3 May – The mercy-ed church

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Easter 4

1 Peter 2:1-12
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

In a sentence
Mercy makes the church, that it might speak and act out of God’s mercy, that others might know of that mercy

‘You are a chosen race’, Peter writes, ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. Whatever we make of this – and the assessments will vary widely! – it is surely strong language and strong enough to be uncomfortable for many, even for those in the church. One reason for this is the ring of arrogance in the claim for a distinctive quality for one historical entity among all. Another is that the church has rarely looked like anything which approaches Peter’s description.

These cautions are all valid. At the same time, they also tend to consider Peter’s language in isolation from the rest of the text, which is precisely what is done when his language is abused. Towards the end of the reading another account of the church is given, this time as a community which is ‘alien and exiled’ within its own space. If Peter’s high church language is a displacement ‘above’, this ‘exile’ is a displacement ‘below.’ Peter’s community of believers is not exalted out of the world but is still very much within it, and even uncomfortably relegated within it.

And there is yet a third marking of the church Peter gives which sits between the ‘royal priesthood, holy nation’ language and the ‘alien and exile’ language, and bridges them. This is the church as the community of those who have received mercy.

It is mercy which spans the space between the high and the low locations of the community of believers. Mercy elevates what is lowly and cannot elevate itself. In so doing, mercy creates. It makes out of nothing. The language of mercy is the language of gift. Mercy sets in place what could not have been there without the gift: now you have received mercy, now you are God’s people (v. 10).

Yet mercy does not merely create or establish. That it might be thought to do this is the source of the danger in Peter’s high account of the church: that the church might stand now as something above and over against all other historical institutions.

Mercy does not merely create but sets in place a relationship between the merciful one and those on whom that one has had mercy. The question with which the whole sweep of Scripture wrestles is, What then is the nature of the ongoing relationship between the merciful and the ‘mercy­‑ed’?

With the rest of Scripture, Peter’s answer is that mercy creates a people whose purpose is not to be ‘above’ the world in splendid isolation but to speak of, and act out of, the mercy it has received.

And so Peter’s high language for the church simply says that the church has a high purpose: to speak of God’s mercy, God’s ‘mighty act’ (v. 9), even as the church itself is that mighty act:

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy (v. 10).

Perhaps the thing which ought to surprise us most in what we’ve heard from Peter today is not his language for the church but the effect he expects the mercy-ed high-and-low church to have.

In particular, while it makes sense that those who have received mercy might praise God, Peter expects that even those who have not received mercy and who oppose his community will glorify God on account of mercy’s effect in the believers:

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge (v. 12).

This is to say that both the community which receives the grace and those who reject it have as their end and purpose the glorification of God.

This, of course, could make no sense to those outside Peter’s community, for those inside the community can scarcely believe it either.

Believer and non-believer alike trip up at this point, for surely here is the height of arrogance: that not only is the church in some way ‘special’, but that its specialness displaces the ordinariness of all other things. More concretely, not only is the believer ‘chosen’ but her being ‘chosen’ means that others will be too, whether or not they seek or acknowledge it. God’s mercy will out us all.

The ‘great mercy’ which has birthed the church into a new hope (1. 3) by turning us to honour the God of mercy is mercy not only for those who know it but also for those who do not.

The offensiveness of the church – often enough even to the church itself – is that it is a sign that all things have their true being in their being called into being by God – mercy-ed into being – and in seeking to remain in that relationship.

This is not arrogance. If it implies that those outside the church don’t know what the church knows, at the same time the church continually forgets what it ought to know, whether for pride or fear. Not much separates the believer and the unbeliever when it is God who stands between them.

Peter reminds his community of the high priestly calling they have in their low station as aliens and exiles: a people who once were ‘nothing’, placed among others who are ‘nothing’, in order that all might come to something in their honouring of the God whose name and nature is Mercy, the source and goal of our being.

Let us, then, accept mercy that we might be merciful,

and be merciful that we might receive mercy.