“Living Stones and a Holy Priesthood” (1 Peter 2:2-10)
In the Epistle for today, St. Peter compares us Christians to, among other things, “living stones” and a “holy priesthood.” Both of these images are based on things that were realities in the Old Testament for the people of Israel. “Living stones” has to do with the temple, that great building in Jerusalem where the people worshiped, and a “holy priesthood” has to do with the priests who carried out their duties at the temple. “Living stones” and a “holy priesthood.” But these are not just some quaint figures of speech that are stuck in the long ago and far away. No, these images are telling us about living realities for us today, with great relevance for our daily life, both individually for us as Christians and collectively for us as church. And so our theme for this morning: “Living Stones and a Holy Priesthood.”
“Living stones and a holy priesthood.” The part of our text that brings both of these ideas together is 1 Peter 2, verses 4 and 5, as follows: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
“Living stones,” that’s who we are. But it all starts with *the* living stone, namely, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the one living stone in whom and through whom we become living stones. Jesus is himself living, and he gives us life. Jesus is the chief cornerstone, and connected to him, we are stones fitted and joined together, “built up as a spiritual house.”
It all starts with Jesus. That he would be the chief cornerstone of this spiritual house, this was prophesied in Scripture. Peter quotes from Isaiah: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” God’s plan all along was to send this Messiah to Israel, God’s own Son, chosen and precious in his sight. Think of what the Father said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” God put his stamp of approval on Christ as being that chosen and precious one. And this, Jesus amply demonstrated then in his ministry, doing the will of the Father, bringing in the kingdom of heaven, bringing the blessings of the kingdom to the people, and calling men to repentance and faith.
And yet. . . . And yet this heaven-sent Messiah, sent to Israel, was rejected by the very leaders of Israel. And this too was prophesied in Scripture. Peter quotes from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And then Peter goes back to Isaiah, calling Christ “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
The scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and elders of Israel–those who should have known better–the religious leaders of Israel rejected Jesus. They stumbled over him. He was offensive to them. Why? Because he exposed their hypocrisy. He threatened their position and prestige. They couldn’t stand this. They had to get rid of this troublemaker who was disturbing the status quo. Which is what they did. They plotted together and set their trap. Betrayal, arrest, trials in the night. Send him over to the Roman governor, stir up a mob, call for his crucifixion. Their plan worked.
Of course, in spite of their evil intent, it was actually God’s plan that was working. For it was through this unjust suffering and death of the Messiah that God was carrying out his own marvelous justice on our behalf. Jesus, the sinless one, died the death of a sinner in our place. He shed his holy precious blood on the cross to pay the price for our forgiveness. Because he is the Son of God, his death covers the sins of the whole world. And so now we come to him for our cleansing. “Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
And we know this because the Father then raised Jesus from the dead on Easter Day. This validates and verifies that what Jesus did for us on the cross–this sacrifice for sin God approves of and accepts. The victory remains with life. Jesus is risen and living, and he gives life–new life, eternal life, and the hope of the resurrection–our risen Lord gives life to all those who trust in him.
And that is you, dear Christian. That is us, the people of God, the church. By the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, we have believed in Christ. Through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we have been joined to Jesus, connected to Christ, and therefore also connected to one another. Now we are the church, those living stones, connected to that one chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. He governs all the angles of this spiritual house and gives it its sure foundation.
On Friday evening I happened to go to the St. Louis Art Museum to see a special exhibit of French painters from the 19th century. There was one painting in particular that caught my attention, seeing as how I had this text about stones on my mind. The painting is called “The Quarry of Monsieur Pascal near Nanterre.” The artist depicts a large limestone quarry with the workmen using pickaxes and hammers to cut out and shape large blocks of stone for use in various building projects in the city. And I think this illustrates how stones are different from just big areas of rock in the ground. Stones, building stones, need to be shaped and fitted in order to do their job. Building stones function as they line up and come together, connected to the chief cornerstone and connected to one another, to form a unified whole.
That’s how it is with us, the living stones of the church. God has shaped each one of us to have a part in his spiritual house. God has given each one of us gifts and talents that contribute to the whole. We need one another. We need to be connected, joined together, connected to Christ through Word and Sacrament, built up in the faith, in order to remain strong and not crumble. We are God’s temple, his living stones.
And then Peter shifts the image slightly, moving from the building that is the temple to the priests who carry out their duties at the temple: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
“A holy priesthood,” that’s who we are. And you don’t have to be a pastor to be part of this priesthood. No, you were drafted into this priesthood at your baptism. There God put his name on you. There you were made holy, you were set apart to belong to God alone, set apart for his service. That’s what priests are, that’s what priests do. The Old Testament priests were consecrated, set apart, holy to the Lord, and dedicated to his service.
In fact, the whole people of Israel were set apart to be God’s holy priesthood in the world. In Exodus 19, after the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai, the Lord told Israel: “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples . . . and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” And the in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds them: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”
God’s treasured possession, a chosen people, a holy priesthood. Notice, this is the very same language that Peter uses and applies to us now as the church. In verse 9 of our text he writes: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Yes, we are a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood, dedicated to the service of our king, Jesus Christ. And what do priests do? They offer up sacrifices. Now here we need to be clear. The sacrifices we offer are not–are not–sacrifices for sin. No, that once-and-for-all sacrifice was already offered up by our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice on the cross is the only sacrifice that atones for sin, and that sacrifice is total and complete. It is finished, thank God.
And because of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin, now through him you and I offer up our sacrifices in service to the Lord. As Peter says, we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And what are these sacrifices? These are our prayers and praises and thanksgivings to God. These sacrifices occur as we proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. When we sing our hymns, when we pray for the people of this world, when we confess the faith to one another and bear witness to the world, we are offering up spiritual sacrifices as the holy priesthood. When we carry out our vocation in the world, however humble that may be–father, mother, butcher, baker, candlestick maker–when we carry out our various vocations with faith in God and in service to our neighbor, we are doing priestly, God-pleasing work. And these sacrifices are pleasing to God because of what Christ has done for us.
Dear friends, today embrace your identity as the people of God. Today St. Peter has told us what that identity is. We are living stones, shaped and fitted together, being built up to be a spiritual house, connected to Christ, the chief cornerstone and our living Lord. We are a holy priesthood, set apart to belong to God, dedicated to his service, offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
“Living stones and a holy priesthood,” that’s who we are. And this is most excellent. Yes, God has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once we were not a people. Now we are the people of God.