For the last few weeks, we have been reading through the letter known as 1 Peter during the Easter season. We have read parts of chapters 1 and 2 so far. This Sunday, however, the lectionary does something strange: it takes us back before the passage we heard last week, to a section of chapter 2 that focusses on the way that holiness is to be understood.
The theme of holiness has already been sounded earlier in the letter. The people who are receiving this letter are “the exiles of the Dispersion” (v.1), people of Israel living in other nations. For such people, holiness was an important idea. The fundamental charge of this letter was sounded earlier: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (v.15). This is supported by a quotation from scripture (Lev 11:44), which was a foundational text for the people of Israel.
Holiness characterized Israel; those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The priests oversaw the implementation of the Holiness Code, a large section of Leviticus (chapters 17–26), which explained the various applications of the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).
Holiness was also a concern of the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures), and showing the common people how they could live in holiness, as they followed each of those commandments. Holiness was at the heart of the Law, so adhering to each commandment ensured holiness.
And holiness characterised the followers of Jesus, for he was leader of a holiness movement in a holiness society. Jesus debated often with the scribes and Pharisees. He seems to share much in common with them. They were all committed to living in accordance with the commandments of Torah, although they had differing interpretations of how to do this. Jesus advocated for the living out of holiness in daily life, as did the scribes and Pharisees. His teachings also focussed on adhering to God’s will, maintaining the justice-righteousness that God required, in all of life. He teaches his followers to adhere to that way in order the take part in the kingdom that God has planned for all.
Holiness, to all of these groups, meant being consecrated, dedicated, set apart for a designated purpose. It is often (mis)understood as signalling a superior status, an exalted place—”up there” above the unholy ones, just as God is “up there” above the earth. Of course, that old worldview is now obsolete. And the sense of elitism in “holiness” is also obsolete.
Further, whilst a holy person is to be an ethical person, overtones of morality are not the first and last aspect of holiness. To be holy is to be dedicated to the task, following Jesus with the whole of our lives, sensing the eternal in the moments of the present, experiencing the divine in the midst of human life. Excitedly, joyously (v.6), all this is to be shared with others who have not yet “caught the vision”.
There are many references to, and quotations from, the scriptures of the Hebrew people in chapter 2 of this letter. That makes sense, for—as we have seen—it was sent to “the exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1). These were their familiar scriptures. To live according to holiness (Lev 11:44) is the key principle (1 Pet 1:15).
In 2:4–10, part of the lectionary passage for this Sunday, we learn what that means, as the writer plays with a series of texts from the psalms and Isaiah. Each text contains a reference to “stone”, and relates an understanding of holiness to those hearing the letter.
The first reference point for “stone” is to Jesus, the “living stone” who is the cornerstone of the whole building. That slips quickly into applying “stones” to the people of faith who are hearing this letter: as “living stones” they are to be built into the structure as integral parts of the whole. Then, to reinforce that affirmation, a verse from Hosea 2 is quoted to emphasize how intimately and enduringly the people are connected with God.
Echoing still more scriptural terms, they are described as “chosen” (Deut 7:6), “a royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6), “holy” (Lev 20:7), and God’s own people (Hos 2:23) who are “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6). Many passages are rolled into one sentence!
Later sections of the letter provide specific guidance as to how we are to live in that condition of holiness; what behaviours and actions are appropriate for being “living stones” in a “spiritual house”. The challenge for us, this week, as we hear and preach on this particular passage, is to help people to grasp the relevance of these important theological terms for ourselves today.