Sunday 14 May - Easter 5 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Easter 5 2017 – 1 Peter 2:2-10

+ ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’.

This should set alarm bells ringing. A speaker telling his audience they are special, and implying the others are not. You are chosen, they are not. In an excellent series of three videos for the coming election our Bishop John tells us about his three resolutions for this election: to champion truth, confront othering, challenge the system. They are on the Edinburgh diocese website and worth a look. He manages to make meaty political points without being party political. Something not all clergy can do. By ‘confronting othering’ he means challenging those who turn groups of people into ‘the other’, outsiders, and by extension ‘the enemy’. A classic example of this is anti-Semitism, which is not just found in 1930s Germany; we could also think of rhetoric about ‘benefit scroungers’, Romanians and Poles, Mexicans, refugees and immigrants in general, the victims might even be Brexiteers or Tories. So, play the ball, not the man, argue against policies not people and don’t demonise the other. This ‘othering’, however, is not the same as ‘choice’ – if you choose your partner you are implicitly rejecting all other potential partners (or one hopes so).

What is Peter up to in our second reading? Some scholars say it is not by St Peter but there is no compelling argument against the attribution and, anyway, what is important is what it teaches. Peter is talking to people who are like new born babies, he is talking to the newly baptised. Like babies they long for milk. In the first thousand years of the church the newly baptised were given milk and honey as well as bread and wine at their first communion. Baptism leads to communion and Holy Communion is like milk for babies, it helps us grow up in Christ. It is also food for mature disciples and that is why Christians need communion regularly.

Reading the Bible is interesting if you look at who the writer is speaking to and speaking about: pay attention to pronouns. Peter starts with ‘you’, which is the newly baptised to whom he is writing but also, by extension, us. He then moves on the ‘him’, to Christ. As an aside he talks about ‘them’, those who have rejected Christ, but his main emphasis here is ‘you’ and ‘him’. Christians and Christ. This ‘them’ could be read as ‘othering’ those outside, but Peter is really interested in Christians and Christ. Reading the Bible is also interesting if you pay attention to the images used. To be a Christian is to enter into a world of images, Christian formation is helping people live in this symbolic world. Lamb, King, Sacrifice, Exodus. Here Peter is talking about architecture. Something relevant to us at St John’s as we watch the Cornerstone Centre take shape next door.

Peter takes images from the Old Testament quoting Isaiah 28 ‘I shall lay in Zion a precious cornerstone’ and Psalm 118 ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. Because of the Jerusalem Temple, architecture is central to Judaism and Christianity, in Matthew 21 Jesus says he is ‘the stone which the builders rejected’. Here at St John’s we are a Christian community in a stone house on a street corner so the word ‘Cornerstone’ is important to us, we use it a lot – magazine, bookshop, cafe. The hymn ‘Christ is our cornerstone’, which we sung last week, could almost be our ‘national anthem’. Our opening hymn today, ‘Ye that know the Lord is gracious’, is also about Christ the cornerstone and is a meditation on this reading from 1 Peter. A rejected cornerstone looks sad in the long grass; a cornerstone only makes sense when it is holding the building together. Today’s hymn also takes up another part of the reading, when Peter (who is himself the rock) turns from ‘him’ to ‘you’, from Jesus to us.

‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. Again images from the Old Testament, words spoken by God to Israel at the covenant on Mount Sinai. The church is the new Israel, although God has not abandoned his first-called, but there is no ‘othering’ here. Like the first Israel the Church is chosen to exist for the world. Architectural imagery can seem exclusive, you’re in the building or you’re out. If you’re out you get cold and wet. But if we are speaking of a city on a hill or a building at a crossroads, the doors can be open to all. The windows can shed light on those outside. This Temple of the church is a building which is chosen for the service of all.

Likewise within the Temple, as in Jerusalem, there is a priesthood. Peter calls the church ‘a royal priesthood’ but the Letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as the one true priest of the New Covenant. As the church is his body (another image), it shares in his priesthood sharing the continual offering of his ‘once for all’ sacrifice on the cross. This is what we are doing here in the Eucharist, as Paul says, ‘when you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’. Within this priestly people some, what our church calls the ‘ministerial priesthood’, are called to lead and serve – I won’t say ‘provide strong and stable leadership’. So what does this mean for us who are ‘living stones, built into a spiritual house’, the church, as in the Inca wall on the cover of your booklet; called ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’, as we are doing today in this sacrifice of Holy Communion.

It says that Christ is our cornerstone, the gospel should be central to everything we do. All should flow from our worship, especially the Eucharist, in which we join ourselves to the sacrifice of our great High Priest Jesus Christ unceasingly offered in heaven. It says that we, as a priestly people, exist to share God’s love with the world. You, fed with the milk of this holy sacrament are called, literally by the deacon at the end of this service, to go out into the world and make a difference. Living the priesthood of your baptism doesn’t mean becoming more like the clergy, God forbid, it means prayer and service in the world. So, this is a lot of images, a lot of deep thought, but at heart it is simple: worship God through Jesus Christ in the Church and serve Jesus Christ in the poor and in one another in the Cornerstone Centre and out in the world. How we best do this is something we need to think about over the next few months.