Identity As A People
from the book
ACCESS TO HIGH HOPE
Second Lesson Sermons For Lent/Easter
Harry N. Huxhold
Fascinating reading is an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Northwest, titled Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose. The saga reveals the importance of this expedition to the Jefferson administration. President Thomas Jefferson had conceived the idea of sending a troop of hardy men to explore the vast territory that stretched from the Missouri all the way to the Pacific northwest. However, the men were not only explorers who were to return with scientific data from this vast territory. The band of brave stalwarts were to serve as emissaries of good will to the native populations they would find along the way. President Jefferson sent a message of good will in which he promised that the great white father to the east would incorporate these peoples into an organized manner of living together as one people.
Lewis had a lengthy, prepared speech he tried to share with each new tribe of native Americans he encountered. One can appreciate how tense these meetings could be. Some meetings were more cordial than others. Some were hostile. Obviously, the meetings were not simply get acquainted times. Nor were they merely curiosity hours or show--and--tell sessions. What was deeply involved was an understanding of one another's cultures, and whether they could survive side by side. It was a probing for trust and mutual understanding. If you can appreciate what was involved in those kinds of meeting, then you can be somewhat sensitive to the message of the Second Reading for today, a portion of the First Letter of the Apostle Peter. In this section of the letter, Peter explains the importance of our understanding of ourselves as a special kind of people.
Peter's emphasis is very important. We should understand our identity as the people of God in relationship to others. That is what the Jeffersonian speech read by Lewis was supposed to be. The effort was to show how the people of the Eastern states wanted to be hospitable to the native Americans. However, we all know that the subsequent history was more than tensions between people from the east and the native Americans. Wars were fought as a result of unresolved tensions and animosities. History has been revised in order to help us appreciate the feelings of native Americans and much is being done to right some of the wrongs committed against the native Americans. That is not unique in the annals of history.
The unrest in the Balkan communities results from century old tensions between Muslims and Christians. All of Europe has a checkered history of wars between cultures, because people lacked an appreciation for one another's identity within their religious or secular cultures. Separate languages, customs, and coinage were the barriers between people more than were geographical boundaries. The same stories are repeated for the continents of Africa and Asia, where peoples were separated for the same reasons. Within our own nation, the worst war our country waged was civil strife fueled by differences between peoples over regional, economic, and racial differences. The hardened attitudes of people which develop of their self--understanding as a people die hard. People are separated by their preferences for how they understand themselves and other peoples. Peter knew full well how it would be for Christians as they come to understand themselves as the people of God within a culture in which people have different gods. It was important for them to understand who they were. Peter was very careful to outline for the believers how it is that they come to their identity as the people of God. His approach is noteworthy.
What Peter Did Not Say
In order to understand Peter's approach to the people, we should take the time to note what Peter did not say. Peter did not say anything that would give the believers in our Lord Jesus Christ reason to boast in themselves. Peter did not give reason for the people to wave the flags of triumph or nationalism. Peter laid absolutely no groundwork or basis for claiming racial, ethnic, or cultural superiority. Nor did Peter suggest that the people of God could now enjoy the privilege of sitting in judgment upon all others. There was no suggestion of instilling any attitude in God's people that they should be the people who should cause the kinds of divisions, antagonisms, conflicts, and opposition to others that make for the warring attitudes that raise havoc between the peoples of the earth. In contrast to that, what Peter does suggest is that the people of God should develop a stance that should attract the attention of others to themselves.
Mind you, Peter is writing this at a time when he is aware that believers are enduring persecution under the administration of the Roman Empire by Nero. Peter is aware of the negative and aggressive attitude of the enemies of the Christian faith, yet he does not suggest a hostile position in reaction to what is taking place. Given human standards and behavior, we could expect that it would be perfectly logical to suggest some kind of defensive program that would involve suggestions of active behavior to offset open war on the Christian community. However, at the end of this letter the only resistance Peter encourages is the resistance to the devil himself. The devil busies himself with trying to make unbelievers out of the faithful. Just as he did in the earlier part of this letter, Peter builds up the confidence of the believers so that they can withstand the worst judgments against them.
Peter makes his points by reminding the believers whatever good he has to say about them, whatever encouragement he can give them, whatever hope he can hold out to them, they had absolutely no reason to believe in themselves to begin with. Peter reaches back to the history of God's people, the Israelites, for what was analogous to their situation. He says, "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." In Egypt the Children of Israel were a non--people. As the descendants of Jacob they had become a large number. But they did not have their own land. They had no leader. They could not rule themselves. They had no boundaries they could describe as their territory. Whatever choice land they had received at one time from the Pharaoh had been taken away from them. They had no civil rights. They were enslaved.
Peter indicates how the believers in our Lord Jesus Christ were in the same predicament. They may have been citizens of the Roman Empire, or they may have been slaves with no civil rights. However, spiritually, they all were slaves of this world. If their claim to identity was that they were Roman citizens or slaves in the Roman world, that would count for naught in the face of death. The Roman world could be conquered, as it later was, and the empire would fall, as it did, and then their identity would be gone. If they were freed from slavery, they would have to find their identity from some other fleeting cause. Likewise, as slave or free, they would receive no mercy from the world, the society, or the government in which they lived when they had to face trials, tribulation, and the ultimate judgment of death. That is the final test of who we are and what we can expect. The measure of what our lives have been is how we will be judged in the face of the One who created us. In preparing the believers for the test of persecution, Peter prepared them to meet their God.
Peter is careful to help his audience understand that because they have moved from being no people to become the children of God, they should not think that they are suddenly spiritually so mature that they handle things on their own. Peter thinks just the opposite. He writes, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good." Christians should know they always have room for growth. They always can learn more. They always can grow in the experience of the goodness of God. The metaphor that Peter uses is especially apropos. We think of how a newborn infant has come into the world to draw in the first breath on its own, then move into the warmth of the mother's embrace and to take its first taste of food from the mother's breast. Immediately the child senses the dependence upon the goodness of the mother.
Peter says that is our story spiritually. We have come to new life in our Lord Jesus Christ and tasted of the goodness of God. Now we should continue to long for that spiritual food that God gives so freely that we might continue to grow spiritually. We are never fully grown spiritually. We have never reached our potential in experiencing what God is willing to give us. That is why we keep coming back to this altar to taste of God's goodness in the sacrament. We keep coming back to sit and hear the word of God's grace and forgiveness proclaimed week after week. That is why we can never tire of the opportunities to learn more at the feet of teachers who share the word of grace with us.
Peter adds to the comforting picture of us as babes thriving on the milk of God's word to speak of us as stones being built into a spiritual house with the Lord Jesus. "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight." Jesus is that living stone whom the builders rejected who has become the chief cornerstone by virtue of his life, death, and resurrection. Now Peter says we are to be the living stones who are built into this spiritual house in which we "offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." A good illustration to help us understand Peter's analogy of being chosen as stones for a spiritual building is the Grundtvig National Church in Denmark. The church was started in 1921 and completed in 1941 by seven handpicked masons. The masons, in turn, rejected all bricks that were not perfect. There is an entire community surrounding the church built from the bricks which the masons rejected.
The Apostle Peter would have us understand that though Jesus was rejected to become the chief cornerstone of the spiritual entity we call the church, we have been chosen as living stones, considered now precious in God's sight. We are chosen and precious, because we believe. Peter says that those who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ "will not be put to shame." To us Jesus is the most precious stone. However, Peter adds that those who do not believe continue to find Jesus, our cornerstone, a "stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall." Peter's comforting illustration of us as living stones is consistent with the manner in which the Apostle Paul uses the same illustration. Paul's emphasis with the illustration is to demonstrate how we fit together to build up this spiritual structure and how dependent upon one another we are in completing the building. Peter uses the metaphor, or analogy, to stress how blessed we are to be chosen to fit into the plan that God has for us. He also makes the contrast with those who fail to make the grade. They are the ones who are discarded and are not employed for the purposes God has in mind for those who love our Lord Jesus Christ
God's Own People
Peter brings his effort at encouragement for his readers to a unique pitch with the words, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." He writes this in contrast to those who stumble over the rock, the cornerstone Jesus. Peter once more calls upon the memories of the special treatment God had for ancient Israel. They were the chosen people whom God had called by the divine intervention in their history. The mystery of their choice could be answered only in the light of God's grace and mercy. Certainly, Israel has no more reason to boast of why God had chosen them any more than we. The question has persisted throughout the history of Israel, "How odd of God to choose the Jews." They were not a world power. Nor could they boast anything wonderful about themselves that God should choose them. Our calling by God is no different. We have nothing to boast of before him.
However, God gave to Israel the priesthood as a means of conveying to them that all they were and had came from the generous and kind hand of God. God approached them through a priesthood so they might approach him through a priestly system. Now our God has approached us through our Great High Priest the Lord Jesus Christ. As a royal, that is, a privileged priesthood, we may go directly to God in prayer and devotion. We may also exercise the right of sharing his word of grace, love, and forgiveness in every way available to us. Peter declares that these privileges qualify us to be a "holy nation." As Israel had been God's special nation through whom God could demonstrate how it is that God is willing to work in history and reveal his hand in the lives of people, God continues God's revelation through us. We are God's people. Our place with God has been made sure through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Proclaimers Of God's Mighty Acts
God chose us as God's people, Peter says, so "we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light." There is an old Jewish answer to the question, "Why did God create people?" "Because God loves stories." It is not simply that God needs someone to talk to. It is because God needs someone to recall, relate, and proclaim the wonders of what God has done in the creation and is willing to do in the lives of people. Tragically, there are people who are living in the darkness, that is, people who are blinded to what God has done and is willing to do for people. Peter is convinced that the people of God can show forth the goodness of God under the most trying circumstances.
We have to keep reminding ourselves Peter wrote this remarkable and inspirational letter of hope under the most trying of circumstances. Persecution of the Christians was imminent. Yet Peter knew the power of Rome would ultimately fail. Nations rise and fall. Kingdoms and empires come and go. While history records the greatest and loftiest achievements of people, it discards on the rubbish heap of history peoples, leaders, nations, idols, and conquering heroes who never saw the vision of God's grace and love in Christ Jesus. What Peter could offer to the threatened Christians of his day remains the hope and comfort of all of us who must face the same kind of enemies who intimidate us with different threats. Our enemies may come masked in health, economic, social, temporal, national, or local problems. However intense, subtle, or obvious the enemies are, we know we can face them as the children of God, because we know God is with us to equip us with the resources to deal with whatever we must confront. Peter was right. Nero is now a part of ancient history and crossword puzzles, which identify him simply as the mad fiddler. However, the Church is modern history, very much alive and making new history by proclaiming the mighty acts of God.