May 05, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Mark tells us in Mark 4 that Jesus basically never taught anything without using parables. The Gospel of John famously contains no parables but is instead our sole New Testament source for Jesus’ much-loved “I Am” sayings. But John is honest enough to admit that the “I Am” sayings mostly made no more sense to the disciples than did Jesus’ parables as we find them in the Synoptic Gospels. There surely must have been times when the disciples wanted to shake Jesus and say, “Can you be a wee bit clearer, please!! We could use a little less poetry and more prose, a little less imagery and a bit more good old fashioned concrete descriptions.” But that was just not Jesus’ style!
John 10 opens with the image of a shepherd with sheep. And the first five verses are all about the shepherd and how his is the familiar and trusted voice for his own sheep. The shepherd makes his distinctive calls and whistles his distinctive tune, and his sheep just know he’s the one they trust to follow. It’s all about the shepherd. He’s the one who comes in through the front gate (and not the one who sneaks in by climbing over the fence). He’s the one who leads the sheep out to pasture. He’s the one whose voice the sheep trust.
The shepherd. It’s all about the shepherd.
But in verse 6 John says that after hearing that, the disciples looked at Jesus with slack jaws and glazed-over eyes. They didn’t get it.
So Jesus explains a bit more. “I am the gate.”
Huh? OK, now it is I, the reader, who is confused, and I imagine the confusion of the disciples only deepened at this juncture. I was expecting Jesus to say what he will eventually say a few verses on in this chapter (though just beyond the boundaries of this week’s Lectionary selection); namely, “I am the shepherd.” After all, the first 5 verses were all about the shepherd. So where did this “I am the gate” image come from and how does it clarify what the disciples found hard to understand in the first five verses of John 10 as it was?
And anyway, how is Jesus’ being a gate helpful? Gates are not real exciting. It’s not the stuff of great art or stained-glass windows (the way the ubiquitous image of the Good Shepherd is). A gate of grey, weathered wood dotted with knot holes and being swung open and shut by some gatekeeper is not as interesting as the human image of a gentle shepherd. Why be a gate?
What’s more, in verse 9 Jesus talks about the need to “enter through me.” But really no one ever actually passes through a gate any more than you could walk right through a door in your house. You pass through the doorWAY, which is the empty space that opens up for you once the door itself is opened or moved aside. But unless you are a ghost, you cannot literally pass through a door or a gate. Indeed, our inability to pass through the wood of a door is precisely what makes the thing useful: exactly because the wood is solid, your being able to lock the door is what prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing.
So what is going on here? Why is Jesus a gate even before he identifies himself as a shepherd? And how does one pass through a solid object? A few thoughts:
First, there is something I read in a commentary a while back. Apparently while doing some research in the Middle East, the Bible commentator ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. “And when they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”
But then the scholar noticed something. “Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in startled wonder.
“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
Here is an image to savor. Perhaps this may explain how Jesus can so freely mix up the imagery of being at once the shepherd and the gate. Perhaps it was possible to be both after all. The gate is the one who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and to keep what is bad at bay. And whether or not the good is kept safe from the bad, the point is that it will be the gate, perhaps the very body of our Lord, that makes the difference.
Actually, it is not certain that this was the precise imagery Jesus had in mind. In fact, verse 3 indicates some kind of actual gate that can be swung open and shut by the gatekeeper, and some commentators have used that feature to this allegory to argue against the notion that Jesus as gate is no more than the shepherd curled up on the ground at the opening to the pen. Again, however, the imagery is fluid enough in these verses that it may be possible to hold both images in creative tension: Jesus may be the gate that gets opened and shut, but perhaps we can imagine that what gets swung open and shut is nothing short of the body of Jesus itself.
However, a main thing to notice in this otherwise lifeless gate image is that it is actually all about life and its flourishing. Thieves and robbers harm and destroy. They take life and livelihood. But as the gate, Jesus protects life in the watches of the night and promotes life during the day by giving the sheep access to green pastures. It is all about life and life abundant, life to the fullest.
It is all about, therefore, that thing called shalom.
But what about that “passing through” part? That seems a little tough to understand whether it is an actual wooden gate or the body of the shepherd. Either way, one cannot literally pass through it—as already noted, you’d have to be a ghost to do that. And maybe that is part of the point, too.
Ordinarily the gate or door needs to be moved aside, it has to yield and give way, in order for a person or a sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. But in a sense isn’t this what Jesus did by coming to this earth? He emptied himself, gave way, he opened himself up by shucking the perks of divinity and glory so that he could come here as a humble servant. He let himself get moved aside–shoved aside, in fact–until finally he was dead.
Yet by God’s power and grace he was raised again. But the resurrected Lord Jesus could do things he didn’t do before and which ordinary human beings don’t do–things like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they were sitting down to eat some bread and fish. Is it too odd to suggest that the same Jesus who said he was a gate through which we need to pass is pointing in some sense to what we need to become in him through baptism? In baptism we die, we drown, we get crucified with Christ, the New Testament claims. Yes, we are raised with Christ, too, but like that risen Lord Jesus we are not the same after our baptismal dying and rising. Having died with Jesus, we now have the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life he has promised.
Jesus is a two-way gate: he not only locks up behind us to keep us safe but also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can know. But whether we are going into the pen or out into the pastures, it is Jesus himself, and his crucified but now resurrected body, that we pass through. We are purified by this baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, re-energized. And this rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced by also the Lord’s Supper. There again we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us–the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life but that, in the ritual act of eating and drinking, passes also through us!
All in all what we find in John 10, and then in the rest of the wider gospel as well, is a marvelous co-mingling of images. We have a living gate, a gate not of wood and steel but of flesh and blood; a living gate that is “swung aside” not because some wood swings on hinges but because Jesus’ body was killed on the wood of the cross. Having been crucified and then raised, Jesus’ new body has the wondrous ability to pass through doors and, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to be passed through as the gateway to new life.
In short, there is just possibly a bit more Eastertide in John 10 than first meets the eye!
As Scott Black Johnston points out in his article on John 10 in “The Lectionary Commentary,” there is some irony in John 10 considering that Jesus makes a big point to say that the sheep know and follow the recognized voice of the shepherd. They don’t listen to a stranger’s voice but they do so to the familiar voice of the shepherd. And yet given all that, how ironic to note that in John 10:6, right after Jesus says all this, we are told that the disciples and others listening to Jesus that day “did not understand what he was telling them.” Apparently even when we recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we don’t necessarily always understand what he is saying to us!
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
It’s funny how certain things catch on. Take, for instance, the Greek word for “fellowship”: koinonia. I don’t know when this foreign word first started to get utilized in its untranslated form. But to state the merely obvious, koinonia is now everywhere. When I punched that word into the Google Internet search engine recently, it took 0.26 seconds to have just shy of 1 million search results come back. The word popped up on websites in many different languages, promoting churches named koinonia, Christian conference grounds, schools, college and university student clubs, a foster family organization, a cooperative farm, a musical band, a Christian software firm, Bible study terms, and many, many more all named “koinonia.”
But the really odd and funny fact of the matter is that this word hardly ever crops up in the New Testament! The word koinonia does not occur in the four gospels and is translated as “fellowship” only twelve times in the rest of the Bible. Most people think that this is some kind of key word in the Book of Acts, but in truth, koinonia occurs exactly one time in Acts 2. What’s more, most folks assume that koinonia has mostly to do with Christians fellowshipping together, breaking bread and sharing a meal.
But even that is a bit off the mark. Acts 2:42 is one of only three or four times in the New Testament when koinonia refers specifically to a potluck-like gathering. Most of the dozen occurrences of this word refer to our union with Christ, the fellowship we have with the Holy Spirit and with God the Father. So not only does koinonia occur rarely in the Bible, it is even more rare to find it pointing to a fellowship event such as a shared meal. In truth, the word refers to an association, a partnership, a close relationship. In the New Testament this word refers mostly to the snug relationship we now have with God because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So if in the Bible koinonia is mostly about our relationship to God, what does it mean to say further that we have koinonia or fellowship with one another? What does it mean when churches have a “fellowship potluck” taking place in a “Fellowship Hall”? What does it mean when Christians take the time to break bread together? After all, people get together for meals constantly and all over the place. They gather for $1,000 per plate political fundraisers, they gather for wedding receptions and Rotary Club lunches, for an opening exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for retirement dinners, and for class reunion picnics.
From time immemorial people have gotten together around food and drink. It is no surprise, therefore, that among the first things that happened in the earliest days of the post-Pentecost church was likewise a sharing of food. This is such a typically human thing to do that it doesn’t look especially Christian. Yet in the Christian setting, the very notion of what it means to “break bread” is freighted with a sacramental significance. For Christians there is that singular meal that can be traced all the way back to that one man who one night took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples in remembrance of him.
These days we reserve our sacramental reverence for only that specific meal at the Lord’s table. And that is, of course, only right, proper, and orthodox. But if we have koinonia with Christ at all times, then there can be something “sacramental” at all the tables where God’s people gather. Near as we can tell, the earliest Christians quite freely commingled their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper with their so-called “love feasts,” that ancient equivalent of a potluck. Perhaps their potlucks concluded with the specific elements of bread and wine but it is obvious that for these early Christians, the rest of the meal leading up to that one true sacrament was itself significant in terms of thickening their union with one another.
And so perhaps it is not too much to suggest that even though we rightly believe that something spiritually real happens at the Lord’s table that does not happen at just any table, our lining up at the potluck buffets and then sharing food around common tables is not just the same kind of thing as happens at a Rotary Club lunch or some company’s annual awards banquet at the Ramada. Instead, every occasion when Christians “break bread” in one another’s homes or in the church’s Fellowship Hall may also be sacramental in the sense that we believe the Christ of God is always with us through the Holy Spirit, and although the Spirit’s work in those settings may be different from what happens at the one table of the Lord’s Supper, that difference does not make the Spirit’s work at a potluck marginal or uninteresting.
When we get together to share a common meal, when we are nourished together, when we swap comments about this or that dish, when we just basically celebrate the bounty of creation as we together feed our bodies, then as for the Christians in Acts 2, we find that we have glad and sincere hearts, a healthy frame of body and mind with which to praise God. Since no less than God’s Holy Spirit has been active at our various tables, we are drawn more tightly together. Bit by bit, bite by bite, fellowship meal by fellowship meal, we grow closer in the Lord.
Compared to its relatively rare use in Scripture, the word koinonia has lately taken on a prominence that is surprising. Yet it does sum up what being a Christian in community is all about. Since we have union with Christ, we have fellowship with one another. At our house across the years, as in untold numbers of Christian homes, we have begun to open every meal with a song that connects our ordinary meals with our ultimate hope as citizens of God’s kingdom: “Be present at our table, Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we, may feast in Paradise with Thee”–in Paradise, where the true koinonia of the wedding feast of the Lamb will go on and on
Babette’s Feast is one of my all-time favorite films. As much as anything I know of, that film’s climax is a wonderful testimony to the gift of food. But much more than that, it bears witness to the community-forming and community-healing power of Christian koinonia.
The little Danish Christian community in the story has begun to fall apart, to the deep distress of the two sisters in charge. Their deceased father was the community’s founding pastor, and so his daughters have carried on his ministry. But now it seems to be unraveling. These fellow Christians have all-but come to blows when the sisters’ chief cook and bottle washer, Babette, invites them all to a feast–a sacrificial meal as it turns out, though no one knows this at the time. What’s more, through a funny series of theological errors, the sisters and the others come to believe there may be something untoward or sinful in the food itself. But rather than hurt Babette’s feelings, they decide to eat the meal albeit doing their level best to ignore and not even acknowledge the food and drink they consume. But despite themselves (and, let’s admit, with the help of no small amount of French wine!) the self-giving love and artistry with which Babette imbued the feast gets through to these Christians on some level. Wondrously, their fractured koinonia is restored. In the end, with glad and sincere hearts, they render praise to God.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 23 is so familiar, so ingrained in historic American culture that those who preach and teach may feel it intimidates them. After all, it’s the psalm that characters as diverse as Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn and the hip-hop artist Coolio in “Gangsta’s Paradise” utilize. Pastors and others have probably read it more than any other Scripture passage in hospitals, at funerals and during graveside services.
So those who wish to preach and teach Psalm 23 may feel like those who try to preach and teach the Christmas and Easter stories. We may feel as though we just don’t have anything new or dramatic to say about it. Yet those who proclaim the gospel don’t necessarily look to communicate bold new truths. We want to let the Holy Spirit use us to communicate something of the gospel of hope and comfort, even if that gospel is familiar and nearly as old as humanity itself.
Psalm 23’s words seem to at least suggest that God the Shepherd has safely brought the psalmist through some kind of crisis. No one enjoys enduring the crises that sickness, suffering and other forms of misery produce. Yet as Rolf Jacobson notes, it’s the crisis she’s endured that seems to, by the power of the Spirit, generate Psalm 23’s psalmist’s remarkable profession of faith.
This serves to remind God’s sons and daughters that although danger, evil and other crises are painful parts of our lives, the Holy Spirit can use even those troubles to strengthen our faith and deepen our trust. And because the psalmist doesn’t identify the specific crisis she’s endured, that Spirit can apply its truths to all sorts of difficulties Psalm 23’s readers may be enduring. Those who preach and teach Psalm 23 want to be sensitive enough to those problems not to be glib about either the psalm or its message.
What’s more, we don’t wish to analyze and dissect this psalm as we might some inanimate object or other literary genre. This is a lovely poem that’s full of beautiful metaphors and striking images. So we want to try to be somewhat lyrical and poetic in our preaching and teaching of it.
Psalm 23’s author immediately identifies “the Lord” as his “shepherd.” Certainly shepherding was a familiar vocation in Israel. Shepherds provided for and protected the sheep under their care. Their bosses held them accountable for their flock’s well-being. But preachers and teachers may want to explore with listeners modern metaphors for such caregivers. Shepherding is, after all, a largely unfamiliar vocation to most westerners. So might we, for example, compare Israel’s shepherds to modern nannies or day-care providers?
The Old Testament speaks a great deal about Yahweh as Israel’s shepherd. In Genesis 48 an elderly Jacob/Israel professes that God “has been my shepherd all of my life.” In Isaiah 40 the prophet speaks of God as tending God’s “flock like a shepherd.”
However, the ancient near east also sometimes spoke of its rulers and other leaders as “shepherds.” This adds extra poignancy to Ezekiel 34’s talk about shepherds. There, after all, God accuses Israel’s shepherd-leaders of only taking care of themselves and looking out for their own interests. By contrast God insist that God is the Shepherd whose priority is searching for and looking after God’s “sheep-children.”
James Mays sees Psalm 23 as a kind of polemic against the claims of divinity that so many ancient rulers made for themselves. After all, the psalmist professes that he entrusts his well-being not to any human shepherd-leader, but to the Shepherd whose name is “the Lord.” So like so much of Scripture, Psalm 23 rejects both human claims of self-sufficiency and grabs for the divine status that belong to the Lord our Shepherd alone.
Jacobson notes that Psalm 23:1-4 describes things that shepherds must do for their sheep because their animals can’t do them for themselves. While some may find it distasteful to be compared to sheep of which we often think as “dumb,” this metaphor helps us to focus on joyful reliance on God’s provision of every good thing. In fact, Psalm 23 insists that God the Shepherd is so generous that the psalmist will never be “in want.” In other words, the psalmist joyfully professes that God will give God’s children so much that we’ll never lack any good thing that we really need.
Much of Psalm 23’s lovely imagery is protective imagery. The psalmist professes that God makes him lie down in green pastures. If sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves. In verse 4 the psalmist adds that when she walks through death’s dark valley, she needs fear no evil because God the Shepherd is with her. This is in many ways the linguistic and theological heart of Psalm 23. Patrick D. Miller says it “is the gospel kernel of the Old Testament, that good news that turns tears of anguish and fear into shouts of joy.”
Though the Lord is God’s sons and daughters “shepherd,” we still hurt and struggle. However, Psalm 23 reminds us that God won’t abandon God’s “sheep” to whatever threatens us. The figurative valleys through which God’s people must sometimes walk are so dark that we can scarcely see the hand in front of our faces. Yet Psalm 23 reminds us that God remains right beside us. As a result, we don’t have to be afraid.
Some of Psalm 23’s lovely imagery is also leading imagery. God the Shepherd, professes the psalmist, leads her “beside quiet waters.” The Lord, in other words, leads the sheep that are God’s people to places that offer both rest and nourishment. The psalmist also professes that the Lord leads her “in paths of righteousness.” Scholars note that this image is somewhat ambiguous. The psalmist may intend us to understand that God the Shepherd leads God’s sheep along safe paths. Or she may mean us to understand that God graciously leads us along morally good paths. Yet those options aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, God leads the sheep that are God’s people along paths that are both safe and righteous.
Other images in Psalm 23 are those of honoring. When the psalmist speaks of God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, he seems to be alluding to the practice of kings throwing banquet as a way of confirming alliances and friendships. As Jacobson notes, by throwing a banquet for the psalmist, it’s as if God honors him in the presence of those who want to dishonor and harm him, in other words, “his enemies.”
Preachers and teachers often rightly focus on Psalm’s 23’s imagery of God’s leading of God’s sheep-children. God certainly does lead and guide God’s sons and daughters. However, God the Shepherd doesn’t just “go before” God’s sheep. God also goes with God’s children. After all, the psalmist recognizes that even in life’s darkest “valleys,” God is with her. So it’s as if God the Shepherd stays not just ahead of the flock, but also somehow right in the middle of it. On top of that, God the Shepherd, or at least God’s goodness and mercy, follows the flock that is made up of God’s sons and daughters for as long as they live. So Psalm 23 gives God’s children license to imagine God as not only leading and being with them, but also following them. Its God is a God who not only surrounds God’s children with God’s loving and generous presence.
On the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary pairs Psalm 23 with John 10:11-17. There Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” So not only does Jesus claim divinity for himself, he also says that he’s the One who lays down his life for his sheep and calls sheep to himself. He is also the shepherd out of whose tender grip no one can ever wrest his sheep.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a hymn whose old Irish lyrics people originally attributed to St. Patrick during his work in Ireland in the 400’s. And while it was probably actually written during the eighth century, it expresses something of Psalm 23’s sentiments:
“I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me from snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in multitude.”
1 Peter 2:19-25
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When I meditate on these words, I think of Napoleon Dynamite, Howard Butt, and me. Older readers probably won’t know who Napoleon Dynamite is, while younger readers won’t have a clue about Howard Butt. But both are like me, and you. All of us struggle with identity issues.
Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t fit anywhere. He is the nerdiest, geekiest, sorriest kid you’ll ever meet. Frizzy haired, bucktoothed, wearing huge thick glasses, gangly of build and so socially awkward that it nearly hurts to watch him, Napoleon Dynamite is the “hero” of a movie by that name. I thought it was possibly the worst movie ever made, but it was wildly popular with teenagers, because it captured the agony of not fitting in. Napoleon is a rolling stone that can’t find a place.
Some of us preachers might have been Napoleon, but now we’ve grown out of it. We know where we belong. We have found our place in the world. Or have we? Howard Butt is a very wealthy and successful businessman, but in his book, The Velvet Covered Brick, he talks about his lifelong difficulty with finding his place in the world. Maybe you can relate to his words as much as I could. “I am too conservative for liberals, too liberal for conservatives, too unpredictable for the middle-of-the-roaders, too contemporary for the traditionalists, too old fashioned for the avant garde. My friendliness toward psychiatry and social involvement makes old line evangelicals suspicious; but my evangelism puts me out of step with the social action crowd. The world changers don’t like my eschatology; the group therapy addicts reject my Calvinism; the fundamentalists abhor my small group openness. The Baptists fear my ecumenicity, the ecumenists avoid my independence, the independents suspect my churchmanship.” Howard Butt is a velvet covered brick, an oddly shaped stone that can’t find a place.
We are all, says I Peter 2:11, “aliens and strangers in the world,” scattered refugees, searching pilgrims, always on the move looking for that place where we belong, looking for the perfect fit, whether it is in clothes, or cars, or houses, or golf clubs, or friends, or political parties, or careers, or churches. We’ll do almost anything to find our place. As a result we find our place in the strangest places.
In our text, Peter, (which, of course, can be translated “Rocky”) speaks a clear word to people who were even more aliens and strangers that we are. He reminds them and us that we find our true identity, our deepest sense of belonging, not in a place, or a position, or a possession, or in ordinary people. We find out perfect fit with one extraordinary person, the one Peter calls the Living Stone. Jesus is the Rock of all ages, all types, all classes, all races, all sinners in the world who come to him.
Writing to Easter people, Jews and Gentiles who had been given “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3),” Peter expounds on their new identity in Christ. In the world, you may be aliens and strangers who are persecuted by the pagans, but in Christ you are something else entirely. Switching imagery with what R.N.D. Kelly calls “disconcerting suddenness,” Peter ransacks his considerable vocabulary to tell these beleaguered Christians who they really are. All of these images are centered in Christ.
Through Christ’s resurrection, they have been born again. So now they are “new born babies” who need pure spiritual milk so they can “grow up in their salvation.” Then switching images, they are also living stones, because they have come to the living stone who is Christ. As living stones, they are being built into a spiritual house. And they are a holy priesthood in that house, offering spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Then shifting images again, Peter says that they are now a “chose nation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” language that had obviously been applied to Israel for centuries. They are now “a people belonging to God….” Although they were once “not a people,” now they are “the people of God,” because God has shown them mercy in Christ.
That’s the point of this passage. These persecuted Christians who are on the outside of things in the world are now on the inside of things in the kingdom because of Christ. These social rejects are now God’s elite, yes, even elect people. Peter uses an interesting play on words to convey this new identity. They are strangers (paroikos, outside the house) in the world, but in Christ they are the spiritual house (oikos pneumatikos). Here’s the Good News for Napoleon, Howard, and us. In the house that God is building in the world, we fit perfectly. We belong because we are God’s own people.
In making that central point, Peter makes a number of fascinating smaller points that will preach very well. In a passage filled with the indicatives of identity, there is one clear imperative. Before zeroing in on all that architectural imagery, Peter begins by calling these “newborn babies” to “crave pure spiritual milk.” You have begun in salvation by being born again. You have “tasted that the Lord Jesus is good.” Your appetite has been whetted. Now you need to grow up in that salvation. And the way to do that is to drink lots of milk. The NIV translates this “pure spiritual milk,” but the word “spiritual” is not pneumatikos (as in verse 5). It is logikos, the word that is translated “spiritual” in Romans 12:1. But it really has to with “the word” (logos). The milk that will cause newborn children to grow in their salvation is “the word,” the “pure word.”
“Crave” that word the way a baby craves his mother’s milk. On the way back from vacation recently, I witnessed firsthand the way a baby craves milk. A very young mother came on the plane, her newborn swaddled next to her breast. The baby was a bit fussy at first, but as the mother settled into her cramped seat with agonizing slowness, her infant became increasingly crabby. By the time she finally managed to bring her hungry baby to her breast, the baby was positively frantic, wailing its hunger for all to hear. It craved that milk. It simply had to have it. That, says Peter, is how we should desire to feed on God’s pure word. This is a preaching point for congregations whose attitude toward personal feeding on the Bible is lackadaisical at best.
Another point worth emphasizing is the centrality of the idea of election in this text. These persecuted Christians had experienced rejection, so Peter assures them of their election in Christ. Indeed, he says, Christ, the living stone, was “rejected by men but chosen (eklekton) by God and precious to him….” So, too, you, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house. And you are now a “chosen (eklekton) people…, a holy nation….” Peter makes a big point of how precious Jesus is as the living stone. He is the cornerstone and the capstone, both the stone on which the whole building is founded and the stone that completes the building. And we little stones have been chosen in him to perfectly fit the niche into which the master builder places us. Our lives are founded upon and are completed by Jesus. We find our place and our purpose only in him.
Two implications of this election are worthy of note. One will preach, the other will puzzle. First, Peter says that we have been elected not simply to a privileged place, but also to an important purpose. “You are a chosen nation… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are elected for the purpose of evangelism (exangeilete). Many Christians are repulsed by the whole idea of election. Among other things, it seems to make evangelism unnecessary. “If God chooses whom he wants to save, what’s the point in telling anyone about Jesus.” But Peter says that God has chosen the church precisely so that we can tell the world about God’s saving work in Christ. Unless people hear that message, they can’t believe. The church, then, is God’s chosen instrument to accomplish his saving, electing purposes.
If you dare to preach this, note that Peter gives us three helpful categories to guide our “declaring.” Whenever I try to encourage people to fulfill the purpose of their election, they protest that they don’t know what to say to unbelievers. “I’m supposed to declare the praises….” What does that mean? Well, “praises” can be better translated “mighty deeds.” We declare not the attributes of God or the excellencies of God, but the works of God. What works? Well, Peter talks about “calling us out of darkness,” about making us “the people of God,” and about “receiving mercy.” As we evangelize, we can talk about times of darkness from which God called us. Or we can talk about the blessings of being part of the people of God. Or we can talk about the times we’ve experienced the mercy of God forgiving our sins or healing our diseases or otherwise meeting our needs.
Then, in the second place, Peter says something mysterious about those who reject the Living Stone. “Now to you who believe this stone is precious.” “But to those who do not believe…. [this stone is] a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” In other words, their rejection did not and cannot hurt that living stone, but it will surely hurt those who reject him. Those who persecute you because they reject your message about Jesus will pay for their rejection. They will stumble over Christ, precisely because they disobey the message.
This is a part of the Christian faith that all Christians know about, though we are increasingly uncomfortable with it in our tolerant post-modern age. Indeed, a number of popular preachers and untold numbers of ordinary Christians simply reject the idea of judgment on unbelieving people. Even fewer Christians want to talk about the last thing Peter says in verse 8—“which is also what they were destined for.” The idea that God would predestine people for unbelief and judgment is very hard to grasp. Of course, that isn’t necessarily what Peter means here. He may be saying that rejection of Christ always results in the fall of those who reject. That’s the way it is. That’s how God has decreed it. His rejection is based on their rejection. Reprobation (to use a musty old word) is based only on stubborn, unbroken unbelief. God didn’t positively act to reject. He only gives people what they want in the end. As I said, this is a mystery. As one old scholar said, “Peter clearly says it, but it’s not at all clear what he said.”
Finally, we can’t leave this complicated text without noting the marvelous interweaving of Old Testament themes and texts. Peter’s explanation of Christ’s centrality and the resultant identity of Christians reads like a rabbinic midrash or “learned exegesis.” Referring to Psalm 34, Psalm 118, Isaiah 8, 28, 43, Exodus 19, Hosea 1 and 2, and central themes like “royal priesthood,” Peter wants these Christians to realize how important they are to God. They are the new Israel. The OT references and allusions are so rich and thick that many scholars believe Peter had in front of him a “pre-canonical collection of Old Testament texts that the church saw as referring to Christ and the church….” This is entirely possible, as Paul uses some of the same texts. I’m not sure we need to explain all of these references in our sermons on this text. However, some reference to them might show the Napoleons and Howards of the church that their identity in Christ is deep and rich and secure—not at all like the fleeting approval of high school students or the momentary acclaim of the media.
As I was pondering the phrases “living stone” and “living stones,” I recalled the monoliths of Easter Island. That Polynesian island is littered with huge stone statues, some of them nearly two stories tall and weighing almost one hundred tons. These magnificent and mysterious stone statues have intrigued visitors and archaeologists for years. What kind of people would make something like that? And why? What do those stones mean? In other words, those stones on Easter Island raise questions of identity and purpose. Our text in I Peter addresses the Easter people in Asia Minor on exactly those questions. You are not dead stones; you are living stones because you have come to him, that living stone. And that has changed everything about you.
Christians struggle with their calling to “declare the praises.” What does that mean for us? Tom Long gives a simple answer in his book, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. Once, when he and his wife were watching a sunset that was only a 4 on a scale of 10, he turned to go back inside. His wife tugged on his sleeve, trying to get his attention. “Look, look!” she exclaimed.
“The sunset saved the best for last,” recounts Long, and it “was one of the most stunning we had yet seen.” He then explains: “When my wife urged me to ‘Look, look!’ this was for my sake, not hers. She could see the sunset; I couldn’t, and she didn’t want me to miss it…. So it is with [witnessing]. We see the hand of God at work in life, and we don’t want other people to miss it.”