The Church’s Holiness
1 Peter 2:9-10
The next time you’re signing your name at the DMV or another U.S. Government office, you probably won’t notice the black pen in your hand. It, after all, is exactly like the dozens of other black pens you’ve used in post offices, courthouses, and other buildings throughout your adult life. You certainly won’t think there’s much of a story behind the modest implement that, likely as not, is chained to the well-worn desk you’ve been waiting to stand at.
But like everything, these pens have a story. For over 40 years, these Skilcraft pens have been assembled by (blind) factory workers in Wisconsin and North Carolina. They must meet rigorous government specifications: to write continuously for a mile, and within temperature swings from 40 below zero to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The original design – brass ink tube, plastic barrel not shorter than 4 5/8 inches, ball of 94 percent tungsten carbide and 6 percent cobalt – has changed little over the decades. It costs less than 60 cents. The standard length of the pen has helped lost Navy pilots navigate by map. Stories say that the pen can be used as a two-inch bomb fuse, or for emergency tracheotomies. It can write upside down.
The pen has a rich, fascinating history, woven together with war, peace, postage, bureaucrats, spies, work, and play. And you’d never know it to look at it.[i] It looks like any old black pen. But it isn’t. The same thing is true of God’s people. One the surface, we look just like everyone else. But because of Christ, something fundamental has changed deep inside us, and that change, that transformation, starting deep inside, works its way out – into our thoughts, our words, our actions. Into the things we do, the things we don’t do. Into the ways we do the things we do, and the reasons we do the things we do. We live IN this world, but we aren’t OF this world. And we’re here for a reason. God has a purpose for his people. Turn with me to 1 Peter 2:9-12.
This paragraph starts with the word “but,” and the word “but” tends to negate whatever comes before it. Peter wrote this letter to the Jewish and Gentile Christians scattered throughout the region of Asia Minor, the region that is modern day Turkey. In the introduction to the letter, he calls them “elect exiles” (1 Pe. 1:1). “Chosen aliens.” Aliens or exiles because although we as followers of Christ live in this world, and are called to be a part of this world, fully members of the human family, this world is not our home. We are to live in this world as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Even as American Christians, we are called to live in America not first as Americans but as citizens of the Kingdom of God currently residing in America. Chosen or elect because God has chosen, in Christ, to save all who call on the name of Christ, all who come to Christ as their Savior and their Lord. When you placed your faith in Christ, whenever that happened, however that happened, an immigration happened. You became a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and an alien, an exile, a stranger, here. Look at the person sitting closest to you and say, “You’re an alien.”
And Peter’s concern with the Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ scattered throughout what we today know as Turkey is that they were no longer living in this world as aliens and exiles. The pressure they were experiencing, pressure from those who weren’t following Christ – pressure in the form of ridicule and persecution, and just the day to day grind of living in this world – was causing them to try to fit in just a little too much.
When a group of people immigrate to a new country, one of two things tends to happen. They either become so close-knit and focused on themselves that they completely shut out the new culture in which they’re living. Or they completely assimilate. They disappear into the new culture. Kind of the American idea of the “melting pot.” And that’s exactly what Peter is worried about. Up in V. 1 he tells them to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” Peter is worried that the Christians scattered around the Roman empire will experience enough pressure to conform that they do exactly that, and they’ll lose or even give up anything that makes them stand out as distinctively Christian. In fact, it sounds like he already sees that assimilation back into their culture in them.
English Pastor and theologian John Stott once wrote, “I’ve recently come back from India where I heard of a little Hindu girl brought up in a strict Hindu family, who had come across Christians. Somebody asked her one day what she thought a Christian was. She thought for a few moments and replied, “Well as far as I can see, a Christian is somebody who is different from everybody else.” Would that it was true.[ii] As followers of Christ, we are called, as individuals and collectively, to be different.
Peter uses four phrases to describe exactly who we are, as a people, the people of God in the world, in Christ. I say “as a people” because the words Peter uses to describe us are all collective: he uses the words “race,” – and he isn’t talking about a specific color of skin or ethnic heritage – priesthood, nation, and people. They’re all collective. We place so much emphasis on the individual, on individualism here in America. In fact, we probably OVER emphasize it. And that over emphasis has made its way into the church, just as malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander have made their way into the church. We talk a lot about a personal relationship with Christ, and that’s good. God’s love is incredibly personal. The Bible tells us that he sees every common sparrow that falls to the ground and dies. He knows the number of hairs on your head. He sees you and knows you intimately and personally as an individual. But we completely ignore the Scriptural truth that we are individuals called together by God and formed together by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ – a unified, single body. We are individuals in community, in relationship. Biblically, there’s no such thing as a solo Christian. That’s an American idea, not a biblical one, and it’s false.
Peter says “you are a chosen race.” Now, Peter is writing to both Jews and Gentiles. He isn’t talking about genetic heritage here. He isn’t talking just about people who are white, or black, or olive skinned. He’s talking about followers of Christ together, regardless of the color of our skin, as being formed together in Christ into a body that is so unique and distinct that it can be considered a new race of people. And the feeling we sometimes get living in this world is the feeling of being a people who have immigrated to a new land and stand out.
Peter is also tying this new race of people, Jew and gentile alike, into the history of Israel. In the Old Testament, what was characteristic of the people of Israel, genetic descendants of Abraham and those who “immigrated” to Israel and became Jewish is now true of a new race of people that includes both Jews and gentiles. It is no longer being able to trace a genetic line to Abraham that matters. It is being able to find our common connection in Christ. What was national, Israel, in the Old Testament becomes ecclesial, the church, in the New Testament. This isn’t to say that God’s promises to the Jewish people no longer stand. They do. St. Paul in Romans makes that very clear. But the things God accomplished through Israel in the Old Testament, God is now doing in and through the church, his people in the world.
We are a chosen race. The word chosen sometimes makes us feel like, well, if some are chosen, that means others are ignored. And that’s kind of how Old Testament Israel sometimes viewed their “chosenness.” God has chosen us, and is ignoring everyone else. And that isn’t the case at all. God chose Israel, and has chosen his church, his people in the world today, to live as his people in the world. By the way we live, the way we relate to one another and to those outside the church, those who disagree with us and ridicule us, we reveal to the world what it is like to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In an upside down world, we reveal to the world what it can be like to live right side up. As such, we are a chosen race.
And we are a royal priesthood. As a ROYAL priesthood, we belong to and serve our king. We belong to God. And priests were those who served as “go-betweens” between God and God’s people. Now, we don’t do that. Christ is now the intermediary. We don’t need priests in that sense. But we are priests in the sense that we are called to live for the benefit of others. It is our testimony, the way we live our lives, and the words that we speak that reveals to the world what life as a citizen of God’s kingdom is like. We don’t have special “priests.” We as a people ARE priests. As such, we reveal life in Christ to the world. Turn to the person sitting closest to you and tell them, “You’re a priest.”
Third, we are a holy nation. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s use, God’s purpose. Its not so much about being perfect. Righteousness, or rightness, gets at that moral quality of sinlessness which, on our own we can’t achieve so Christ gives us his when we place our faith in him. But holiness isn’t so much about that. Holiness is more about being set apart. And we, as God’s people, are set apart for his use. Reserved for God’s use. We have some work being done on our house right now. And the two guys doing the work, Bob and Josh, each have their own tools. Some they share, but others are their own. And those tools have a name on them. That name says “This is Bob’s tape measure.” “This is Bob’s hammer.” It’s reserved for his use. That’s what it means to be holy. We belong to God, and are set apart for his use.
Being a holy NATION unified not by a human political constitution or genetic similarities, but by Christ, sometimes brings us into conflict with the human government under which we live, regardless of who is on the “throne,” so to speak. In America, it’s regardless of who is president and which political party controls the house and the senate. Regardless of whether “our guy” is president. As followers of Christ, we will even, at times, be in conflict, in terms of values and perspective, with the people in charge, even if we voted for them.
And lastly, we are an owned people. Peter says “a people for his own possession.” The language Peter uses reflects language used by royal people to describe their royal treasures. We belong to God, and we are his treasured possession. We, as followers of Christ, are God’s treasured possession. He treasures us. Turn to the person sitting next to you and say, “You’re a treasure.” Now, because we are God’s treasured possession, we are to treasure one another. We are to treat each other as treasures, and those we meet out in the world as treasures God wants to add to his royal collection.
Look at V. 10. Peter closes this paragraph by reminding us where we came from. Once, just like them, we weren’t God’s people. But now we are. And so can they. Once, just like them, we hadn’t yet received God’s mercy, but now we have. And so can they. And that is our job. We’ll talk about that next week as we continue with this beautiful, rich passage.
The Roman empire in which these earliest Christians lived was a pagan place. Christian values weren’t even known, much less honored. Business was marked by corruption and greed. Morality was at an historic low, and divorce was so common that marriage was barely known. By our standards, it was a dirty, disease-ridden place marked with epidemics that decimated populations. Average life expectancy was less than half what it is in America today. Diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague would sweep through cities, periodically destroying half the population of major cities. When that happened, the Roman government moved tens of thousands of people from different parts of the empire into these cities to replace those who died, almost repopulating those cities overnight. This led to communities becoming places where tons of different languages were spoken and people could hardly communicate. Between disease and divorce, few families had two parents, and few parents saw all of their children survive to adulthood.
Because birth control was unknown, abortion was frequent, but primitive medical procedures led to those getting abortions winding up infertile or dead. The primary method was exposure, or infanticide, birthing the baby and leaving it outside, unfed and unsheltered, to die. Often male babies were kept, and female babies were taken to the seashore or into the wilderness and left to die of exposure. This led to great social upheaval because the numbers of men far outnumbered the numbers of available women.
It was in this world that the people of God Peter wrote to were living. And how did these early Christians respond? Husbands and wives were faithful to each other, avoiding divorce. Women were treated with dignity and respect. Refusing to have abortions, they kept and loved their daughters, and looked for abandoned babies in the wilderness and along the seashore, raising them as their own, at great expense to themselves. Eventually, men flocked to church because, in a culture where people regularly left their infant girls to die, leading to a lack of available women, the church had plenty. We were the original dating service. Christianmingle.com.
When plagues hit the cities, the standard response was to leave town, even if you had to leave children, the disabled, and the elderly behind. But the Christians would, again, at great risk to themselves, stay behind and care for those who were abandoned, left for the disease to claim. They would feed and love the abandoned, and when family members returned after the disease had run its course, not only would they find that their children, their disabled, their elderly were still alive, they’d find that they had converted to Christianity because of the self-risking love and care they had received.
And then when slaves and others were forced by the government to repopulate disease-ravished cities, it was the Christians who offered them places to stay and helped them find jobs. It was the Christians who taught them the commercial language of the city if they needed to learn it. Transformed by the living Christ, and at great risk and cost to themselves, they lived lives that transformed the lives of those around them. They didn’t beat people up who didn’t see things the way they did. They didn’t insist that others live the way they did. They simply lived and spoke as children of God wherever they found themselves. As the people of God, we are different than everyone else. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a God-owned people. And as God’s people, we are to declare God’s praises, and live in such a way that others will be able to praise God as well. Let us pray.
[i] Ylan Q. Mui, “Low-Tech Skilcraft Pens Endure In A High-Tech World,” The Washington Post (4-18-10)
[ii] John Stott, “Christians: Salt and Light.”