A sermon from 1 Peter 2:9 (preached on June 26, 2016).
Not long ago, I had one of those uncomfortable experiences. You know the type: you are stuck in a conversation with someone, desperately hoping that your face is not betraying your true thoughts and feelings. I was at a wedding reception. A gentleman, who happened to be a brother in Christ, kidnapped me into a monologue I cannot possibly reproduce. I do recall two things. First, it had nothing to do with the newlyweds. Second, he stated that he did not see how any Christian could vote for candidates from a particular political party. I’m not sure now how I managed to jump off of this run-away train, but I think I employed two common tactics: my cup of punch was empty, and I reacted the way you do when you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and a native is speaking to you: I smiled and nodded. I think I know why there is punch—and, quite often, alcohol—at weddings. This one just had punch.
Many Christians in the United States believe that their faith should relate to social and political life, and, indeed, any faith worth having will have a bearing on these things. At the same time, much of what I see and hear reveals a malnourished understanding of Christian faith. One conversation in which I find such nutritional deficiency is the debate over whether the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. The historical evidence is complex, and can be selectively used to argue various positions. But what troubles me is Christians’ failure to understand their own Bible very well. First Peter 2:9 is saying something that far too many American Christians miss. To catch it, we have to know the whole Bible and its overarching story—in this case, the story the Bible is telling about the nation God has been forming for himself and for his world.
About 4,000 years ago, a middle Eastern man heard a god unfamiliar to him address him with a command and a plan: “Leave your kinfolk, and I will make you a great nation” (Gen 12:1-2 paraphrase). In the mind of an aging and barren couple, having a child must have stretched credulity—let alone becoming a nation. What land would belong to their nation? How would they relate to other nations? Answers to these questions were unclear. The purpose of Abram and Sarai’s nation, however, was stated: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3 ESV). The purpose of this family and its eventual nation was to bless others. Coming on the heels of the dispersion of families and nations from their common ancestors in Genesis 10 and 11, God’s plan for one man and woman turns out to be his plan for all people.
By the end of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah’s family numbers seventy strong and lives in a fertile region of Egypt, though the patriarch and matriarch do not live to see it. The blessed fertility of their family is their undoing, and a real nation enslaves them as a result. Prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seem to fall on deaf (or dead) ears, as the gods of Egypt succeed. Maybe it’s home-court advantage. The God of Abraham liked the land of Canaan an awful lot; maybe he couldn’t enter other nations.
Eventually—as in, hundreds of years later—a questionable man—an ethnic Hebrew in the Egyptian royal house—claims that Abraham’s God has chosen him to liberate the tribes of Israel. Something about a bush that was on fire. Then lots of strange and devastating things start happening to Egypt, and this nation wants the family of Israel gone. After Charlton Heston lowers his staff, Egypt’s nation loses an army and Israel gains wilderness freedom.
Encamped at a mountain, Moses passes along to Israel the word of Abraham’s God: “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6 ESV emphasis added). “A kingdom of priests” might sound rather disappointing—akin to “a battalion of preachers”: priests aren’t your typical soldiers or kings (though many ancient kings did serve as priests), so it’s hard to imagine a whole kingdom of them. On the other hand, since priests facilitate people’s relationship with God, “a kingdom of priests” might be a vivid metaphor: Israel’s power in the world will be exercised by facilitating people’s relationship with God. It’s a different kind of power, a different kind of kingdom. As one commentator described this kingdom of priests: the people of Israel are “a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.”
Thus, Israel will be God’s nation, in fulfillment of the word to Abraham. For now, they are a nation without a land, a nation of the wilderness. They will conquer and inhabit the land of Canaan, but they are constituted as a nation before having land. What makes them God’s nation, then, is not land and borders, but commitment to covenant with God, which includes learning to live his ways in the world—his Torah. It is not unimportant that Israel have its own land. Land will offer them security and the earth’s food provisions. In fact, God gives them commands for how they will use such provisions: their tithes would be agricultural tithes and were supposed to be shared directly with others, including orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deut 14:29). The land—all land—belongs to God, and his nation will be a steward of one part of it.
Thus, land could be a blessing and a curse—the curse being that Israel would come define itself, its nationhood, and even its God in terms of human borders. Israel’s common ethnic history would present another blessing and curse for its nationhood. On the one hand, God took an already-existing family and cultivated it into a nation, blessing a distinct ethnic group. But does their nationhood depend on their ethnicity? If it does, then how do we explain the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, whose family was drawn into Israel’s society? How do we explain the Moabite woman, Ruth, who would be the great grandmother of Israel’s second king, David? How do we explain the (apparently) Hittite woman, Bathsheba, a wife of David and mother to Solomon?
Still, ethnicity has a legitimate place in the nationhood of biblical Israel, but it has more to do with the role of the nuclear family in teaching God’s Torah than with the family’s DNA, so to speak. Indeed, prohibitions against intermarriage in the Old Testament seek to guard the theological purity of the people, not the racial dimensions of their people as such. The potential curse of ethnicity is that Israel would come to define God in ethnic terms, as one of them. God would be a tribal deity, a God interested in the welfare of one ethnic group. Ethnicity becomes theology.
We are reminded, though, of the plan for Abram’s nation: “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). God wants his nation to bless other people. The prophet Isaiah will speak of God’s servant in Israel as “a light for the nations” (42:6; 49:6, emphasis added). God wants other nations to have his light, to see clearly. Other messages in Isaiah will go beyond giving light to nations to affirm the place of people from foreign nations within God’s nation, within Israel (56:3-8). (Much later, the apostle Paul will develop the same idea in Romans 11.)
By the time of Jesus, Israel would have experienced a united kingdom, a divided kingdom, the destruction of both kingdoms, and centuries of foreign rule over them and the lands they once ruled themselves. The pressing question is then, Where was God’s nation during all of this? Was it destroyed? Or did it survive intact because its nationhood never required land and political administration of it in the first place? An exodus nation can become an exile nation.
Jesus ministered to the not-free survivors of Israel, the Jews of his day (Mt 10:5-6). His ministry included people of other nations (“Gentiles”; Mt 15:21-28). And he commissioned his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18-20). He was not seeking to replace Israel. He was fulfilling Israel and what Israel had always been meant to do: to bless all people.
Jesus’ apostles and disciples fulfilled his commission. Peter fulfilled the commission: a scandalous dream prepared him to draw Cornelius into the Jesus-people, the Jesus-kingdom, the Jesus-nation: “in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Ac 10:35, emphasis added). Years later, Peter will write from Rome to disciples in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pt 1:1), and, using the very words of God to Israel in (his version of) Exodus 19, Peter will say to these disciples of different lands and different ethnicities “you are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9, emphasis added). Once again, people are gathered at Mt. Sinai, so to speak, and are constituted as God’s nation. Peter believed in a Christian nation, but it was not defined by existing political borders, a specific language, a specific ethnicity, nor adherence to Roman codes of law that were in place at the imperial and local levels. None of these was necessarily bad to Peter, but they did not define the Christian nation for him.
It is now 2016. How should Christians in America define the Christian nation to which they belong? How about God? When he pulls up Google Earth on his GodBook Pro, where does he find the Christian nation? What does the flag look like? What are its colors, and why? What is the population count? What natural resources are available, and how are they distributed? What is its national anthem? its pledge of allegiance? What are its policies? How does it determine citizenship? How does it determine its neighbors (“Who is my neighbor?”, Lk 10:29)? How does it relate to its enemies? How does it relate to the various rulers and authorities of the world?
And so, in an American election cycle, with a freedom holiday upon us [July 4], and amidst so much noise and confusion, perhaps one gift we Christians can give is being crystal clear as to the identity of the true Christian nation and living in the light that that nation has to offer, to bless all families of the earth. May our words and actions enact on Earth what John saw taking place in heaven:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Rev 7:9-10, emphasis added).
 John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary 3 (Nashville: Nelson, 1987), 263.