Living Stones for a Spiritual House - Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5A (1 Peter 2)

1 Peter 2:2-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the very head of the corner,”

“A stone that makes them stumble,
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 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.


                As I write this reflection churches are unable to gather in-person as a community due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have taken on a new identity of being exiles, which is an image that appears in the opening lines of 1 Peter. There in verse 1, Peter addresses the “exiles of the dispersion.” We have become exiles of the dispersion, scattered across the land, connected by way of Zoom, Facebook, and the phone. In other words, we have become the “virtual body of Christ.” As Deanna Thompson reminds us, in her book on The Virtual Body of Christ, the church has always, from the beginning, been a virtual body. She writes that “from the time of Paul onward, the church has also continued to turn to images like the body of Christ to indicate that somehow, someway, Christians remain linked to one another beyond the boundaries of their local church communities or even wider church bodies” [Virtual Body of Christ, p. 47]. Perhaps our current experience of being exiles in dispersion affirms the principle that while the church is embodied in local communities (and may meet in buildings) it’s not limited to that form of embodiment. We can be the church even if we can’t meet together in person.

                The second reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter comes from 1 Peter 2. It begins with verse 2, which addresses the readers as being like “newborn infants [who] long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” The reference to new-borns needn’t be taken as a criticism, as was true in Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:1-3). The issue here isn’t spiritual immaturity, as was true in Corinth, but an affirmation of the reader’s innocence as they pursued the call of God. It is in this state that the recipients, born anew in from imperishable seed, which is the enduring word of God (1 Peter1:23). Peter commends these new-borns who long for pure spiritual milk, calling them living stones that God is using to build a spiritual house or temple, with Christ as the “living stone” who serves as the temple’s cornerstone. This living stone that completes the temple had been rejected by humans but is chosen and precious in the sight of God.  

                There are two basic metaphors present in this passage. I’ve already mentioned the first, that of the spiritual house or temple, which is built up from living stones. The second metaphor is that of a chosen and holy nation or people who form a royal priesthood. I drew the title of the post from the first metaphor— “Living Stones for a Spiritual House.” While these are two separate metaphors, they both connect the church to Israel. In both cases, reference is made to chosenness.

                When it comes to comparisons of the church to Israel, I’m ever mindful that Christians have had a long history of claiming that we are the replacement or fulfillment of Israel as God’s covenant people. I would suggest that we read this in terms of the church being an expansion of God’s covenant people, but not as a replacement. Even there, we have to be careful. So, I tread carefully here.

                Peter does connect the Temple and the priesthood. He addresses the people as living stones who comprise the Temple, but he also addresses them as a holy priesthood. In that, he connects the first metaphor with the second. For the church is a royal priesthood. Depending on when this was written (and whether Peter is the actual author), the Temple in Jerusalem might have been destroyed. Thus, physical sacrifices were no longer being offered. However, one can envision spiritual sacrifices (also see Hebrews 13:15-16).

                As Peter speaks to this scattered community of believers living in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), he reminds them of their connections with each other in Christ, who binds them together as a spiritual house where holy priests offer spiritual sacrifices. He draws from the Old Testament to make this point. He appeals to Isaiah 28:16 to speak of Christ as a “cornerstone chosen and precious.” Noting that which was dishonored has been honored, picking up on the “honor/shame” categories prominent in the age. To further the definition of Christ as the cornerstone, Peter draws from Psalm 118:22, to affirm that the rejected stone is the cornerstone. Finally, drawing from Isaiah 8:14, that stone, though chosen and honored by God, becomes the stumbling block for those who cannot or will not believe. Joel Green sums up Peter’s use of Scripture in Christological terms.
Peter's task is not to read the Scriptures christologically but to show how a christological reading of Scripture guides the church in the formation of its identity and pursuit of its mission. To put it differently, and more accurately, Peter reads the situation of his Christian audience from the perspective of the career of Jesus Christ, and the career of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Scriptures—specifically, from the scriptural plot line concerned with the vindication and glory of the rejected and suffering righteous. [Joel B. Green. 1 Peter (Two Horizons New TestamentCommentary) (Kindle Locations 777-780).]  
                It is important that we not read this in typical modern individualistic terms. Peter is addressing churches, which are comprised of living stones, but it is as a whole that they are chosen. We often hear the question: “Can I be a Christian and not be part of a church?” The question itself is a modern one. Peter and Paul both would not have comprehended the question. They assume that Christians are part of communities, even while recognizing that the church itself is larger than a single gathering. When Paul addresses the church in Corinth, he’s addressing multiples of small gatherings, all of which make up the local body of Christ. That community forms a part of a much larger body of Christ, the universal body of Christ. Since this is a reading for Easter, we can see in these words a recognition that in the resurrection God has vindicated the one who was rejected.

                This leads us to the missional calling present in the passage. Having been chosen by God, the church is tasked with proclaiming the “mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Just so the readers remember from when they come, Peter closes out the passage with the declaration: “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.” This declaration of status change reflects status changes found in Hosea 1-2. In other words, they had found their path to salvation, which translated them from not being a people to being a people. Whereas once they had not received God’s mercy, now they have received it.

                So, precious and chosen in the sight of God, we can boldly sing, even a time of pandemic induced separation (exile):

                The church’s one foundation, is Jesus Christ our Lord;
we are his new creation by water and the Word. 
[Samuel Stone, Chalice Hymnal, #272]


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