Saint Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Blackrock

A Holy Race, a Royal Priesthood

First Peter chapter two and verses 1-10 (especially verse 9)

INTRODUCTION: Rev. Cunningham Morrow tells of one Sunday when during the service he noticed a young man sitting near the back of the church. The young man clearly did not consider himself to be part of the service. He remained sitting during the hymns and his posture in the pew suggested an aloofness, which was different from the attentiveness shown by the rest of the congregation. Afterwards he came to speak to the minister and it turned out that he was a postgraduate university student doing a study of the Christian religion. The young man was not a believer and was determined to examine Christianity from the perspective of an outsider. He was not impressed by the service which he had just sat through. Indeed Cunningham Morrow had to admit that it had not been the most impressive act of worship ever held in that church. Most of the young families in the congregation were absent that weekend, the singing was rather lacklustre and the preacher was well aware that this week's sermon was not the best he had ever delivered. "Is this all there is?" asked the young man. "Is this the great religion that once turned the world upside down?" Rev. Morrow could see the young man's point, but despite this he was angry. He was angry to see his flock being judged by someone who didn't know them. He was angry to see his flock being judged by someone who had no idea of the long pilgrimage of faith on which so many of them had walked. He was angry to see his flock being judged by someone who had no idea of the kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice of which this congregation was capable. Indeed the young man's implied condemnation of the church members had made their pastor reflect on who they really were. In that little band were giants of faith, stalwarts of hope, champions of love. The visitor did not know them, but their pastor did. He knew times when they really were that church described in First Peter chapter two: "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." Their pastor knew that among them he frequently met the Christ, the Christ who dwells in the midst of his own.

How easily the church can lose its nerve! How easily the church can begin to think badly of itself! How easily the church can begin to experience a lowering of self-esteem! Let's face it, the average church is rarely a marvellous display of excellence in work or witness or worship. When we dance before the Lord it is usually a clumsy performance. When we speak his word it is frequently with stammering and stuttering. When we sing his praises it is often with quavering notes. Someone said that Christian worship is failed drama and we who participate in it week after week know the truth in this saying. Yes, there is drama performed here week by week, but it never rivals the Abbey Theatre. Yes, there is music performed here week by week, but we are hardly the Philharmonic Choir. Yes, there are gifts for charity handed over week by week, but our generosity can never match that of a multimillionaire philanthropist like Bill Gates. Yes, there is teaching delivered here week by week, but it will never equal the sublime heights achieved by our most distinguished universities. In fact the church throughout Europe is in danger of losing its nerve because of the decline of religion in the west. There was a time when the church could sing, "Like a mighty army moves the church of God, Brothers we are treading where the saints have trod." Today we might sing George Verwer's parody of that hymn: "Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God. Brothers, we are treading where we've often trod." When we stand to recite the creed we claim to believe in the Holy Catholic Church, but that takes some believing these days. That takes a lot of believing.

That is why we need to hear again the message of First Peter. That is why we need uplifting words from the early years of the church. That is why we need to receive the inspiration of those whose struggles and victories are recorded in the New Testament. And how does First Peter describe the church? This author describes us in glowing terms: "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 marvellous light." The early church needed good preaching and so do we. The letter we call First Peter is high calibre preaching. The scholars tell us that it is not by Peter the fisherman because it bears all the signs of coming from the generation after the first apostles, when the church is settling down to become an institution. This letter seems to be a sermon delivered to the newly baptised telling them who they are. And who are they? They are rather like Israel in the Old Testament. They are a people chosen by God to be a light to the nations. The author of First Peter loves the Almighty's description of Israel in Isaiah. He loves that verse where God says, "This people have I formed for myself: they shall show forth my praise." He takes the Old Testament description of Israel and he applies it to the church. What was the function of Israel in the world? According to the Old Testament Israel had a priestly function. Just as a priest makes sacrifices at the altar of God for the sake of the people, so Israel in its close relationship with the Eternal One is a living sign to the whole world of the love of God. First Peter says that with the coming of Christ the church has taken on that role of priestly service. This author tells the church who they are in the light of the Old Testament. What a high calling! They are God's chosen ones; they are priests serving a king (he means King Jesus); they are a holy nation, God's people set apart, set apart for special service.

So, imagine that you are one of those new converts addressed by the sermon that we call the First Epistle of Peter. You have been taken to a river or a lake or a specially built baptistery lined with masonry and filled with water. You have been plunged under the surface three times in the name of the *Father and of the *Son and of the *Holy Spirit. You emerge dripping and overwhelmed as the congregation sings a hymn. Perhaps they sing that part of First Peter that we also love to sing: "Blest be the everlasting God, the father of our Lord; be his abounding mercy praised, his majesty adored." Then your fellow Christians dry you off and dress you in a new white robe and set you at the front of the congregation to hear this sermon telling you who you now are: "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." The preaching of the church in our generation also tells God's faithful ones who they are. Let's face it, in the confusion of modern times it is easy to forget our true identity. So the preacher paints wonderful pictures of saints and apostles and says to the church, "This is you." The preacher paints wonderful pictures of heroes and heroines of faith and says to the church, "This is you." The preacher paints wonderful pictures of martyrs showing extraordinary courage in suffering and says to the church, "This is you." The preacher tells the congregation that we are all in the same boat. But this need not be a negative judgement about all being equally inadequate, equally flawed and equally lacking. No, it can be a wonderful statement of the church's destiny. We are all in the same boat with Peter the fisherman, overcoming his denial of Jesus to become a leader of the new Jesus movement. We are all in the same boat with John the evangelist writing about the humble Jesus washing tired feet so that his flock might do likewise. We are all in the same boat with Paul the missionary-apostle crossing stormy seas, trekking through mountainous country, enduring whippings and prison and contempt for the sake of the gospel. Remember who you are, Church of Christ - a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people. What an identity! What a calling.

And of course as always in the New Testament a glorious identity means a glorious responsibility. God grants us high status because he has given us a high calling. Our divine prestige means we have divine work to do. Why do Christians deserve to be described in glowing terms? We deserve to be described in glowing terms because of our great vocation to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. As a holy priesthood we lead people into the divine presence. As a royal nation we bear witness to who the real king is. As a holy nation we point to where true holiness lies. Indeed like any worthwhile priest we find ourselves dreaming God's dreams for the sake of the world. "Can you imagine?" we ask our neighbours. Can you imagine enough food for all? Can you imagine sight for the blind? Can you imagine returning prodigals being welcomed, the poor made into first class citizens, the self-righteous becoming childlike, lepers being healed, and widows cared for? Can you imagine all this? If you can, then you are truly in the presence of holiness, purity and godliness. And you are near, very near to Jesus Christ. While on a holiday cruise Rev. Cunningham Morrow found himself in a Mediterranean port early on a Sunday morning. He didn't want to miss church, so he hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take him to a church. "Which church?" asked the driver. "One where the Lord is present," was Cunningham's reply. The driver got the message and pressed the ignition. He sped through empty streets, avoiding massive cathedrals and soaring spires and ultra-modern mega-churches. He seemed to know what he was doing when he stopped in front of a small, quaint, neo-gothic building. "If the Lord's in town this morning," he said. "If the Lord's in town this morning, this is where he will be." This is where he will be, church of Christ. This is where he will be when you seek him in sincerity. Of course this is where he will be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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