Titles, Privilege and Service

When I was a teenager, the title I wanted more than any other was the title “adult.” Because of a home life that was less than what I needed, I managed to graduate high school early and move to another city some 20 miles away from where my parents lived.  I was only 17 at the time, and the economy, like today’s, was not good, especially for a young man with no training and just a diploma in his hand.  As a result, I ended up working for a speakeasy in a bad part of town as an underaged bartender.  The place where I worked had no sign out front, no phone number, yet the place was hugely popular and I made a ton of money. The kitchen served amazing food and it was there I learned to cook.  Unfortunately, the establishment was also known for its ready supply of drugs and escorts for clients so inclined.  I worked long hours with my fake I.D., and by the time I turned 19 I was already pretty burned out on being a bartender and living “the adult” life. It turned out that being an adult was a lot more work than I ever imagined, and the appeal of being an adult pretty much vanished under the weighty reality of actually living on my own.

The same is true of other titles I’ve aspired to: “husband”  “parent” or “priest.”  In every case I’ve learned that what had originally sounded pretty impressive or desirable carried with it responsibilities I had not considered. In the reading we just heard from 1 Peter, we find the writer trying to express his understanding of the role of church members through a number of strong and rather positive sounding metaphors.  I should like to consider with you today four of those descriptions, which at first glance sound very desirable. They will help us to understand what Christians have been called to be.

The first thing Peter says is that Christians are members of a chosen race.  Throughout the Old Testament this title is applied to the Jews.  Time and again their prophets and leaders wondered why God had chosen the Jews to be a special people. It wasn’t because they were so numerous, or because their culture was superior.  It wasn’t because they were better at treating people with simple justice, and it wasn’t because they were in any way better than other people. It was Moses who explained very simply: “God loves you because God loves you.”  The Jews listened to that teaching, and they were moved:  they, who had been a ragtag bunch of competing tribes became a united  people–solely through the actions of God.

This is what the author of First Peter is trying to say about the church.  The early Christians, too, were at a loss to explain why God had chosen them.  St. Paul looked at the church at Corinth in his day and wondered what God was thinking: there was adultery, incest, drunkenness, and gluttony—to name but a few sins in Corinth. Then it occurred to Paul; God is doing it again! He had chosen people, not because of their righteousness, but just because he loved them.  So Paul said, “Look around the church – there are not many wise, not many powerful, not many noble: yet from this hodge-podge, from these nobodies, God has chosen a people.” (I Corinthians 1:26 ff)

But chosen for what?  The Jewish people permitted the idea of being chosen to mean “Chosen for privilege”, rather than “appointed for service”, and that idea damaged their usefulness. The same thing has happened time and again in the church.  The idea of being a people of God can become an occasion for pride as people see themselves as part of the chosen few – very few. Christians have been chosen, but for mission; we have been appointed, but to serve; we have been summoned by God, but to be a people for God’s purposes.

Back in the 1800s, the stagecoach was a primary means of transportation. Stagecoaches had three different kinds of tickets: first-class, second-class, and third-class.  A first-class ticket meant that you could remain seated, no matter what.  If the stagecoach got stuck in the mud, or even if a wheel fell off, you could remain seated.  A second-class ticket meant that you could sit down until there was a problem.  Then, you had to get off and stand to the side while somebody else fixed the problem.  If you had a third-class ticket it meant that you could sit down until there was a problem, but then you had to get off and push!  You might have to literally put your shoulder to the wheel and solve the problem!  Through the centuries, too many church people thought they had a first-class ticket.  We are still in that mindset for the most part. True enough, we have all been selected to make the spiritual journey, but we all have third-class tickets!  We have been chosen all right, but chosen to serve.

The second thing Peter says is that Christians belong to a royal priesthood. A basic Catholic and Protestant tenet is that all believers have a priestly role. But what is that priestly role? Well, for one thing, a priest connects people with God. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, — which means bridge-builder—one who brings two sides together.

To accomplish this, priests are expected to speak to the people on behalf of God.  We resist that idea because we would most often like to wait for somebody else to speak for God!  If we’ve ever gotten someone to actually come to church, maybe we’ve felt like that was all we were asked to do. But the church is not God’s message; at best, it is only a frail and tarnished vessel in which the message is carried.  To change metaphors, we, who are the church, are God’s letter carriers, authorized to deliver a message.  Getting people to church is just another method of delivery – general delivery at that.  What God has given to every Christian is a special delivery message for those with whom we come in contact.  If people act surprised that we are the ones chosen to deliver that message, well, let’s just agree with them! We are like messengers trying to deliver a singing telegram, when we cannot even carry a tune.  Regardless, the message is the Gospel, the good news that God loves people, forgives them, accepts and empowers them despite their weakness. As priests, that is the kind of message we must deliver. 

But priests also speak to God on behalf of the people.  We are called to offer prayers daily for all those God brings into our lives, especially those most in need.  We’re called to offer a sacrifice of prayer, because that is what priests do.

Peter goes on to say that Christians are part of a holy nation. That was originally a title given to Israel.  The “nation” part of that title was certainly more evident for Israel, for they were people of a common ethnic background and they were settled in a confined geographic place.  When applied to the church, the term is more difficult to understand, because the church is composed of people from varied national backgrounds, varied languages, widely distributed across national boundaries.  This new nation transcends national boundaries.  It’s not a territory, it’s an attitude of the heart.  We call it the Kingdom of God where we share a common allegiance to God alone.

The hallmark of this new allegiance, says Peter, is holiness. Christians are to be a holy nation.  The root meaning of the word translated as “holiness” is “separateness.”  It implies living life in a manner which is separate, distinct, from the way other people conduct themselves. 

Finally, Peter calls the church God’s own people.  Sometimes, the value of a thing lays not so much in itself, but in the one to whom it belongs.  I have in my possession a small child’s sandal once worn by my youngest son, who is now 31 years old.  It is meaningless to everyone but me, and for me it is precious because it reminds me of the joys and sorrows—but mostly joys, of raising him.

If you or I were looking down on planet earth from heaven, witnessing all the hurt and suffering, selfishness and pride, disease and violence, we would probably nudge the angel next to us and say, “Why doesn’t God just destroy the earth and end all this once and for all?  Look at how they’ve failed to put God’s dream for them into action!”  But we already know the reason why God keeps us around: we are God’s own precious property, and our worth derives, not from our own cleverness or goodness, but from the fact that we are God’s.

Chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people. Which title do you like?  As members of the church, all of them belong to each of us.  They are not titles of privilege, but reminders that all of us are called to be in service. 

Whatever our hands touch in this world, we leave our fingerprints: on our walls and furniture, on doorknobs and dishes. As we touch, we leave evidence of our identity. The same is true of our faith in Christ, but the fingerprints we leave on other people’s hearts can literally change their lives forever. Our world is very much in need of more of that type of fingerprints, the kind we leave behind as evidence of our willingness to love others in service to God.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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