone and lay it in Zion—a stone precious in God’s sight but rejected by the world’s builders.  “For it stands in scripture,” Peter says, quoting the Psalms and Isaiah, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”  As followers of Jesus, readers of the letter—then and now—should expect nothing different than the rejection their Lord experienced.

Like them, we know the sting of rejection, and it doesn’t feel good.  We probably spend a fair amount of time and effort on avoiding it, by fitting in as best we can, by not doing anything that would set us apart and draw negative reactions.  But I was thinking, as I reflected on Peter’s words, that it’s probably rare that we feel rejection because of how we practice our faith.

It used to be that pretty much everyone around us was a Christian or claimed to be.  Society formed itself around the church’s schedule.  So, to live as a Christian wasn’t countercultural enough to raise any eyebrows. You were rejected if you weren’t a Christian, not because you were.

But that has changed.  We live surrounded by people of other religions and of no religion. We may be friends of them, married to them, or parents of them!  Schools and workplaces no longer observe the Christian calendar to the extent they once did, and sports teams—from children to college to pros—don’t know the meaning of the word “sabbath.”  In a polarized political world, loving your enemies is seen as weakness, and loving your neighbor only extends to those who look like us, talk like us, live like us, love like us, and occupy the same economic class as us.  Success is defined by the stuff we have and the connections we make. Except for the fact that in this country we do not face persecution for living out our faith (and, no, a cashier saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not persecution), our society doesn’t look all that different from the one of Peter’s readers.

And that led me to some troubling questions. If it is true that our society is not so much different from that ancient one, then if we are truly living out our faith, shouldn’t we also be experiencing the rejection they did?  Shouldn’t we expect to be labeled “Jesus freaks” or those crazy “church people”?  Shouldn’t people be laughing at us for the choices we make and the lifestyles we live because they are so at odds with the world’s values?  And if the world is not taking note of how different we are, then are we fully living out what we as Christians should be?  Because we should be living as the people Peter describes. We should be living as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

Here’s what Peter meant by those words: We have become the chosen, as all who claim faith in Christ have become the chosen, and we are as precious and beloved by God as the cornerstone God chose, even Jesus himself.  We are a chosen “race,” and what an interesting word “race” is.  The Greek word for it means a group of people who share a common ancestry. As Christians, we all share a common ancestry.  We share a common Father and a common brother in Jesus. We share membership in God’s family.  We are a chosen race.

We are a royal priesthood.  We are royal because we are members of a king’s family—of the King’s family.  We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans—heirs of a royal kingdom. But we have specific duties as members of this royal family.  As a priesthood—a body of priests—we are to worship and minister together as one.  We are to offer sacrifices to our God and King—not the sacrifices of animals but the holy and living sacrifice of ourselves through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, as we pledge in our baptismal vows.  The United Methodist Church makes clear in our Book of Discipline that, although some are ordained as elders and deacons, we are all members of the priesthood of all believers. We each participate in the ministry of all Christians. Together, we are a royal priesthood.

We are a holy nation, God’s own people. The Greek word Peter uses for nation is ethnos—a body of individuals united by kinship, by culture, and by common traditions. As Christians, we are united in all these ways.  And this nation is a holy nation.  That doesn’t mean we are all perfect or that we walk around with haloes on our heads. It doesn’t mean we get to lord it over others with a “holier than thou” attitude. But it does mean that we are a group of people dedicated to God.  We are set apart to serve God, and that means the work we do in the name of Jesus sacred.

Peter continues, saying that we are God’s own people—God’s own laos, Peter says in Greek.   It’s where we get the word “laity.”  The word simply means a group of people, but in this case it is God’s own group of people—God’s own possession, saved and preserved.  We are a holy nation, God’s own people.

We have been made part of this chosen race—this royal priesthood, this holy nation, this people possessed by God—for a purpose.  We are these things “in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of the darkness into his marvelous light.”  In all that we do and say, we are to be a living revelation of the kingdom of God and an announcement of the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

And that brings me back to those troubling questions.  If we are living in ways that mark us as a God’s own people, then shouldn’t the world be noticing that and even possibly rejecting us because of it?  And if that’s not the case, then are we fully living into who we are called to be?

There’s a theologian named Gerhard Lohfink, and he says that the Church is called to be a “contrast community”—a foretaste of the kingdom to come.  As members of Christ’s contrast community, we are to demonstrate God’s compassion and justice in the world.  Another theologian describes it this way: the church “acts out by proclamation and by endurance . . . the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near.” (Newbigin) It lives in the sure knowledge of Jesus’ living presence here and now, and it shares that life with others through its acts of compassion for the poor and in seeking justice for the oppressed.

As a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, we are to live according to a different set of values—ones that value people over material things, community over individualism, the eternal over the fleeting.  Our different values may put distance between us and those who could help us move up the economic or social ladder. Our different values may even distance us from those we would like to have as friends or activities others enjoy.

But hard as that may be, we are called to be a community that people can point to and say, “That is what the kingdom of God looks like.  That is what a Christ-follower looks like. That is what it looks like to live as a people called out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light.”

A community like that is bound to be noticed.  And, if what Peter says is true, a community like that may draw scorn or laughter or rejection.  What would happen if we began living our faith so boldly that people would take notice? I would love to start hearing people talk about us the way people must have talked about the churches Peter was writing to.  I’d love for them to call us names when they walk by our church and hear the passion of our prayer and praise. I’d love to hear them laughing at us because in the name of Jesus, we’ve undertaken a mission project the world thinks is as crazy as Noah building an ark.

I would love to stand by the side of those who tell their employers and coaches that the Sabbath is important to them, even though they may not be able to avoid working or participating on Sundays When the Council of Bishops lays out its plan for how our denomination will handle issues of sexuality, and the controversy heats up, as it will, and when we engage in discussion around their proposal, as we almost certainly will have to do, I would love to have people looking down their noses at us.  I want to hear that those whose mouths are watering for nasty in-fighting are disappointed in us because, instead of responding in the expected antagonism and denouncements of those who disagree with us, we talk with and listen to each other with respect and grace and love. Living like this is sure to draw some rolled eyes and behind-the-back chuckles.

But it is also likely to draw out a desire in some to find out what motivates us to live in such a way.  It is likely to draw others towards us, and through us, to Jesus. I am convinced that most people in the world want to live differently.  They want to live in a community of people whose words, thoughts, and deeds come from hearts that love God and love their neighbors.  They want to love in a contrast community—one that doesn’t accept that the world as it is is the best we can do. When they see what it means to live as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, they will want that for themselves.

When Peyton played basketball in elementary school, she was so afraid of fouling out that she played very timidly.  So, Marc told her before every game to go out and try to foul as often as she could.  He promised her he’d let her know if she should back off.  When she was no longer afraid of the negative consequences, she began to play with much greater boldness and confidence. The challenge for us is the same: to live that boldly, without fear of what others will think of our commitment to Jesus—to live in such a way that rejection is a goal to shoot for rather than something to be avoided.  Some people will laugh at us.  But there are others who are longing to experience in us a taste of the kingdom to come.  May we be the ones who show the world what it means to live as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young