Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997
Bible study on 1 Peter 2:9 led by John Fotopoulos
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.
(1 Peter 2:9)
In yesterday's Bible study we reflected on God's command to Pharaoh through Moses to "'Let my people go.'" Reflections were made on the relationship of the people of God to the whole people of God, on contemporary pharaohs, the role of courageous women in the world, the central importance of worship, and the attention God gives to the cries of the people. These reflections were drawn from the theme of the exodus.
Today's reading, as well as the reading for tomorrow, are taken from the First Letter of Peter. 1 Peter uses a large amount of Old Testament imagery as well as Scriptural references in its content. 1 Peter, however, instead of primarily using the backdrop of the exodus for its composition, utilizes the idea of exile in addressing its recipients. The churches that 1 Peter addresses are referred to as strangers and exiles from the start of the letter, building on the notion of the Israel's scattering since the Babylonian captivity in B.C.E. 586. In today's Bible study I would like to offer some thoughts regarding the people of God's special identity in a world which they are not completely at home in as referred to by 1 Peter 2:9. Implications will also be made from this special identity of the people of God on the formation of the laos.
As a letter of the New Testament, 1 Peter is unique in that it is the most consistent of New Testament letters in referring its recipients, albeit indirectly, as Israel. For example, in 1 Peter's epistolary greeting the author refers to the recipients of the letter in Asia Minor as "chosen people, living as strangers in the diaspora" (1 Pet. 1:1). In 1 Pet. 2:5 the recipients of the letter are referred to as a "spiritual house" or "spiritual temple." In the verse from today's reading, 1 Pet. 2:9, the recipients of the letter are called "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (2:9). Although the recipients are not explicitly called "Israel," their identification with Israel seems to be taken for granted in light of the numerous metaphors used to describe them.
At face value, one might first be lead to agree with the assessment of the historian Eusebius in the fourth century that 1 Peter was written to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. However, there is a near consensus among scholars that 1 Peter was written to Christians of Greco-Roman religious backgrounds in Asia Minor. Phrases in the letter such as, "the desires that you formerly had in ignorance" (1:14); "the empty way of life inherited from your ancestors" (1:18); and, "You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do"(4:3) seem to indicate that the recipients of the letter are not of a Jewish, but of a Greco-Roman background. One could hardly imagine a Jew (i.e. Peter) writing to fellow Jews who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah saying, "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people" (2:10).
This approach in 1 Peter which consistently conveys the idea that Greco-Roman Christians now constitute Israel is somewhat curious. This approach, however, might best be understood in relation to the special identity that Peter wants to convey to the churches to which he is writing. Although the Christians in Asia Minor would have been from various people's groups and Greco-Roman religious backgrounds, now in Christ they are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (2:9). In Christ they have assumed the special identity of Israel despite what they constituted in the past.
The first of this string of designations which Peter refers to the Church, "a chosen race," is drawn from the Septuagint of Isaiah 43:20. Chosen race conveys the privileged identity that all Israel possesses which is assumed by the Church. Christianity was not alone in its self-understanding as the true or authentic Israel in the first century C. E.. The Qumran community also conceived of itself as the true Israel over against other Jewish groups in Jerusalem. For example, the Community Rule states that Qumran is "a holy house for Israel and the foundation of the holy of holies for Aaron" (1QS VIII.5-6) and then refers to the community as "Israel" (1QS VIII.11).
What is unique, however, about the Church's identity as Israel is its origin in and appropriation of the Christ event. The Church's identity is founded upon Jesus, the "cornerstone in Zion," in whom "the believer will never be put to shame" (2:6). It is also of special significance that although coming from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, Christians together now constitute a chosen race. Peter intimates that the churches have not become members of Israel because of their natural birth as Jews, but because of the living stone who makes the Christian believers living stones as well (cf. 2:4-5).
The designation of the Christian community as a chosen race identifies Christian believers as a race without regard to race and as a race who derives its identity solely from Jesus. Indeed, Christians were a race of no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male or female; but all who had become one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 3:28). Christians are identified as a race that is chosen but not exclusive. They are chosen from many races to constitute a special race; a race that is not truly at home on earth. Yet, this chosen race of strangers is called to make those who are not members of it to feel at home among them.
This theme of Christians as a chosen race can offer meaning to our discussions pertaining to the formation of the laos and provide identity for the people of God. By emphasizing the idea of Christians as a race without regard to race, it is possible to emphasize the special relationship Christians have with the Lord and to draw out implications regarding contemporary social issues of racism and discrimination. Christians as a chosen race obtain their identity from Jesus without regard to race. Race, and national identity for that matter, are not to be regarded among Christians as either unifying or divisive forces. For the Christian, race and nationality should never make one feel totally at home or totally estranged in the world. As the Epistle to Diognetus says, "Every homeland is a foreign country and every foreign country a homeland." The people of God, regardless of the race, nationality, or religious belief of those around them are called, at the very least, to peace and tolerance in the world. Ideally, the people of God are called to love. If only the people of the Balkans, many of whom claim to be members of various Christian Churches, fully understood the meaning of chosen race, there might never have been such bloodshed like we have recently witnessed there.
About two months ago in Chicago the issue of race and the people of God was filling the media's headlines in the city. At an important high school basketball playoff game between a predominantly African-American public high school and a predominantly white private "Christian" high school, racial epithets were hurled by students in the crowd from the so-called "Christian" high school at some of the African-American players from the public high school. After the game the officials of the public high school demanded a public apology from the other school. At first there was reservation on the Christian school's side that such a serious matter could have been done by such a large segment of its students. After some investigation and discussion with both students and their parents, the Christian school not only apologized for what had happened, but implemented a program to educate and address matters of racism and discrimination. What this school found was that not only were many of the students in need of education and formation regarding racism and discrimination, but their parents were in need of it as well. When the people of God fails, minimally, to tolerate others who are different, not to say love even those who hate them, race is conveyed without the word "chosen" before it. Chosen race brings with it both a privileged position before God and a particular responsibility; a particular responsibility to love.
Another designation that Peter uses from the Hebrew Scriptures for the recipients of his letter is "royal priesthood" (2:9). Royal priesthood is drawn from the Septuagint version of Exodus 19:6. Peter uses it to portray the special identity of the Church as itself being Israel. J.H. Elliot has pointed out that the word "hierateuma," like other Greek words ending in "-euma" such as "politeuma" or "strateuma," conveys a corporate and communal meaning in relation to function. All Christians, then, exercise priestly functions, but only in relation to the entire group of Christians who all exercise these same functions together as a royal priesthood.
This identification of the people of God as a royal priesthood can also provide meaning and purpose to the formation of the laos. In 1 Peter 2:5 the churches are also called a holy priesthood. There the purpose of the Church's priesthood is clearly defined, just as it is defined in a similar manner in 2:9. In 2:5 the purpose of the holy priesthood of the Church is to "offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ." I, personally, as an Orthodox Christian, very much like this description of the purpose of the priesthood of all Christians. This priestly vocation resonates quite well with Orthodox understandings of soteriology and the mystical life of the Church.
In Orthodox sacramental or mystical theology all of creation is offered back to God in Jesus Christ. Because of the fall, sin, and the subsequent divisive nature of human existence, the elements of creation, which were created as good by God, can now serve to further alienate humankind from one another and from God. The elements of creation can, rather, be used for self-serving or individualistic purposes. Food in its fallen condition cannot bring true communion with God and others simply by itself. Food in its fallen condition can only provide opportunities for limited fellowship and social interaction among people as well as a means of individual survival. However, when food is directed into right relationship with God in Jesus Christ by means of the priestly calling of the entire Church, the people of God are able to participate in the transfiguration and salvation of the entire cosmos. Food and drink become truly life-giving means of communion between humankind and God, obtaining cosmic and eschatological significance.
This sacramental use of the world in connection with the priestly identity of the people of God can provide meaning for the laos as well as for the whole people of God. This priestly orientation allows for people to understand everyday existence in a new perspective. Everyday life might no longer be perceived as fragmented, secular, or unattached from God or church on Sunday. All spheres of life, not just the intellectual, as well as all of creation can be directed in a priestly and sacramental way to God in Jesus. From this perspective, all aspects of life can be brought into right relationship with God and can become means of communion.
A formation of priestly orientation, I believe, happens primarily in worship where "spiritual sacrifices" occur. Worship must be the fundamental means of the people of God's formation. Worship is the source of the people's vision of all of life as loving communion with God and one another. Worship is the place where the people encounter the living God. Worship allows the people of God to understand more deeply their true identity in the cosmos. A priestly orientation anchored in worship provides vistas for everyday life as well as a vision for the world: the world as ultimately the kingdom of God, where Christ will be all in all. As the author of the Letter to the Colossians writes, "For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers --- all things have been created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16).
A third designation which Peter gives to the churches to which he is writing is that of "holy nation." J. Ramsay Michaels has pointed out in his commentary on 1 Peter that just like the other nouns constituting the series in 2:9, holy nation is used with Israel in mind as the prototype. Peter extracts this designation, as he did with royal priesthood, from the Septuagint version of Exodus 19:6. Just as with the other descriptions of the Church in 2:9, holy nation also provides meaning and identity to the Christians in Asia Minor, many of whom would have certainly come from Greco-Roman religious backgrounds.
The Greco-Roman world in the first century C.E. was a time of further transition from classical beliefs about the cosmos, the polis, and the gods. This Greco-Roman world in transition presented many challenges to those who lived in it. Uncertainties about existence, religion, social location, health, and the after-life prompted many people to be attracted to new philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, and to new gods or mystery cults such as those of Isis or Cybele. The existential implications of the drastic changes in cosmology --- the traditional Greco-Roman gods having become understood to be remote and uninterested in human affairs --- served to develop a heightened sense of anomie within the inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world. The general perception of life was one of fortuitous wandering where people were subject to the capriciousness of fate.
The fortuitous wandering of Greco-Roman existence is most cleverly depicted in the book Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius. In the story, the main character, Lucius, is turned into an ass after dabbling in magic and is forced to wander about with little hope of reversing his fortune. Lucius is only delivered from this comical example of capricious fate and turned back into a human by his devotion to the mystery cult of Isis.
Because the members of the churches to whom 1 Peter was addressed were largely from Greco-Roman religious backgrounds, it is quite likely that they too would have experienced a similar fortuitous wandering of existence in the Roman Empire to that which Apuleius describes before their conversion to Jesus. In Christ, people are no longer lost, wandering with an insignificant identity throughout the vast cosmos and Roman Empire, but they now constitute a "holy nation." Christians are a people set apart and dedicated to God in Jesus; a holy nation. The fact that these Christian believers are also "aliens and strangers" in the diaspora is not derived from their fortuitous existence in the Greco-Roman world. They are aliens and strangers because they are at home with Christ. It is their identity in Christ which provides a home, and this at-home identity in Christ serves to estrange them from the social environment around them.
The theme of holy nation can also provide a spring board for discussion on the formation of the laos. Holy nation brings with it both special identity for the people of God as well as special responsibility. The rapid technological advances in the one-third world have caused people to feel increasingly isolated from those around them. If first-world existence were not individualistic enough, now in many of the simple opportunities which we formerly had to interact with people we find ourselves talking to an automated computer voice instructing us to "press one followed by the pound sign." Many one-third world people do feel alienated in everyday life, but this alienation can be remedied by finding identity, cohesion, and community in Christ. The people of God should be helped by the Church to feel at home in Christ, so that they do not feel as though they are wandering like a Greco-Roman ass.
I believe that the two-thirds world has much to teach the one-third world about what it means to be a holy nation. My encounter with fervent Christians in East Africa allowed me understand the meaning of holy nation more deeply. I met so many Christians who were poor, oppressed, and suffering, but with such hope and joy. Although aliens and strangers in the world, they were truly at home with Christ. The lessons I learned from these people about giving, community, love, faith, and joy helped me to see a holy nation of believers. Their identity in Christ informed their entire existence and offered hope that God would deliver them from their suffering.
Finally, Peter characterizes one of the activities of this new identity the believers have in Christ: "in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (2:9). Certain scholarship has rightly emphasized that this phrase pertains primarily to proclaiming God's praises in worship over against it referring to missionary preaching. In other words, the phrase conveys remembering God's mighty acts in Jesus who has changed those who were not a people into the people of God in context of worship (cf. 2:10). However, one is compelled to think that habitually proclaiming God's mighty acts in worship would naturally lead to proclaiming God's mighty acts to others around us. Although Christians are a chosen race, this race is not exclusive, but inclusive. All are invited to pass from darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. All are invited to become a people in Jesus. The method of proclaiming God's mighty acts in Jesus, however, should not be thought of as Bible thumping, but first and foremost as an identity and way of life that attracts others. By truly living as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people," by living as children of light, others might be able to see light where previously all they had noticed was darkness.
In conclusion, I have tried to emphasize today the identity of the people of God as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people." It is the identity of the people of God as a special community in unique relationship to God that can help inform discussions pertaining to the formation of the laos. How the people of God is formed is largely contingent on perceptions of their identity. If the people of God are not different in any way in their identity from those around them, their responsibilities are, then, also no different. But the people of God have been given a particular identity and a particular responsibility. As God's chosen people, they are called to love. The people of God should be allowed to realize both their identity and responsibilities more fully so that the world might also be able to enter into Jesus' marvelous light.