First we heard this passage from 1 Peter.
Living StonesThe first point Peter is making here is that we are living stones, being built into a house to give to glory to God. Its a powerful image – a fine stone building, imposing and magnificent, but not built out of lifeless lumps of rock, but out of people. While Paul often uses the idea of a body to represent the church (as we’ll see next week) Peter here gives us a building.
The cornerstoneThen Peter focusses in on one stone in particular. Paul, with his body idea, calls Jesus the head of the body. Peter calls Jesus the cornerstone, the most important stone of all. He quotes a verse from Isaiah, and applies the words to Jesus. Then he points out that the important people of Jesus’ day in fact rejected him – they had him crucified – but that far from finishing off Jesus, this made him an even more formidable force. And he digs out two more apposite quotes from the Scriptures.
Chosen peopleFinally, he goes on to say some wonderful things about us. We Christians are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own possession. Calling to mind the story of the prophet Hosea, who God commanded to name his children prophetically: you’re not loved, you won’t receive mercy, you are not my people … now, says Peter, you are very much loved, you are God’s special people, and God has poured out his mercy on you.
A royal priesthoodNow let me focus in on one phrase. Peter calls the church a royal priesthood. Back at the beginning of the chapter he had called them a holy priesthood. It may not sound much to us, but this was a revolutionary idea. He is saying that the priests aren’t just a little subset of the people of God, but that all God’s people are now priests. To understand this, we’re going to have to have a history lesson. We have to get out of our minds the image that the word priest conjures up.
This is not the Biblical picture of a priest.
But this is the Old testament idea of a priest. When Moses led the children of Israel out from Egypt, and began to prepare them for life in the Promised Land, he passed on God’s instructions to them, and amongst those instructions, God made it clear that one of the 12 tribes, the tribe of Levi, wouldn’t be getting any land to live on when they reached Canaan. The other 11 tribes were all given their own territory, and in the rich and fertile land, it was plenty for them to grow and prosper, and grow their crops, tend their animals and make lives for themselves. But the tribe of Levi weren’t given any land. Instead, they were given the task of organising the nation’s worship. And amongst the Levites, some of them were to be priests, whose particular job was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, and to be their mediators, to do business with God on everybody else’s behalf.
MediationIt’s about mediation. What God told them was that while the rest of people are working, some of you need to think about worship. Some of you need to be free from your preoccupations about the seedtime and the harvest, and the famine and the footrot and all the rest of it, free to concentrate on God. The priests were fully aware of the things of God, they held on to the things of God, and they held the hand of the people, and they brought the two together. Their job was to bring God and the people together. They were to bring the worship of the people to God, empower the people to worship God, and speak to the people on God’s behalf.
Now – just remember that this cannot be translated into contemporary church leadership – it’s not the same thing. Jesus has changed everything. We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just think about the priests a bit longer.
So the priest said to the people: Bring your life a little bit closer to the presence of God, and I will bring the presence of God a little bit closer to you, and as they approach each other, a spark will happen and heaven will pour into your life.
Now – let’s update this picture to how it looks after Jesus has come and changed things.
Jesus cleansed the Temple – why was he so angry? The priests were using the court of the Gentiles to buy and sell, and any seekers who were trying to pray would be doing so in the midst of a market. He was telling them – you don’t care about these people, because you’ve got your special bit – the Holy of Holies. You don’t care about the people on the edge, but you should – you’re not doing your job of bringing the presence of God close to them. “My Temple will called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Having confronted the priests, Jesus became the High Priest – he has become the mediator, the only one we need, dying on the cross for us. Then he inaugurates a whole new priesthood. As a result, the priestly role as seen in the OT, is now the role for every single one of us. We mediate the presence of God to people. Wherever we go, God goes. Wherever we see a person who is seeking after God, we don’t put them off by our inward looking behaviour, by our busyness and noise, but we create a sacred space for them to meet God.
That’s our job.
We bring the presence of God close to them, as they bring themselves close to him, and then the spark can come, and heaven can tumble down to earth once again.
Now do you see what this means? It means that we can’t blame the state of our churches on our leaders. We can’t sit in the pews and say, I wish our church was better, it would be if I was in charge, but that professional Christian up the front, he won’t listen!
You can’t blame the leader. Not exclusively. We are all priests, we are all mediators, we all carry the most amazing treasure about in our earthen vessels, and it’s all of our responsibility to share it, not just mine. We are carriers of God’s grace, called to distribute it wherever it is asked for or sought after. We are all called to this task, to be like the Levites and priests, who didn’t have a share of the land and all the responsibilities that went with it so they could be free to concentrate on God – now we are all called to care less about our mortgage deeds than our neighbours because we know we have an inheritance in heaven, and the earthly things don’t matter so much.
PriestWhat does it mean to be a priest? Love God, love people, love life. We need to say to God, we will bring people to you and you to people, and we will let them know that every effort they make to seek you and know you is valued and received. There is something gentle and beautiful about a priesthood that notices. Where people don’t necessarily mention God, or use the name Jesus, or talk about religion, but in what they say you know that they are expressing a longing for God in their lives. It was said of Jesus that he would not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick. And this is it – not crushing someone’s tentative reaching out to God, but honouring it, holding it as sacred, and helping them to give it a different kind of language. It’s beautiful. We are priests, helping people to find God.
A royal priesthood, a holy nation, belonging to God … but here for everyone else.