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Worship Theme: Jesus is our only Savior
Sermon Theme: You are a Royal Priest
The Christian church is in trouble. No one can doubt that in the previous century the church stained more glass, laid more brick, installed more carpet, and spent more money than at any other time in the history of Christianity. Yet over the past five decades, church membership in all kinds of Christian churches has been shrinking like a dandelion sprayed with Weed-B-Gon. Mission expansion is down. Perhaps worst of all, the church’s influence is dropping like a barbell in Lake Michigan. More than ever before, people are viewing the church as a harmless institution only needed so they can be hatched, matched, and dispatched, or as some would say, “Sprinkled three times, with water, rice, and dust.” In their opinion the church is interested mainly in preserving itself and has outlived its usefulness, and they greet what the church has to say with a gaping yawn.
It’s in this challenging time that God has called us to live. The big question is, “Can the Christian church still make a difference in people’s lives?” Humanly speaking, the answer depends to a large extent on how you understand your God-given role as a member of God’s Church. That’s why today’s second reading from the apostle Peter’s first letter is so poignant and practical. He makes it perfectly clear that “You Are A Royal Priest.”
Built into a spiritual temple
Have you ever struggled with your identity? Reports are that teens especially wrestle with self-esteem. But let’s be honest. We’ve all been there and maybe still are there. You can try to point to your upbringing or to past mistakes that leave you empty and feeling guilty, but one way or another, when we take a look inside ourselves, most days we aren’t too pleased with what we see and some days we’re downright disgusted. “How can I be who I want to be when others keep pushing me down?” “How can I be who I want to be when I keep shooting myself in the foot by shooting off my mouth?”
This letter was originally written to the scattered, tattered Christians of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). They had been harassed and hassled, taunted and terrorized. They had lost their status in society and had to accept a lower standing in their neighborhoods all because they confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. They were degraded, demoralized, and ready to give up hope. They needed more than a little “pick-me-up.” They needed a whole new lease on life.
What better way to do that than for the apostle to proclaim their real status, not the opinion of pollsters and pundits but the opinion of the Chairman of the Board of the universe who also just happens to be the Lord of the Church? “You, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” I must confess that when I began to think about this business of people being like stones built into a house, a rather unpleasant image came to mind. The only people I know who are like stones built into a house are the ones who are dead, laid out flat on slabs of cement, and slid into place in the wall of a mausoleum. But that’s not what is stated here. Peter wrote, “You are living stones,” living because “you keep coming to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him.” You know who that stone is, right? It’s Jesus. He had been rejected by the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to build a kingdom according to their own blueprints. But God turned the tables on them. They ended up tripping over the stone they rejected to their eternal harm. [This is what happens] to those who do not believe: the stone the builders rejected ... [becomes] a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe the message, they stumble, which is what they set for themselves.
Yet in spite of their unbelief, in spite of the fact that they killed him, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone of God’s spiritual temple. Do you hear echoes of the Easter message? Jesus is the living stone, the cornerstone that supports God’s spiritual temple and gives direction to its walls, all by God’s design: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” The Christians of Asia Minor may have been put to shame by their neighbors, but they never would experience the ultimate shame of standing before God with all their sins exposed. Jesus’ blood had washed them clean. They may not have had status in society, but they had status with God, built into his spiritual house. God’s temple exists wherever his love dwells in human hearts, in Milwaukee and Menomonee Falls, in Wauwatosa and Waukesha, in Bay View and Bayside, in Glendale and Greendale, in your heart and mine. We are living stones built into God’s spiritual temple.
But an Israelite could not conceive of God’s temple without seeing a very honored group of people hard at work, the priests. So, the apostle picks up that image, too. “You are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” Scripture confers many titles on Christians. We are children in God’s family. We are laborers in God’s vineyard. We are branches on a heavenly vine. We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. We are heirs of all the treasures Christ earned for us. But the title which is probably the least understood is “priest.”
Among the ancient Israelites, the priests were the only ones with direct access to God, a position of honor, set apart from every-day folks. Every Old Testament believer understood, “The way to God is through a priest.” We know from history that the church of the Middle Ages tried to perpetuate the role of priests as a special class of people who supposedly were the only ones with direct access to God. What a bomb Martin Luther exploded five hundred years ago when he discovered through his study of Scripture and announced in his classroom and from his pulpit that every Christian is a priest of God, that every Christian has direct access to God because Jesus’ sacrifice gave them that status! My friends, here’s where you and I find our identity. This position of honor is for you who believe. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood.” You are a royal priest. If you are going to have the calmness and confidence to deal with callous and cavalier attitudes toward God’s Word and will, if you are going to live through this virus-situation with steady steps to continue spreading the good news about Jesus in spite of “safer-at-home” and social distancing mandates, if you are going to make a difference in your home with your spouse, your children, your neighbors, your Facebook friends, then you first of all need to remember who you are. You are a royal priest, built into his spiritual temple.
Offering spiritual sacrifices
There’s more! Have you thought of this? God did not wipe our slate clean so that we can lean back like a sunbather on a beach and soak in the rays of his Son only to fall asleep while the tide of evil washes in and pulls us and others into the murky sea of sin with the undertow of Satan’s clever “we’re-OK-and-don’t-need-to-be-on-guard” attitude. He not only removed the guilty verdict that hangs over our heads but also freed us from its power. He not only gives us the status of being priests but also gives us the power to live as priests. You are built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ ... You are a royal priesthood ... that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
The Lord never calls a person to do a job for him without equipping that person to do the job. Jesus Christ has supplied all we need: pardon for all sins, freedom from Satan’s control, a new goal in life (everything to the glory of God), and resources of strength and love to attain that goal. God has not called us to be failures. Jesus promises, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Martin Luther once wrote, “The whole world abounds with services to the Lord – not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, and field.” Not that serving the church is unimportant or unnecessary. Christian men and women willing to give time and energy in service through their church are vital for a healthy congregation. But there’s more to priesthood than what happens in a church. Mothers have a huge impact on their kids, partnering with dads to model what it means to love hearing from the Savior and talking about what he did on the cross and outside his tomb. Single people work wonders in their circle of friends by offering a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen, a heart full of concern, fingers on a keyboard sharing links to messages that comfort and console. Kids and teens get their classmates attention in a positive way by humbling sharing, “Your life’s goal might be to make money. Mine is to share Jesus’ forgiving love with others, and I’m planning on attending our church body’s college of ministry to do just that full-time as a pastor or teacher.”
The message about what Jesus did always leads to the mission Jesus gives. On the first Easter the angels said to the women at the tomb, “Come and see,” and then, “Go and tell” (Matthew 28:6-7). That’s exactly what Peter meant when he told his readers about spiritual sacrifices, not sacrifices to pay for sin – that’s done – but sacrifices of thanks, declaring the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. You are a royal priest, offering spiritual sacrifices.
Is the Christian Church still relevant in this twenty-first century? Can the Christian Church make difference in people’s lives? Well, the Christian Church is you. So, the question needs to be reworded: “Can I make a difference in other people’s lives?” Since Jesus Christ is the Savior of all, and all are included in his promise of love, and since there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved, and those who don’t believe it are excluded, we have work to do. You, royal priests, together with your called workers are just the ones to do it. Let’s go. Let’s act. Let’s pray. Let’s give. Let’s speak up. Christ is risen! Amen.
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