Easter 5 A: Are You In or Out?

This Sunday’s second reading is 1 Peter 2.1-10

Do you think of yourself as “in,” or “out?”

I have always been extremely prone to resent arrogance. I remember being roundly turned off by the popular song of my younger days, “I’m In with the In-crowd.” Written by Billy Page, and first made popular by Dobie Gray’s rendition that hit the charts during my senior year in high school, I thought of it as an anthem of all those “other stuck up kids” that I was subconsciously in competition with.

As I look back from my dotage, I believe that almost no one believes deeply that they are “in.” Even for those who loved the song and made it so popular, it was, I now assume, aspirational. Even those who feel “in,” most often feel as though they stand on a slippery rock. “Uneasy rests the crown,” they say. Even more uneasy is belief in one’s popularity. Even Donald Trump, who claims he is so loved, spends almost all of his time and energy trying to boost his ratings.

When people read about the “chosen people” in the Bible, they often harbor the same kind of resentment I have had toward this imagined, smug, stuck-up “in crowd.” How arrogant! How at odds with our modern, enlightened belief in egalitarianism and universalism! To think that God singles out one people and makes them “a treasured possession,” and blesses them, seems totally absurd and offensive.

So, do you think of yourself as “in?” Do you think of yourself as “treasured?” Or “chosen?”

If, on reflection, you realize that much of your thinking is motivated by the opposite—the feeling that you are unblessed, unfortunate, unloved, and alone, then you have a great deal in common with the target audience for the Bible’s talk of divine election.

Consider Israel: a tiny nation, less than one sixth the size of the state of Illinois, often the road kill on the highway between the world’s great super-powers. This was a people whose entire history was evidence enough for any rational person, of being un-blessed. They may have had a few brief moments to shine; but the black storms of invasion, siege, torment, and taxation, caused most Israelites to be pressed into despair. “Our God has surely forgotten us!”

For these people the promise that they were not forsaken, but treasured and loved, served as the ultimate good news. For years the promise caused them to hope for better conditions and better leadership. But after centuries of disappointment, and constant escalation of the humiliation and defeat, they were urged by the prophets to look beyond. Even if it is not in this life, then the next. “You are prized, and God will ultimately take you home. God is not defeated. God will do a new thing.”

And, while all of the other cultures around Israel were cranking out propaganda that claimed God’s special blessing on their kings and dynasties, Israel’s good news was that Yahweh, the Lord of all, had made the covenant of blessing with even the poorest and most forgotten person alive. “You are a royal nation. So each of you are kings in God’s sight! You are a priestly nation, so each of you has a redemptive role in this world.”

 

Our epistle for this Sunday, 1 Peter, was written to the community of Christ-believers spread thin across Roman Asia-Minor. Scholars of the Bible are skeptical that it was written by the Apostle Peter as early as the 50s or early 60s AD, and favor the idea that it was written in Peter’s honor, during later years of scattered persecution in the early second century. Scholars also debate whether the audience was more Jewish-Christian or Gentile—there are hints of both in the letter. But one thing is certain—they were a mixed-up, harassed minority. By the very fact that they believed in Christ, and worked to be Christ-followers out loud—to put their faith into practice—they stepped out of the “in-crowd.” Because of that they were scorned, shamed, slandered, and marked as inferior and dangerous. Because of that they felt constantly pressured to quit being different and behave like everyone else.

And so, the author proclaims that these people who felt so down, truly belonged to God. They were probably a mixed lot. Some of them were of Jewish background, but being the scattered sheep of the house of Israel, they felt spiritually and psychologically distant from the solid home ground, and pure doctrine of their culture. Some of them were Gentiles, and so were marginal to the extreme—no longer believers in the Greco-Roman gods, no longer true-blue supporters of the local cults, no longer marchers in the public-spirited religious parades.

So, who were they? Where did they belong? Shouldn’t they just give up and fit in with everyone else—go along to get along?

The letter tells them this: You are somebody! You now are marked by the cross and Resurrection. The absurd thing you believe in is that the One True God is a God who gathers the outcasts of this world in a beautiful building built on the foundation of the Rejected One. This God gathers through Jesus Christ who is the very prototype of the “out crowd.” This Jesus was the “stone rejected by the builders,” and yet also the one who has become, by God’s power, the chief cornerstone. At his baptism, his Transfiguration, and especially, in his Resurrection, God says of this Rejected One, you are “favored,” and “chosen.” And now, by your embrace of this excellent absurdity, and your trust in this Resurrection, you believers have become rejected ones now fully favored. You have come out of the cold darkness and into the light.

So, to be Christian today is to be so chosen. But this is not arrogance. It is to be rejected, but loved by God. And this means that Christ-followers can see no one as “other” – as “less than,” or as rejected as we were. But we live for others.

Just as Israel, just as the Israel-the-Church, believers live today, in this exceptional time of pandemic, as chosen. We are chosen to live for the gathering all people. Like Israel and all the church, we are to live holy lives, and speak holy words, in order to broadly publicize God’s mighty acts in Christ. When others may publicize their own private liberty to do whatever they want to do, we publicize instead the way God lifts people out of the darkness of being the “out crowd” into the light of being precious to God.

As we decide what to do about the virus, we think not just of ourselves, but about the prison inmates, the nursing home residents, the homeless, the refugees, the cleaners of hospital rooms and city streets. We are chosen to tell everyone else they are chosen as well.

 

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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