A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
May 18, 2014.
1 Peter 2:2-10
Our New Testament lesson this morning is taken from 1 Peter and at the heart of our assigned passage is a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem. Perched on top of Mount Zion, the Temple in Jerusalem loomed large over the religious lives of the Jews, including Jesus and his disciples. The Temple was often called by Jews “the House of God,” the physical dwelling place of God, and subsequently, it was to them the center of the world and the connection between heaven and earth. In the Temple, priests led worship by performing animal sacrifices at the altar on behalf of the people. Worship in the Jewish religion focused on the Temple and the priests in Jerusalem.
The system of priesthood had a long tradition in Judaism. It was established by Moses some 12 or 16 hundred years before the birth of Christ. Moses appointed his brother Aaron and his sons as the priests to offer animal sacrifices at the tabernacle and other altars. When King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem around 950 years before the birth of Christ, he decreed that priestly sacrifices could only take place at the Temple. When the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, a second Temple was rebuilt about 70 years later.
In building the Temple, one of the most important steps was the laying of the cornerstone, which is the first stone set in the construction of a foundation. Once that stone was set, all other stones would be set in reference to the cornerstone, thus determining the position of the entire building.
The Temple was an impressive building, and it was precious to the Jewish people. Around 150 years before the birth of Christ, when foreign occupiers tried to outlaw religious observance of the Sabbath and circumcision at the Temple, or when they tried to sacrifice unclean animals such as pigs in the Temple, the faithful Jews were outraged and rebelled, successfully driving out their foreign occupiers. The commemoration of this victory and the rededication of the second Temple is a major part of the festival of Hannukah celebrated by Jews today. During Jesus’ time, a renovated version of that second Temple still stood in Jerusalem.
With this brief history, I hope you can see just how important the Temple was to Jews and to Jews who became followers of Jesus, like Peter and the other disciples. So listen again to this passage with that background in mind:
“As you come to him (Jesus Christ), the living Stone– rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him– 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Jewish Christians who heard these words would certainly understand the richness of the imagery. But notice that Peter shifts from the literal stones of the Temple of Jerusalem, to identifying Jesus as the living Cornerstone of spiritual house of God. More importantly, instead of literal brick and mortar, the hearers themselves are also identified as the living stones of a spiritual house serving as a holy priesthood! The role of priest, once only reserved for descendants of Aaron, is now spiritually available to all through Jesus Christ.
I imagine this to be good news for followers of Jesus who were raised in Judaism. But surprisingly, most scholars think this letter was addressed not to them, but mainly to non-Jewish Gentile Christians who were living in a Roman province near present-day Turkey. According to traditional Jewish belief, Gentiles were not God’s chosen people descendants of Abraham, they were not recognized as a nation, they certainly were not seen as God’s special possession, and most definitely they could not function as priests. Gentiles were not allowed in the inner courtyard of the Temple where Jewish men entered. Therefore, it makes much more sense for Peter to be writing to a Gentile audience when he says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
If those scholars are right, then what Peter is saying to his Gentile readers is a revolutionary proclamation of God’s radically inclusivity. But then, Peter should know. In Acts 10 and 11, Peter had a vision of a large sheet descending from heaven, and inside were all kinds of unclean animals. Then he heard a voice that commanded, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” That led him to the home of Cornelius, a God fearing Gentile. When Peter entered Cornelius’ house, he said, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” Later in Acts 15, Peter argued that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to follow Christ. Peter said, “God did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. . . . We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
I hazard to guess that most of us in sanctuary do not have Jewish ancestors. Our ancestors were Gentiles, and the Jews in Jesus’ day saw them as unchosen by God, inferior, impure and insignificant. Our Gentile ancestors could not enter into the house of God, much less lead worship in it. So imagine these Gentiles hearing these revolutionary words from Peter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” What good news for them, and for us who are now welcomed into God’s Temple!
In these words, the Spirit of Christ was using Simon Peter “the rock” to build his Church, not with literal stones and rocks, bricks and mortar, but with the living stones of people, Jews and Gentiles, who were craving the pure spiritual milk of Christ, who tasted the goodness of the Lord and desired to grow in their salvation. As important as the physical Temple and priestly sacrifice was to Peter, even more important was the building up of the spiritual, everlasting Temple, with the risen Christ as the foundational cornerstone. Peter saw that God had brought non-Jews into the fold, not necessarily to share Israel’s identity and traditions, but to unite with the person of Jesus, the cornerstone. Peter was careful not to elevate any physical building, any practice, any tradition above faith and allegiance to Christ.
Peter is right. Buildings and traditions, while very important, are not permanent. In 70 AD, about 10 years after Peter wrote this letter, the physical Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and it has never been rebuilt. With its destruction, the centuries-old Jewish tradition of worship based on animal sacrifices performed in the Temple by priests came to an end. Even orthodox Jews today do not offer sacrifices. But neither Christianity nor Judaism is dependent on physical buildings or human traditions. Peter reminds us that the “temple” still exists – not in Jerusalem, but in the lives of believers all around the world.
In our recent past, UBC has gone through a couple of capital campaigns called “Rebuilding God’s House” and “Caring for God’s House.” I am grateful for both campaigns, and our renovated building is a great asset to ministry. But what if a tornado came through and destroyed our building? Would our church also be destroyed? Of course not! UBC is ultimately not brick and mortar. UBC is ultimately made of you and me, all living stones, the priesthood of all believers. Our greatest assets are our people and in the coming months, we will focus on “Building God’s People,” whereby we are all being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
In a couple of weeks, Ruben Swint, a congregational coach, will be visiting us to help us with this journey. He will spend time with various groups in the congregation to assess where we are and to help us build our capacity to be generous, to strengthen our capacity to reach out to the university community and beyond, to give birth to new groups, to grow in our salvation and to help us on a journey of transformation. For those of you here in the sanctuary and listening by radio, I want to remind you that in Christ’s radical inclusivity, we are all invited to join in.
So let us remember that God has included us all! God is building us together to be a living temple, because Christ is our Living Cornerstone. So no matter what challenges, fears, and struggles we may feel right now, let us hear these words affirming who we are.
We may feel left out, left behind, unwanted and unneeded, but in Christ, we are a chosen people.
We may feel inferior, lowly, common and dishonorable, but in Christ, we are a royal priesthood.
We may feel vile, impure, wicked and depraved, but in Christ, we are a holy nation.
We may feel insignificant, rejected, damaged and unloved, but in Christ, we are God’s special possession.
We may feel lonely or isolated, disconnected from one another, but in Christ, we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house.
Let us claim our identity in Christ, and let God build us up, so that we may declare the praises of God who called us out of darkness into God’s wonderful light!