May 12, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In the flow of John’s Gospel, what we see in John 14 takes place before the crucifixion. Yet in the Year A Lectionary we read this a month after Good Friday and in the Eastertide season. So what do we see here in John 14 that is startlingly instructive? As we will note, the disciples were no doubt startled by what Jesus said that very night and that would only deepen in the next 24 hours. So how do Jesus’ words here “sound” in both the context in which they were originally spoken and now to also our ears given what we know was coming next for Jesus?
First, a note on the “acoustics” of this chapter. So often we read the “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” lines here with confidence and some gospel bravado. But do you think that is how Jesus spoke those words? I doubt it. It was a dark and gloomy night for Jesus. He knew and sensed what was up. Further, back up into what we call John 13 and we will see Judas’ sad departure and the foretelling of Peter’s tragic denials. Things were falling apart fast around Jesus and so I think it is at least as likely—if not from a human point of view far more likely—that Jesus spoke the words of John 14 with a quivering chin and with tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
After all, Jesus is telling them not to let their hearts be troubled but the main reason he needed to say that is because in reality, trouble was all around. And as Gethsemane will soon prove, Jesus’ own heart is in turmoil enough as it is.
But even before that grim evening on what we now call “Maundy Thursday,” the disciples had seen Jesus’ distress before. Just recently he’d wept over Lazarus. He’d welled up with tears on other occaions, too. The disciples had also seen Jesus laugh, of course, and they’d seen him be surprised and delighted over life. They’d watched him eat, seen him nod off when sleepy, watched him clean his teeth and turn aside to void his bladder. They’d seen his love and compassion for the little people they encountered and sensed his grace and forgiveness for almost everybody.
But lately they’d also seen him take steps that were getting him ever closer to something they all feared: Jesus’ own death. Maybe they repressed that fear most of the time but soon and very soon Jesus’ demise would be on display for all to see and it would cause every last one of them to flee Jesus liked frightened school children.
So when Jesus says “I am the way” in response to Thomas’ question about what the “way” was, what Jesus was telling them was that the way to life abundant was down the path he was walking that very moment, and it was not a fast track to the top! Very soon the disciples will see Jesus crossed out by the Romans, writhing on a cross of despair, pain, dereliction, and finally death. Surely Thomas was not alone in wondering across the next couple of days, “If Jesus is the way, then how can his ‘way’ lead to anything good?” Golgotha surely won’t look like the path to the heavenly “dwelling places” to which Jesus refers in John 14. The cross was the end of any “way” any sane person would want to travel. The cross was in fact not “the way” but “the dead end.”
But then Jesus quickly goes on to say that his “way” will lead to also the one he calls “Father.” Now it’s Philip’s turn to chime in. “Show us the Father.” And in reply Jesus tells him “You’ve been seeing him all along.”
Really? God the Father? God the Father with a piece of chive stuck between his incisors after dinner? God the Father conked out in sleepy exhaustion in the back of a boat? God the Father weeping and crying? God the Father cozying up to a Samaritan woman with a past, to prostitutes, to tax collectors? God the Father being so gracious with sinful folks and so harsh with religious folks? Oh, and the next day, God the Father pinned to spits of wood with spikes through wrists and ankles?
No, no, no: the Father must be different than all that. Where’s the glory? Where’s the dazzling light show? Where’s the hellfire and brimstone of judgment?
Jesus’ claim that all along the disciples had been seeing the Father whenever they had seen Jesus is far, far more scandalous and shocking than any other such story of hidden identity we’ve ever known. This is not just Clark Kent really being Superman or the pauper who is really the king in disguise. This is not Aragorn the King of Gondor hidden inside the odd ranger called Strider and it certainly is not even the lowly frog who is a prince waiting to be kissed.
This is the Holy One of the cosmos revealing his truest nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Whether we look at this pre-crucifixion as the disciples originally did in that room that night in John 14 or from our Eastertide perspective just on the other side of our annual celebration of Good Friday and Easter, the effect is the same: utter startlement and even bewilderment that this can be true.
The Way to life is through a cross. The humble man from Nazareth who was so full of “grace and truth” was the Father in our midst all along.
This Lectionary reading is a scant 14 verses long. But it’s hard to imagine any other stretch of the Gospels that contains so much of everything that makes the Gospel wonderful and mysterious than this one!
It’s curious to note that in this key chapter, the more prominent disciples like Peter and John fade to the background in favor of lesser-known figures like Thomas and Philip. Indeed, neither Philip nor Thomas speaks more than two or three times in the gospels (virtually not at all in the Synoptic Gospels) and yet here they are the key discussion partners with Jesus. Perhaps this says something about the atmosphere of the upper room as John sketches it for us. Judas has already stolen away. Peter was probably stunned into silence to hear Jesus predict his upcoming three-fold denial. On that night in which Jesus was betrayed, things were topsy-turvy and upside-down for the disciples. Perhaps the nature of this famous exchange—and who was doing the talking—was part of all that went into that evening of darkness and shadows.
In one of the many fascinating portraits sketched by neurologist Oliver Sacks we see a metaphor for this. Tourette’s Syndrome is a bizarre mental disorder which causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive type adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. The kicker is that the man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel the way that just is Jesus. We lose ourselves in the Savior and are transformed. We do follow his Way, even though it leads to and through a cross. And we do see that Jesus and the Father are one and that we can become one with both through baptism and then living out that identity every day. We will be changed. Our old selves will wither away. Thanks be to God!
Acts 7: 55-60
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“Meanwhile . . .”
That word can deliver quite the narrative punch. Usually it is used to introduce a part of a story that is happening off to the side of the main events. Sometimes the part of the story to which the “meanwhile” refers introduced a very dark theme. At other times “meanwhile” directs our attention to something redolent of great hope.
“President Lincoln was in high spirits that evening as he headed for Ford’s Theater. Meanwhile, a man with a dark mustache double checked the location of the side door to the theater.”
“Darth Vader and his evil Emperor looked with satisfaction at the destruction of the Jedi. Meanwhile on a far-away planet, a newborn baby boy named Luke was dropped off to be raised by his uncle and aunt.”
But in also the Bible the word can be used to hint at the ways God has more going on than we might guess from the narrative. A while ago I preached a sermon called “The Meanwhile of Faith” based on Genesis 37 and particularly verse 36. Joseph’s brothers wickedly sold him into Egyptian slavery. They then come home to tell their father, Jacob, the dirty lie that they had found Joseph’s coat covered with blood as he had obviously been killed by a wild animal. Jacob is beyond bereft but before the chapter concludes in verse 36—and just before we take a one-chapter hiatus from the Joseph narrative—we are told that “Meanwhile . . . Joseph was sold to a man named Potiphar.” The “meanwhile” tells us something is up—God is not finished.
Similarly in the Book of Ruth. Naomi and her persistently loyal (but widowed) daughter-in-law Ruth return to Bethlehem in dereliction and sorrow, having lost all the men in their lives (and therefore the likelihood that they’d have much of a future worth talking about). Yet before Ruth 1 concludes we read the little line, “They came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.” In essence, “Meanwhile, it was harvest time” and in that little line is more than a hint that something new is coming. It’s harvest time and soon a man named Boaz would show up in connection with that harvest and things would turn around decisively for these two bereft women.
In the case of Acts 7:58 the word “meanwhile” introduces hope but in a very striking way. Because here Luke has packed more than just a good narrative punch into this word: Luke managed to tamp into his “meanwhile” nothing short of the explosive yet utterly surprising work of no less than God’s own Holy Spirit.
“Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” And a bit later we’ll find out that more than just the coat-check boy, this Saul was pleased by what he saw that day as the final stones thudded sickeningly into the flesh of dear Stephen. Stephen died as his Lord and Savior did: with words of forgiveness trembling on his lips—forgiveness for the very evildoers who had been doing him in. But Saul was among those who felt no need to accept delivery on that forgiveness. There was nothing to forgive but just a whole lot to feel good about. It was more than high time that the one Stephen hailed as his “Lord Jesus” got eliminated from the vocabulary of this earth. Let no one be left alive who would ever think to call out to that name again!
That’s what Saul was thinking in the “meanwhile” of Stephen’s death. Meanwhile, he was there. Approving.
In later years when he called himself Paul, that same man would talk about that day in very different terms. In fact, the memory of it all would wake him up in a cold sweat. I don’t know, of course, and it’s probably really unlikely but I’ve thought at times that perhaps the “thorn in the flesh” about which Paul sometimes complained was nothing less than his own memory. If only he could sleep without now and then being awakened by the cries of the women he used to drag off by their hair just for saying “Jesus is Lord!” If only he could not keep seeing the angelic glow that seemed to emanate so eerily from Stephen’s face just as he died.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Luke’s clever “Meanwhile” in verse 58. It introduces us to Saul, of course, and for anyone who has even the mildest clue as to what will come next in Acts, we know that this is one of those hope-filled narrative “meanwhile” instances. One of the heroes of our story has just been slipped into the narrative. It’s like noting how terrible slavery in America was but then being told that meanwhile in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, a baby named Abraham was being born to the Lincolns. An ember of hope starts to glow from anyone who knows the story even just a little bit.
But in Acts 7, it’s more than just hope. It is wonder. It is amazement. Because what this tells us is that at the very moment when something downright horrible was happening—a moment when someone could more than plausibly allege the Holy Spirit had evacuated the scene (and it would not be the last such apparently moment in church history), as a matter of fact the Spirit was a busy as ever. A terrible thing was happening but a grace-filled thing was on the verge of bursting forth into the world. The Spirit was not gone. He had not gone off duty.
There is always more going on than we can imagine. Luke seeds one of his darkest narrative moments with this piece of Gospel grace and hope.
The Book of Acts is remarkable for all kinds of reasons, not least Luke’s narrative artistry. But what is also startling about Acts is its brutal honesty. If anyone thinks that the Book of Acts narrates the story of a Golden Era of the church on earth, they have not read this book very closely or carefully. Acts presents the early church warts and all, squabbles and all. It’s a very human story but always, always it is also and at the same time God’s story. As my friend Beverly Gaventa said when working on a commentary on Acts, whenever people asked her “What is Acts about?” she would reply simply, “It’s about God.”
And so it is. It’s about God. But it’s also about people and the terrible things they do to each other. But over and above and through it all there is the Holy Spirit, silently but incessantly at work bringing about a larger grace than we could hope for or even imagine. No matter what is happening in Acts—and let’s say in all the history of the church since, warts and all—there has always been a “Meanwhile” to be spoken. Usually it’s pretty hard to spy. Often it is as surprising as finding in a villain like Saul the saint he will later become. But the “Meanwhile” of it all persists.
In that there is hope. More than a little hope!
All good stories move toward a climax and often have many mini-climaxes and decisive revelations along the way, too. It doesn’t matter whether it is an ancient Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, a Shakespearean play like Much Ado About Nothing, or a Star Wars movie, most of the best narratives spend a good deal of time tugging at and weaving various narrative threads throughout the story until finally the moment arrives when the threads all converge on one spot and at the same, single climactic moment. Oedipus discovers who is mother is, and the city finds out why it has been plagued. The unsavory seeming ranger from the wild known as Strider is revealed to the Hobbits as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and the true King of Gondor. Harry Potter’s pals Ron and Hermione finally give in to the love they’ve so clearly had for each other all along and so suddenly find themselves engaged in a passionate kiss.
Sometimes a story’s climax packs a punch because the climactic event is something no one saw coming: the last person in the world you suspected turns out to be the murderer; the hero who has been so dashing throughout the whole film is suddenly eliminated. Other climaxes, however, contain a moment that you’ve seen coming all along but the scene is not for that reason any less dramatic once it occurs. In Greek tragedies the audience usually knows from almost the beginning the shocking fact that will be revealed to the main character only at the end. But you still sit on the edge of your seat to see the revelation actually happen.
Life is complicated but God assures us that in the long run and in the last analysis, God will finish what he intends for us. And when the great cosmic climax one day comes–when not just a few narrative threads come together but when untold billions of such threads come together before the judgment seat of God–then we should hope and expect that diverse though those historic threads are, they will all find one final answer in God’s providence.
That’s our hope. God knows what he is up to. If we knew all of this for sure at this present moment, if we could see it all with utter clarity this very evening, we wouldn’t need hope. But for now we do. Because for now we need the gentle power of a grace that holds faith together; a grace that once in a while affords us a glimpse over the distant horizon into that far country where God will be all in all.
Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on. Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.
And so very often the missing piece is what comes after the word “Meanwhile . . .”
Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 31 is a servant of God’s prayer for God’s protection and deliverance from his enemies. It’s a prayer that Christians can hardly hear without thinking of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. After all, it’s not just that the Revised Common Lectionary appoints it as the psalm for Passion Sunday. Luke also says that Jesus prays verse 5a (“Into your hands I commit my spirit”) as he dies on the cross.
Some scholars even suggest Jesus prayed the entire psalm as he dangled between heaven and earth on that Good and terrible Friday. One can at least imagine that Psalm 31 ran through his mind as he suffered and died, plotted against by those who’d made themselves his enemies and abandoned by virtually everyone, including his Heavenly Father.
However, those who wish to remain faithful to Psalm 31’s original context aren’t eager to leap too quickly across the ages to Golgotha. After all, Jesus was neither God’s first nor last servant to pray at least the sentiments of this psalm. In fact, those who preach and teach Psalm 31 may benefit from reflecting on and helping hearers to reflect on who else might pray it.
We know enough about the isolating effects of bullying, for example, to imagine that its victims might pray something like this psalm. Or consider the victims of spousal or other abuse who sometimes feel isolated from their family members and friends. One might also imagine Christians whom others persecute for their faith offering Psalm 31’s prayer.
At the heart of Psalm 31 is the poet’s profession, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (1). It’s imagery that’s echoed by references to God as a “rock,” “fortress” and “shelter.” So the God to whom the psalmist confidently turns here is a protector. God is also, however, a reliable protector, professes the psalmist, because God is “righteous” (1). God is, in other words, wholeheartedly committed to God’s people with whom God is in covenant.
The psalmist fills the part of this psalm appointed by the Lectionary for the fifth Sunday of Easter with images of the Exodus. The psalmist is professing that the God of the Exodus is present with God’s people, long after God has completed Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. God didn’t, in other words, just shelter the fleeing Israelites. God also delivers God’s children from all sorts of enemies.
Yet the psalmist’s enemies are clever. “Free me from the trap that is set for me,” she writes in verse 4, using imagery derived from hunting and the treatment of prisoners of war. It’s as though the psalmist’s enemies have covered a large hole in the ground with a flimsy bridge that will collapse under the weight of the fleeing psalmist, sending the poet tumbling into a pit.
The language the poet uses in Psalm 31 is very conversational and intimate. Preachers and teachers will want to note the extensive use of personal, second person pronouns. “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge … Turn your ear to me … you are my rock … for the sake of your name lead me and guide me … Into your hands I commit my spirit” (italics added).
Clearly the psalmist has a very intimate relationship with God the Creator of heaven and earth. The poet understands that God’s work is not limited to the act of creation but also extends to the care for what God creates.
In verses 9-13 (outside of the Lectionary’s purview for this Sunday), the poet describes the great misery her enemies have inflicted on her. Yet verse 14 serves as a kind of pivot from the despair often fostered by those clever enemies to the hope God gives. With its great “but” it’s as if the psalmist lifts her eyes from her misery and the enemies who surround her to the God who created and cares for her.
Candidly, however, we live much of our lives “within” that pivot. Many of God’s children suffer the deep distress caused by sickness, unemployment, loneliness, despair and other maladies. It’s never easy to lift our eyes and hearts above those “enemies.” Yet we live in hope even in the face of such distress. So we can join the psalmist in professing, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
The image of our times being in God’s hands is an especially vivid one that invites Psalm 31’s preachers and teachers’ reflection. As James Mays notes, the psalmist isn’t claiming that the length of her lifetime depends on God. Instead she seems to be affirming that God holds her destiny, the things that shape her life, firmly in the palm of God’s gentle hand. While her enemies have some power over her and may even have her “in their clutches” as it were, the psalmist insists that they can’t hold on to her, because she belongs to God. In fact, as the Apostle Paul might add, even the psalmist’s mighty enemies can’t rip her out of God’s loving hands.
Melody Knowles suggests that the psalmist believes that once God realizes his desperate plight, God will act to right the wrong in her life. That’s why, she posits, the poet prays, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress” (italics added). He can beg God to pay attention to his plight because that’s part of God’s nature. The God to whom he turns is a God of “unfailing love.” His enemies harass the psalmist. His friends have abandoned him. Yet the psalmist can “be strong and take heart.” “The Lord preserves the faithful.”
In verse 15 the psalmist professes, “My times are in [God’s] hands.” Of course, that’s an anthropomorphism because God is spirit and, thus, doesn’t have literal hands. But how might we describe God’s figurative hands?
The website palmistrylines.com describes palmistry as “a branch of ancient science, which deals with the complete study of the palm-prints to get the idea of future events in life… The mounting and sliding lines on the palm, nails, shape of the fingers, color and surface of the skin over the palm are seen as the important factors for the judgment… The clear and deep lines on a palm indicate accomplishment, while the thin and broken lines are a handicap for the person.”
Perhaps few people who teach and preach Psalm 16 accept palmistry’s presuppositions. Yet we might find a helpful avenue into the psalm to be imagining with hearers what God’s “hands” that hold our times would look like if we could “read” God’s palms.
1 Peter 2:2-10
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.”