< May 22, 2011 >

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

 

Of all the ecclesial images employed in Peter's letter to the exiled converts of Asia Minor,

the root metaphor that best describes the Christian community is the "spiritual house" (oikos pneumatikos) or "household of God" (2:5). We have seen in our consideration of earlier pericopes that the symbolism of Exodus also plays a prominent role in Peter's thinking. The newly baptized Christians have in many respects taken on an identity as resident aliens, of a people living "outside the house" (paroikous; 2:11) of the dominant culture. Yet in many ways they remain "house slaves" (oiketai; 2:18), bound in some respects by the social and political conventions of their workaday world, if for but a short while. In all things they are called to endure their suffering and exile in the manner of Christ, the suffering servant (2:21).

Despite this situation, Peter offers his readers the assurance that they, like the wandering Hebrews before them, can derive comfort from the knowledge that a place has been prepared for them by God. Eventually the old "house" from which they have been exiled will be transformed completely into the "home" for which they have been longing when Christ is finally revealed (1:13). The seed of this homecoming has already been planted in their midst and it grows in them on account of their baptism (1:23).

Though they are presently suffering the injustices of a world that they once claimed as their own, they must nevertheless be aware that the Spirit of God is even now working in them collectively to usher in the heavenly kingdom. Peter affirms that they have been accepted into a new family, and here they can experience four fundamental features of what it means to be "called out" as church.      

First, the household of God is a place where Christians can attain spiritual nourishment. In their baptism they have "taste[d] and seen that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8), but this is not a once-for-all event. On the contrary, like newborn infants who yearn for their mother's breast, the Christians to whom Peter is writing must partake daily of "spiritual milk" -- literally, a "milk that does not deceive" -- lest they fall back into their old habits and pursue the false fare of their former traditions.

Peter's use of the imperative here accentuates how central this seeking is to the believer's new life in Christ. That some churches in the second and third centuries eventually took up the practice of administering honey and milk to the newly baptized attests to how powerful this imagery was to the lives of the faithful.

Second, the household of God is where those nourished on Christ will "grow into salvation" (2:4) through the formation that takes place in community through the work of the Spirit. Here is where the metaphor of being built (oikodomeisthe; 2:5) into a spiritual house reaches its fullest expression and serves as a guiding principle for what follows. We have to wonder if the recent memory of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, with its chiseled megaliths lying scattered and broken, is in part the inspiration behind Peter's reliance on stone imagery in these verses. Though the traditional dwelling place of God is gone, a new house has in fact arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.  

This brings us to a third and often overlooked aspect of what it means to be God's house in a hostile world. Though Peter's use of the phrase "living stones" is primarily a reference to the church's grounding in the Word of God, we cannot discount a secondary contextual meaning, especially given its relevance to our current ecological embarrassments.

As John H. Elliott explains in his exhaustive commentary, in antiquity objects that were perceived as firmly rooted in the earth were often referred to as "living." Imposing megaliths, for example, seemed to possess an inherent integrity; their vitality was a function of their being rooted in place. And this remains instructive for the contemporary church as we reflect on what it means to carry the "living stones" tradition into the twenty-first century.

While it has become commonplace these days to describe the coming Kingdom as a reality far removed from the plane of this world, there is really nothing in Peter's eschatologically-oriented letter to suggest such a notion. For him, the revelation of Christ was destined to happen in the midst of creation itself, and it was here that Christians were called to be a priestly community in anticipation of the event.

Thus the church -- whether then or now -- like "living stones" must in all things resist the temptation to disparage this present world for some heavenly realm yet to come. The household of God is at once built on the spiritual cornerstone of Christ and rooted deeply in God's good creation.      
 
Finally, the church is a spiritual community whose fundamental vocation is the proclamation of the good news (2:9), not only in word but also -- and perhaps primarily -- in deed. Peter will go on in this chapter to describe what it means to offer up to God "spiritual sacrifices" (2:5), to be so identified with the suffering of Christ that the household is willing to endure patiently the injustices of those who have rejected and stumbled over the cornerstone. Alone, of course, these Christians could never survive the discrimination and abuse that is too often the lot of resident aliens. But as a holy nation, God's own people, they can find refuge and strength in the nourishing, formative, living, and evangelical household of God and thereby live in hope toward the coming of Christ's Kingdom on earth.