Sunday, May 31, 2015

Christian Early: Peter’s Post Pentecostal Proclamation: We Are God’s House

Pentecost "2"
1 Peter 2:4-10; 2 Chronicles 7:11-22

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Introduction
Thank you all for coming this beautiful Sunday morning to church, and thank you for inviting me to preach. Our family joined as members not too long ago, and we are grateful and blessed to be part of God’s people with you.

A Textual Puzzle
I want to begin by introducing you to a puzzle. The New Testament text for today, I Peter 2:4-10, has some textual and translational surprises that, all taken together, combine into a genuine peculiarity. In the NT section that was read this morning, Peter uses the interesting phrase “spiritual house.” (Note: I’m well aware that the authorship of the letter is contested). The word spiritual is used repeatedly throughout. I will get back to that a bit later on. For now I simply want to mark it, put it back on the textual shelf, my sermonic word bank, and have you all wonder with curiosity what on earth that fuzzy word might mean.
Spiritual matters aside, Peter invites us to imagine Jesus as a living stone and following along with that, we can imagine ourselves as living stones. He calls us to square ourselves up to Jesus, and he points out that some builders have rejected the living stone of Jesus. Presumably it didn’t look right to them. But in fact it is the corner stone of the house of God.
I can picture a house builder sorting through various stones for the right corner stone with a perfectly right angle from which to build the entire house as each stone is squared up to the previous one. Anyone who has done carpentry can tell you way more than I can about the importance of squaring up for how the rest of the project goes. Getting the right corner stone from which to build the house would be important for its soundness.
Well what’s the puzzle in that, you might ask. This whole building a house imagery all seems perfectly plain as day. Yes, it does seem perfectly plain, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing. Peter really shouldn’t have used the word “house” there. The word surprises because Peter should have used “temple.” The passage is filled with temple language. In fact, at least two translations, including the one that I normally read, has temple in this passage. Greek has two words for temple, one for the whole temple complex including the outer court, hieron, and one for the inner sanctuary room, just the holy of holies, naos. Peter uses neither one of them. Instead he uses the word house, or oikos. It is the same word that we get our two words ecology and economy from. It describes the network of relations between organisms (oiko-logia) and the rules of those interactions (oiko-nomia) that make up a household life-world, the web of everyday life and the relational habits that structure it. Rules such as whoever cooks, doesn’t do the dishes. Or, always offer guests a glass of water to drink. Rules like that.
This is not to say that temples don’t have rules of their own, they sure do. And the temple in Jerusalem had lots of them, mainly about what counted as clean and unclean and about who got to enter what spaces or courts. There was the court of gentiles, of women, of Israelites, of Priests, and then of course the inner sanctuary where only the High Priest had access.
That’s exactly Peter’s point—or so I’m guessing because like any good playwright, he doesn’t explain what he is doing, he just does it and trusts the hearer to let the oddity of the dissonant “twang” point and guide in the right direction. If I were to put words on what is going on, I would say this: in the midst of evoking all kinds of temple imagery, the author suddenly changes the scene to the household, giving us image whiplash. It’s a “bait and switch.” That’s the textual puzzle—why on earth would he do that?—and at least in two cases, translators of the Bible simply couldn’t resist the temptation to remove the dissonance and put the word “temple” in there, even though it is not in the text at all.

Peter’s story
Now you might be thinking something like “Christian I really don’t see where this all is going. All this talk about image whiplash and textual puzzles feels like you are cooking a whole lot of soup on not very many bones at all. I’m getting worried about your sermon.” Well I’m worried about my sermon too…but probably for different reasons. Let’s see if I can address your worry, and then if maybe you would be willing to address my worry. It might be the bigger of the two.
So, let’s throw some more bones in that watery pot of textual puzzles and image whiplashes. I want to think for a moment about some key interactions in Peter’s life. I want to focus, in particular, on three uncomfortable confrontations that Peter has—confrontation with Jesus, a confrontation with the Voice, and finally a confrontation with Paul. These are obviously not arranged in any order of significance, except the order in which to me they make narrative sense.
In the confrontation with Jesus—this is recorded for us in Mark 8 and in Matthew 16 and I am using Mark because it makes a very vivid point that is directly relevant to our investigation—Jesus has just asked his disciples who they think that he is. The disciples answer some say that you are Elijah, some say that you are one of the prophets. But who do YOU say that I am. And Peter answers, “you are the Christ.” Jesus responds by saying, “don’t tell anyone” and then he begins to instruct them that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, killed, and raised. Peter then pulls Jesus aside and gives him a little theology lesson. This turned out to be a super smooth move on Peter’s part because Jesus looks him square in the eye, and then at all of the disciples, saying “get behind me Satan.” Now that simply had to be uncomfortable.
It is speculation, of course, to imagine what Peter’s little theology lesson would have involved, but it probably would have involved the dominant Messianic expectation that the Christ would be recognized by the all the important Jewish religious authorities, lead a successful popular uprising defeating the Roman occupation, and reestablish the throne of David while at the same time initiating a temple revival. A sweeping two-front victory: religious and political. Jesus’s teaching concerning the Son of Man, by contrast, predicted a sweeping two-front rejection and defeat. That didn’t land well with Peter, and he was probably not alone in that camp.
In the confrontation with a Voice—this is given to us in Acts 10—Peter is traveling around the country over towards the coast. You might remember the story of Tabitha, the woman who was a follower of Jesus and who died and when prayed over by Peter she was raised back to life. Peter stays in Joppa for a bit, and then travels up to Caesarea, which is a good hike up the road from Joppa. He goes up to the roof of the house to meditate, he gets hungry, and while folk are preparing food for him he falls into a trance, and he sees a large sheet being let down with all sorts of animals and critters and flying things, and a voice says “kill and eat.” Peter says “no, I’ve never eaten anything unclean” and the voice says “Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.” The voice rebukes Peter. The rest of the story is that Peter goes to the Roman Centurion Cornelius’s house and the Spirit of God comes and all are baptized.
In the final confrontation with Paul—this is given to us by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 2—Peter had continued his travelling all the way up to Antioch, which is in Turkey near the border with Syria. Paul was there as well as many others and they were all staying at the same house and eating together as followers of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike. Then, some folks from Jerusalem arrive, and Peter begins to segregate himself and eat only with fellow Jews effectively shunning the Gentiles. Even Barnabas, who was Paul’s traveling companion, starts to do the same thing. Well Paul will have none of it. He calls Peter out on his hypocrisy, saying “you are a Jew, but you live like a Gentile, and yet you want to force Gentiles to live like Jews.” Paul goes on to say that if you have died to the law, and crucified with Christ, then you are alive to God. Does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! But if righteousness could be gained through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
We have here a series of confrontations—with Jesus, with a Voice, with Paul. So, there is obviously something that is going here and Peter is at the heart of it. What was it that Peter was hanging on to? What was it that was so difficult for Peter to give up on? Why all of these confrontations? What was he was wrestling with on the inside? Well we’ve got some clues that we can work with from the confrontations. There is Peter’s little theology lesson to Jesus. There is the ritual cleanliness of eating habits. There is the fundamental distinction between Jew and non-Jew. Can we put these together somehow?

The Dedication of the Temple
Recall now the Old Testament reading for today. In it Solomon has a dream in which God establishes a covenant with David and with him. This is the culmination of two remarkable chapters, II Chronicles 5-7, in which the temple of Jerusalem is dedicated. To purify the temple, Solomon sacrifices 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. That’s a lot. The fire of God comes down from heaven and consumes it all. The Glory of the Lord shows up so powerfully with smoke and fire that no one can be in the temple. (Note: Ken reminded me that the glory of the Lord first shows up with the musicians, and that is quite right of course.)
At the end Solomon prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God in which he thanks God for choosing his people, the Israelites, for defeating the enemies and giving them the land, for choosing Jerusalem, and David as king, and of course also Solomon David’s son and humble servant of the Lord. It’s just ever so slightly ceremonially self-congratulatory, but I’m going to let that slide since we are dealing with Scripture. The whole scene is quite amazing. And it’s got everything. It is people, it is land, it is temple, it is throne, it is the defeat of enemies near and far, and it is David and Solomon. With God’s seal of approval through glory of the Lord showing up, the fire of the Lord burning the offering and sanctifying the temple, and a covenant is given specifically to the king. This text has everything you would ever need to build a theology of Israel on. It is, you might even call it, a cornerstone text.

Two visions for being the People of God
Having paid Solomon a quick visit, let’s go back to Peter. We left Peter at the tail end of three confrontations wondering what was going on. It strikes me that Peter’s struggle, what Peter was hanging on to, what was so difficult for Peter to give up on was at its core a biblical vision of Israel, very possibly inspired by or even constructed out of the text we have read today. Yet it is the vision of Israel that Jesus rejects. That is what is so confusing and defies expectation. What Jesus confronts Peter with, what God confronts Peter with, what Paul confronts Peter with, then, is a radically different vision of Israel…of what it means to be the people of God.
Peter is put in a position where has to choose between two visions of Israel. One centered on David and Solomon and the temple in which there are fundamental distinctions between Jew and non-Jew, and even finer between male and female, and ritual purity with respect to the temple is of utmost importance, along with the nation state of Israel and the royal line. The other centered on Jesus in which distinctions between Jew and non-Jew, pure and impure, male and female are dissolved and all are welcome as the people of God. One biblical, one not yet fully articulated but responsive to a felt vibration and experience. This was Peter’s crossroads: these two visions of Israel. That’s why it took him so long to find his way.
How did he do it? How did he let go of one biblical tradition and step into another not yet fully articulated vision of what it means to be the people of God? Is there an equally powerful moment that he could point to, something that could stand up to II Chronicles 5-7? Yes, yes there is. Wild Pentecost.
At Pentecost, the fire of God shows up as a seal of approval on Jesus and God’s new covenant. The texts are parallel in intriguing ways—I mean to say the consecration of the temple and Pentecost—but what sticks out more are the remarkable contrasts. At Pentecost, the fire doesn’t consume sacrifices; it enlivens people. There is no death, only life. There’s no need to run for cover at Pentecost, in fact, people ran towards the action, not away from it.
Is it possible that in reflecting on Pentecost, Peter finally was able to choose between these two visions of Israel. Is it possible that when Peter wrote house instead of temple, that this was exactly what was Peter was thinking of? Yes, yes it is. If you read the salutation at the beginning of the letter, it is remarkably addressed to the groups of people who were also present at Pentecost. Moreover, Pentecost came to a group of people gathered at a house, they were not at a temple. And finally, most conclusively to me, there is that wonderful wonky word “spiritual.” It seems to me that the word spiritual there simply means to remind us of the pouring out of the spirit at Pentecost.
This is Peter’s post-Pentecostal revelation: we are God’s house. All of us, all of us. That’s what allows Peter to let go of the biblical tradition of David-Solomon and embrace wholeheartedly the new that comes in Christ. The old distinctions were finally gone. The need to re-conquer the land is gone, Romans too are invited. The need to re-establish a throne is gone, the need to maintain ritual purity is gone, the need to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, male and female is gone. It’s all gone because we are God’s house. This is a radical vision of what it means to be the people of God.

Peter’s Struggle is Our struggle
Let me try to gather the strands of our investigation so far. There is the textual puzzle. There is the story of Peter’s three confrontations. There is the Old Testament text for a theology of Israel oriented around the dedication of the temple. There is the wild experience of Pentecost with its enlivening fire. Here, at long last, comes the present point of the sermon if you haven’t already guessed it. Having addressed the worry of enough bones to make a soup, I wish to turn now to the worry that sits with me.
It seems to me that right now, much like Peter, we find ourselves having to struggle with two visions of what it means to be the people of God, what it means to be Mennonite, what it means to be church together. One built on maintaining certain distinctions, the other suspending them. One based on a clearly articulated biblical tradition, the other not yet fully articulated but taking its bearings from the felt resonance witness of God’s presence in people’s lives. We have our own version of Peter’s crossroads facing us and many of us are not quite sure how to fellowship together at the table of the Lord. Should we remove ourselves?
There is a wonderful scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Captain Jack Sparrow looks at the magical compass and finally, instead of spinning, it snaps into place. Jack Sparrow looks up and says, “We have our heading!” Peter found his heading in the wild experience of Pentecost as he slowly squared himself up to Jesus, learned not to call unclean what God has called clean. He finally understood that we are like living stones being built into God’s house—not God’s temple. This is a fellowship story of overcoming divisions. The story of Jesus is not a “circles of holiness” story that inserts partitions. Perhaps, as Peter’s struggle is our struggle, Peter’s way forward can be our way forward too. We are God’s living ecology. We are God’s house.

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