Easter 4A

May 05, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 10:1-10

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 2:42-47

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 23

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    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.

    Illustration Idea

    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.”