First Peter is written to a people in crisis. That’s the first thing we need to understand and remember if this text is going to have any meaning to us. In fact, if you’ve still got your Bible handy move back to the very beginning of the letter, you’ll see its written to the “exiles” in provinces all over Asia Minor. When we think about persecution, particularly persecution of Christians, we tend to think about on a macro, big picture level. We think about governments persecuting Christians like in some Middle Eastern countries or in China and the Soviet Union at the height of their Communist revolutions. When we think about persecution in the ancient world we tend to have a similar picture, we think about the Roman Empire systematically coming down on Christianity and images of Christians fighting lions in the Coliseum and streets lined with martyrs on crosses come into our minds. And eventually that did go down. But for a lot of the early days of Christianity Rome wasn’t the problem. The Roman Empire, until it started to crumble, didn’t care what religion you practiced as long as you would pay your taxes and serve in the army if called on. Now eventually that second part got Christians in trouble but for the most part, early persecution didn’t come from the highest levels of the Empire, it was a local thing. And this is how it usually came about: almost every city had a god or goddess or a group of gods that was considered especially important to that city, a god who considered the patron deity of that group of people. And it was assumed that that god or goddess or whatever paid special attention to that city and was directly involved in the good or bad things that happened to the people. So if you had a great harvest, you attributed it to that god, you assumed you must be doing something right. If you had a bad harvest you also attributed it to that god and it was a sign that something was up. And it was up to the entire city to make things right. So early Christians faced a problem in their communities pretty early on: if things were going poorly it was expected that everyone would offer prayers and sacrifices to the city’s patron god to try and get back on his or her good side. But Christians couldn’t do that. They couldn’t pray to gods they didn’t believe existed or offer sacrifices to gods they didn’t worship. And if your family is starving, and you know that it is because the gods are angry, and there is this one group of folks who refuse to help make things right, that’s eventually going to be a problem. So it was locally that persecution came, which really is worse if you think about it. It was their friends and neighbors and families that were doing the persecution. The folks the letter is written to are referred to as exiles, and that’s not an uncommon theme in scripture. Exiles are at the heart of some of the most important moments of the faith: the Hebrew slaves in Israel were considered exiles, the people of Israel and Judah were exiled after the fall of the kingdoms. Exile is a reality throughout scripture but it usually shows up as something that God saves people from. Faith is usually the cure for exile, but that’s not the case here. In 1 Peter exile is not something faith leads people out of it is something it leads them into. They are not saved from exile, their salvation is what causes them to be exiled from their community and to be persecuted and abandoned. For most of them coming to faith has had negative results. They’ve lost their place in the religious structure that exists but they’ve also been removed from their community in a way that hurts them socially, economically, and politically. Their standing in society has been destroyed, the party invitations aren’t coming anymore. They are outcasts. Their business are failing. No one is going to give money to a person who refuses to pray for the end of the famine. These Christians were pushed out to margins, they don’t have a place in society anymore.
And so the words of 1 Peter are words of comfort. “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by people but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones , are being built into spiritual houses, to be a royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” They aren’t supposed to let the rejection of the world get to them because Christ was also rejected by the world. The people who reject them aren’t just rejected them, they’re also rejected Christ, who God has made the Cornerstone of a new way of being. In fact, what they’re told is that while they have been rejected from what they’ve known, there is still reason for hope. Both the believer and the unbeliever see a stone in front of them, but what is just an old, abandoned, rock to some is really the foundation of something more to come. The rock isn’t useless. Rejection isn’t the end. Before their eyes God is creating a new place for those who have none. In Christ God builds on a new foundation, and what is presented to the people is a new place to belong or sense of belonging, a new purpose for existing, and a new community to belong to.
The author says that while the people may feel rejected they are actually chosen. They are God’s special possession. They’ve been claimed by something greater than anything the world can offer. They belong to God, and that will stand the test of time, that is a belonging that can’t be taken away from them. The author says that they are claimed that that they might “declare the praises of the one who calls you.” Their purpose is no longer the purpose of the world, their purpose is the glory of God. Their purpose is to praise the one who brought them out of darkness and into light. “Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God.” They may have been rejected by their communities but they have found a new community, a people unified by the fact that they are God’s people. In this time of persecution the folks who read this letter were reminded that while their faith had led them into a time of exile they did not go through it alone. God remains faithful in their exile and God establishes a kingdom and a community that is built, not on something that will crumble, not on old abandoned rocks that the builders have thrown away because there’s no way they’ll hold up, but on the living stone that will hold up and not put those who believe in it to shame.
If we’re honest, its hard for us to relate to audience of this letter. Most of us don’t face this kind of persecution in our time, especially local persecution from friends and community and family. Some of us may, but for the vast majority of us here in our context, we actually face the exact opposite reality. It is still, throughout the Bible Belt, socially, economically, and politically beneficial to be a Christian. Its true that the church isn’t as ingrained in society as it once was but we are worlds away from persecution. So what then, do we do with this text? What is here for us, I think its this: rejection is not the end. Rejection is not the end of the story. That’s a word that can cover so many places in our lives. There’s a guy I went to high school with, we’re not ridiculously close but we’re friends on Facebook and he is pleasant enough that I haven’t unfollowed him. Like so many of my peers, he is struggling to find a job in his field, he’s got a degree in like Parks and Recreation Management or something like that that is too specific. And he’s very open about his job search on Facebook. When he goes to an interview he mentions it and when, so far, the bad news comes he posts about that as well and manages to be remarkably positive about it and it made no sense to me for a while. Like why broadcast that? But I tell you what’s happened. Folks comment. They share their stories. They come together and promise to be on the lookout for jobs for each other. And in those spaces community forms. And in that community hope shines through and rejection doesn’t get the last word. And that’s a powerful thing in our society. There are a lot of stories of rejection out there. People face rejection every day. What I believe our world is clamoring for, is a story where rejection doesn’t get the last word. And we’ve got it. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Once you may have let rejection have the last word, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story anymore. There is power still in the old abandoned rocks. God’s not done with them left.