In the Priesthood
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," and "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 marvelous 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. (1 Peter 2:4-10)
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that you just don’t fit in? It’s an experience that many migrants feel – however successfully they integrate into their new, chosen home, issues of language, accent, race, culture, religion and so on can mean that they never feel fully at home. But it can get worse. Many migrants who go back to their town or country of origin, after many years, can find that they no longer fit in there either, outsiders in both their new home and their old.
1 Peter is written to a community of Christians in just that position. They are gentiles – non-Jews – who have converted to Christianity, and need to be assured of their place as part of God’s chosen people, a privilege traditionally belonging exclusively to Israel. And they are Christians, which sets them apart from their Pagan neighbours in Asia Minor and seems to have caused them to encounter some persecution or opposition. The letter is written ‘to the exiles of the dispersion’ – citizens of God’s Kingdom, living scattered about in a hostile world.
And so to one of the most beautiful passages about the nature of the church. At the centre of both the passage and the Christian community which it describes, we find Christ. Christ the stumbling-block to those who don’t believe; Christ for whose sake the Christians suffer. But Christ the cornerstone of the church; Christ who is precious to those who put their faith in him. Indeed the passage begins with Christ, and calls on the believers to imitate him and, as living stones, to be built up into the temple – the house of God – of which Christ is the cornerstone. In its climax (vv. 9-10), the passage draws on the Old Testament, especially Exodus 19:6, to give to the church an identity, citizenship and a special relationship with God. To exiles, living in a hostile world, what could be more glorious than those words: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”?
This passage is rich enough to fill several Bible studies, but for now we’re going to look at one image that’s used – ‘priesthood’. The people of God are a holy priesthood (v. 5) and a royal priesthood (v. 9, quoting Exodus 19:6).
God’s priesthood is holy. This implies not only purity, which for most cultures of the day was a purely amoral, ritual concept which put a priest into a technically clean state, so that he could come before God. Holiness goes far beyond that; it is what the ritual purity is meant to represent, a life fit to serve God. But more than that, it is a real connectedness with God, the Holy One. God’s priesthood is also royal, receiving the greatest honour of serving our God and King, the ruler of all the world.
So we, in the church, living as exiles in a secular world, are a holy and a royal priesthood. What does that mean for us? How does it affect our relationship with God and with the world? A priest is a mediator between God and the community which he or she represents. Priests relate directly to God and need no other go-between. But this passage speaks not of ‘priests’, but of a ‘priesthood’, so its emphasis is on the corporate nature of the role. It isn’t concerned with how we may act alone, as so many independent priests, but rather sees us together, as one body, just as each of us as living stones are built into one temple. We are a priesthood – a body of people serving God on behalf of the wider community of which we are a part. And as a priesthood, when one of us acts, we act for the whole, as part of the spiritual house of which Christ is the cornerstone.
But what is that community? Priests usually act for the religious community in which they have a special place, but 1 Peter gives the entire religious community that role. For the answer, we have to go back to the Old Testament. Israel had its own distinct priesthood, but the verse used from Exodus reflects a way of looking at Israel as a whole. It is given a priestly role on behalf of the nations, mediating between them and God. It is special to God, but the very uniqueness of its relationship with God gives it a particular responsibility in the world.
And so it is with the Christian communities to which 1 Peter is written. For the Christians may be exiles within the world, but they are not absolved of responsibility for the world. Far from being called to isolate themselves, they are called to live as God’s holy people in the world. The letter has a strong emphasis on how Christians should behave, not only to mark them out as holy, but also to show that holiness to the world (2:12-17). So it makes sense then to use the Exodus description of Israel. Being a priesthood is not just about how each of us relates to God on a personal level, but gives us a responsibility for the world, as mediators between it and God. The world could have access to God if it chose, but tends to choose not to, or perhaps doesn’t know how.
Part of mediating between God and world means bringing the concerns of the world to God in prayer. Pray for your family and friends, your town or village, your country and all the countries of the world.
But the mediation works both ways, so means making God known to the world. How have you shown God’s love in your life recently? How could you show it more? Who have you told about God’s love recently? Who could you tell?
Do you know how special you are to God? Re-read verses 9 and 10 and meditate on them for a while. That’s you they’re talking about! Write them out and put them somewhere where you’ll see them, perhaps when you’re feeling least special – on your computer at work, on the mirror where you see yourself first thing in the morning… And remember – it means you!
The Revd Catrin Harland is a minister in the Dorking and Horsham Circuit
metconnexion, Summer 2008, pp.16-17