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. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they may malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.
– The Apostle Peter, First Peter 2.9-12, NRSV
This was the passage I preached on yesterday at the Randolph Church of Christ. I titled my sermon Will the Church be the Church? because I believe this passage prophetically calls the contemporary church to be something it rarely has been among Western culture. The following is some further reflection on the point I tried to preach yesterday.
The Apostle Peter describes his church as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…aliens and exiles. In Christian circles these descriptors have been sanitized and domesticated, eliminating the socio-political nature of these terms that make them so theologically radical. Peter, however, understood the danger of being that new race, priesthood, nation, etc… He understood because he knew that having the right self-identity was the ground for proper Christian living…living which may result in being thought of as “evildoers” among the culture of his day.
The other day in Starbucks, I asked a woman sitting next to me what she though of a church describing itself as Peter described the church. Her response, “I’d be scared.” Whatever her religious experience, she understood the radical nature of the language Peter uses to describe the church. Does the church?
The church is not called to be good ______ (nation of choice) or good ______ (party of choice). Instead the church is to be what Israel was to be, a people “with its own political raison d’être” that lives politically as a “theo-socio” ekklēsia” (Douglas Harink, 1 & 2 Peter, 71). This does not mean the church should become an anarchist, flag-burning, loud-mouth protester of the nations. It simply means that while the citizens of this world are raising the flags of the nations belonging to this world, praising their accomplishments, the church must be raising the banner of God – the proclamation of the might acts of God – as a celebration of what God is doing (of what really matters).
Missional Church leaders Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch begin their definition of missional church as representing “…God in the encounter between God and human culture” (The Shaping of Things to Come, 7). I believe this is fundamental to the church becoming the church, to the church becoming a missional body of believers among human culture. The church cannot be a missional-sent people if it is not sent as a representative of God… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…aliens and exiles. This means that Christians can no longer separate their individual lives from church, individually championing the cause of the nations and tribes of this world while pausing for a brief moment on a Sunday morning to proclaim the might acts of God in a sanctuary that is separated from the rest of life.
I don’t know what this means in terms of every practical choice that must be made. I’m quite sure that the entire part about living honorable excludes speaking and acting in a malicious and rancorous manner towards the political kingdoms of this world. But I’m also convinced that this passage is a call to be a distinct people among the nations and therein lies the problem. Frankly, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the church from among the nations and political parties. Thus, it is with little surprise to me that Fredrick Nietzsche’s madman still runs through the streets shouting “God is Dead.”
So the question is, will the church be the church?