This past week when a major player in the world of International Finance was arrested for deviant behavior my feelings were that his actions were simply criminal that he should be punished to the full extent of the law. But, when, this week, a Senate Ethics panel referred the case of a former Senator to the Department of Justice for prosecution, not for his moral failures, which were scandalous enough to cause him to resign, but for the illegal ways he used monies and people I felt quite a different burden.
In 1st Peter 2: there is a fascinating paragraph caught between what seems to be two very accusatory reproaches. The chapter begins with “Then away with all malice and deceit, away with all pretence and jealousy and recrimination of every kind!” as if such correctly characterized the behavior of the readers of this brief book. Then, at verse eleven, as if these early Christians had yet to get the message of what kind of life they were to lead we read: “Dear Friends, I beg you, as aliens in a foreign land, abstain from the lusts of the flesh which are at war with the soul. Let all your behavior be such as even pagans can recognize as good, and then, whereas they malign you as criminals now, they will come to see for themselves that you live good lives, and will give glory to God…” As I read it, these Gentile Christians living in the Roman provinces of Asia Minor are being reminded not only of the need to hold fast to their beliefs but to live in ways that will not detract from the Gospel.
This past week when a major player in the world of International Finance was arrested for deviant behavior my feelings were that his actions were simply criminal that he should be punished to the full extent of the law. But, when, this week, a Senate Ethics panel referred the case of a former Senator to the Department of Justice for prosecution, not for his moral failures, which were scandalous enough to cause him to resign, but for the illegal ways he used monies and people I felt quite a different burden. His is one more in a long list of high profile political scandals that reflect negatively on the church. This scandal not only ended his political career but did damage to the reputation of a Senator from another state who is accused of helping to cover up his indiscretions and may have ended another ex-senator’s run for the White House. In this same week another notable person tossed his hat into the 2012 campaign for the Presidency. What the press was all abuzz about was whether given this candidates string of adulterous relationships and his serial monogamy would make him an unlikely standard bearer, especially for social conservatives. What I can’t get around is how the whole of the church is held up to public ridicule when the reprehensible behavior and indescretions of highly visible national leaders who have laid claim to being followers of Christ and claim to represent the values of the church are made public.
Listen again to these words directed at the Christian community in Asia Minor
”Let all your behavior be such as even pagans can recognize as good…(so that) they will come to see for themselves that you live good lives, and (then they) will give glory to God…”
Friends for years practiced disownment – nothing nearly as severe as the shunning used by the Mennonites nor ex-communication which denies participation to individuals in what is thought to be essential sacraments of liturgical churches. Friends have held firmly to the belief that because we disown a person does not mean that we have stopped loving them. It was a disavowal of a person’s behavior as not being consistent with the advices and testimonies of the Society. Even earlier than that Friends used the process of the recording of the ministry of a person as a way to ensure that the testimony offered was consistent with the Gospel as understood by the Quakers of the day. Every religious body keeps policies in place to deal with what, unfortunately, is common an experience. The church in Asia Minor to which Peter writes and even our own Society of Friends understand the damage scandalous behavior does to the whole church.
But scandal isn’t what I want to focus on today. It is the intervening verses. Maybe it is the coming of Camila and Scott’s new child that brought this passage to mind but hear how gently this passage begins:
2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like 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. 6For 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.” 7To 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,” 8and “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. 9But 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 marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Daniel Deffenbaugh says that of all the images employed in 1st Peter it is the picture of the Christian community as a “spiritual house” which best characterizes the church.
The household of God is the place where Christians can attain spiritual nourishment. The quotation is from Psalm 34:8, they have “taste[d] and seen that the Lord is good. But it is important to see that this is no one time event. Like newborn infants it is understood that they need, repeatedly, to return to their mother’s breast that they may be healthy and grow.
There is a great deal in the literature today about the protective, nutrient and social values of breast feeding of an infant. We know that breast feeding builds a healthy immune system. It enables the infant to mature physically, socially and intellectually. Matter of fact some argue that using tax dollars to provide formula instead of encouraging breast feeding we open ourselves to much higher health care costs for treating digestive, vision, respiratory and endocrine related disorders later in life. And it is Peter’s concern that persons new to the faith will grow healthy and strong so they will not return to their previous spiritual diets and habits and pursue the empty calories of their former traditions.
So important is this right start for the life of the new member of the faith community that in the second and third centuries of the church some engaged in the practice of serving honey and milk to those newly convinced of the faith. There is also the acknowledgement that for the church to fail at this essential nurturing task the church itself becomes unhealthy and unsound. It is a sobering thought that bottle feeding promotes a more detached parenting style which has long term consequences for the whole community. It says something about how we are to care for one another.
Deffenbaugh goes on to suggest that Israel’s wilderness sojourn played a prominent role in the author’s thinking. He said that Christians are in many respects resident aliens, a people living “outside the house”(11th verse) that is outside of the dominant culture and yet in many ways remain “house slaves” (18th verse), bound in some respects by social and political conventions. So, like the wandering Hebrews before them, they can derive comfort from the knowledge that a place has been prepared for them by God. This is right out of the Gospel of John. Eventually the old “house” from which they have been exiled will be transformed completely into the new “home” for which they have been longing when Christ is finally revealed (1:13). In our verses, we see the seed of this homecoming having already been planted among them and growing within them.
These persecuted followers of the way, though they were suffering the injustices of a world that they once claimed as their own, must nevertheless be aware that the Spirit of God is even now working in them collectively to usher in the heavenly kingdom. Peter affirms that they have been accepted into a new family, and here they can know what it means to be “called out” as the church.
It is in the household of God where those nourished on Christ will “grow into salvation” (2:4) through the work of the Spirit. Here is where this metaphor of being built into a spiritual house reaches its fullest expression and serves as a guiding principle for what follows. We can easily imagine that the recent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, with its chiseled stone columns lying scattered and broken, is in Peter’s mind as he draws of the imagery of stone in these verses? The traditional dwelling place of God is gone and a new house has arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.
What does it mean for the contemporary church to carry this “living stones” metaphor into our day? For too long and for too many in the church the idea of the coming Kingdom has been dramatically disconnected from this world. So it is important to point out that, despite recent prognostications to the contrary, there is really nothing in Peter’s letter to suggest such a thing. For Peter the revelation of Christ happens in the middle of creation itself, and it was here that Christians were called to be a priestly. As ‘living stones’ we must guard against disparaging this present world for some heavenly existence in an imagined realm yet to come. The household of God is at once built on the spiritual cornerstone of Christ and rooted deeply in God’s good creation.
Finally, the church is a spiritual community whose fundamental vocation is the proclamation of the good news (2:9), not only in word but equally in deed. Peter will go on in this chapter to describe what it means to offer up to God “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5), to be so identified with the suffering of Christ that the household is willing to endure patiently the injustices of those who have rejected and stumbled over the cornerstone. Alone, of course, these persecuted Christians in Asia Minor could never survive the discrimination and abuse that is too often the lot of resident aliens. But as a holy nation, as God’s own people, formed, nourished and established in the household of God, we can live confidently as are witnesses to a realization of Christ’s kingdom on earth.