One of the images I have of the Church is that of a body breathing. I know breath is normally a symbol of the Spirit but as the Spirit moves, we move with her. The Church breathes in and we come together, for worship, for the studying of scripture, for prayer, for fellowship. The Church breaths out and we go out into the world, into our individual lives; into our jobs, our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods. The church is gathered and then she is scattered. In and out.
The last time we came together we were released, scattered and have not, as of yet, been able to come back together in one place. The Church is holding her breath, and we must, through the Spirit, continue to live in this unnatural state. We are perpetually living as a scattered people, unsure of when we will physically be gathered back together again.
In his two New Testament letters, Peter, wrote to the Christian diaspora, which is Christians scattered across Asia Minor. Christians living isolated, and scattered. They too were dispersed. Peter challenged these scattered believers to hold steady in the face of a serious challenge to their stability, their effectiveness, their message. Peter’s same message to these scattered people across Asia Minor, continues to speak to us in our situation in these times as we too are dispersed and scattered.
In the opening words of this letter, Peter addresses the Christians as people who have been chosen by God (1 Peter 1:2). In the midst of mounting hardships, Peter reminds these early dispersed Christians of their true identity. They are the New Israel. Through Christ they are related directly to the promises of God in the Old Testament. They are the new people of God being shaped and formed in the image of Christ, living out his holiness in all the varying places they are.
Peter makes it clear to his readers just as the first Israelites were, through the Exodus, they did not come to be the people of God on their own initiative. They are a God initiated people. They are a chosen people. They are a grace-formed people, formed out of and in the mercy and grace of God. They are drawn together by God to be a holy people who live for God and live out the character of God among the nations.
As God’s people, they are not the source of their own existence nor are they the source of the message they carry. God has called them into being, as God’s people. They are shaped and formed by God. It is in God and through God they find their identity, as the people of God.
Peter writes this letter to the people of churches in Asia Minor, when he addresses them as God’s chosen, this address is not to them as individuals but to them as the Church. Each one us is called into something greater than ourselves. We are called to be children of God, part of family part of a whole. And that whole is the Church, the people of God.
Peter is speaking to the Church, whom God has brought into being “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” This choosing is not unique to just the believers to whom Peter wrote. This is the common heritage of all God’s people throughout the generations. As Christians in our own era, this is our heritage as well. God is the initiator, the originator of our redemption. God has chosen us, together, to be the Church; to continue to be the people of God, in all the places we are, even as we are scattered.
Writing to scattered and often isolated people dispersed, across the empire, Peter encouraged their faith in the midst of trying circumstances. You are not alone, he said. You belong to God, and you form a new people—the people of God. Peter expresses this gripping reality: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (2:10). God shaped and formed them together even as they were apart.
In our separation, we too may feel that we are currently, not-a-people. We are scattered, we are dispersed. We feel alone and are isolated one from another and it is into this reality the words of God come to us, “you were once not a people but now you are the people of God.” In God through God we are united, we are joined, even in our separation, even in our isolation, when we seem to be the most “not-a-people” as we can be, God continues to call us together, to form us into the people of God.
No matter how far apart we are, no matter how separated, and scattered, we continue to be united as God’s people. The current physical separation which we as the members of God’s church are experiencing does not change the reality that God has shaped us and continues to shape us into people the people of God, Christ’s body, the Church. Nothing which God has joined together, as we are, can be truly separated.
Here in this passage, Peter asserts a significant aspect of what it means to be a chosen people, united by God, when he says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” (2:9). Peter is once again alluding to the people of Israel, who had recently escaped from Egypt, in the Exodus. Through a miracle of God, they had just come across the sea and were camped at Mount Sinai, and the Lord spoke through Moses saying: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Peter echoed God’s words given to the newly formed people of Israel, boldly claiming it for all believers, telling them, telling us that we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (2:9). Peter staked claim to the heritage of Israel and applied it to the Church. The Church is chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ. This is our heritage. This is our future. We are the holy people of God.
Just as God brought the descendants of Abraham out of the land of Egypt and formed them into a new people, God shaped and formed the Church. The newly formed people only were called to be a people but were called to be a priestly nation. As such they were to bring reach out to the people of the surrounding nations so that they might bring them into relationship with God. As a nation of priests, were to be an evangelical nation, continually living out God’s holiness before those around them, living out God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s justice before them in this way draw others into relationship with God. They were to show others in and through the way they lived who God was and thus bringing others into their people-hood, allowing others in them to also be formed into a people alongside themselves.
This evangelical priesthood to which the people of the nation of Israel were called is the call of all Christians everywhere. We too are to be a royal priesthood bringing others to Christ. This is what it means to be a holy nation; we are to be people who live God’s holiness in this world. We are to be people who bear the image of God to everyone around us, and as we are being shaped and formed together into God’s people, we are to continually be bringing others with us who then can also be shaped and formed as we, alongside us, together with us.
In the middle of the first chapter, Peter also made an appeal to the heritage of the people of Israel. He applies it directly to his readers: “Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14-16). The holiness to which Peter calls his readers is the heritage to which the Lord has called all Christians. We have made a conscious embrace of the call to holiness. This call is God’s call upon the life of all Christians everywhere. Living out God’s holiness is a part of what it means to be formed together as God’s people, as Christ’s body, as the Church.
We are all called to be a holy people. We are called to live out the holiness imparted to us by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and we are called to obedience to Jesus Christ. This is an obedience of love and compassion, of mercy and acceptance. This is an obedience of rugged resistance to sin in all its forms and resistance to conformity to the standards, and whims of the world around us. This is an obedience of radical surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ, to Spirit-empowered living, to love in depth toward people of every kind. And this is an obedience of active engagement with the needs of people around us.
This wonderful grace of holiness, of entire sanctification, is more than just a nice idea. It is the way we are to live as a covenant community of faith, as the people of God. It is the call of Christ’s Church. It is the corporate means by which we as persons are brought into personal encounter with the holiness of God and God’s sanctifying power. We evangelize the world in order to lead believers into a transforming encounter with the Holy God who desires to sanctify all people “through and through.”
Peter also tells us that we 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.” We are called out of our old ways of living into a new life and as we are called we are called to go. As a priesthood, we are a sent people. The holiness we received and into which we live, is not a possession for our own good. We are commissioned to proclaim God’s mighty acts. Having been chosen, redeemed, transformed, and sanctified, we are also sent. A choosing that is initially exclusive, in that we are a chosen people, but is ultimately inclusive. This choosing is not for us alone; it is for all the people of the world.
In his second letter Peter made this point abundantly clear: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). It is likely that Jesus told His disciples about the conversation He had with Nicodemus, as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter three. Peter had obviously come to embrace the passion of Jesus for the lost. The God who loved the world enough to send His one and only Son does not desire that any should perish! We are a chosen people called to expansion.
Our congregation’s mission is a bold and courageous one: To make Christ-like disciples in Cambridge and in all the world. But this is not just our mission; it is the bold mission of all Christians everywhere. We are the sent people of God, called to proclaim the riches of Christ’s grace to those around us. With the radical optimism of grace motivating us, we go in the power of the Spirit to take the world for Christ.
As we sit in our separate homes, participating in these “un-gathered gatherings,” worshiping together as the Church in our homes, in all the scattered and divers places we are, we must now more than ever know are formed and shaped by God, united together as the people, the Church. It may seem in our dispersal that we can be nothing, but we are not nothing, we are God’s people. We may feel as if we are not-a-people, but now more than ever, we must hear God’s words to us, as God declares us a people. God continue to shape and form us into God’s people, a holy people who are and continue to be a priestly people. God is transforming us today, in this time, in all our separated places, into the united people of God. We are the body breathed out into the world, scattered but not divided, separated but not asunder. Because of the grace and help of God we will continue to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (2:9). How we live now in our scattered-ness will be our witness to our families, our friends, our neighbors; to the world showing them exactly what the holiness of God looks like. Let us live out our calling in all things, at all times, even now.