Choice and Obligation
1 Peter 2:4-10
Choice and Obligation
Mothers introduce us to the world
It’s Mother’s Day. To be a mother, or just, to mother someone, is a pretty big concept – it looks very different for different people. Your experience of motherhood probably looks different than it does for the person sitting next to you. But one thing that most mothers have in common is that they are the people who introduced us to the world.
Yes, for all the doctors and midwifes and nurses and other family who are often present at a birth, it is the mother than really introduces a new little human to the world. Well before baptisms and dedications, before newspaper announcements, even before an instagram post can introduce the world to this wrinkled new baby, that baby is shepherded into the world by a mother.
Now, a few weeks ago, I talked about how when I was little, my dad would bring up the strangest topics at the dinner table. I made a promise that I’d share what those family dinners look like now, and I will. But before I get to that, we’re going to dive into this Scripture passage today. And then, we’re going to let motherhood itself teach us a thing or two about what this passage implies for us. Then, my family dinners will make a lot more sense.
Deep Dive into Scripture
Reginald Fuller of Saint Louis University makes a convincing claim that this First Peter passage was likely an early form of catechism, sort of an introductory text to people who were becoming Christians. In the letter, it functions as an educational piece – this is what Christians are, and this is why they are that way. Much like giving birth, baptism was seen as the start of a brand new life. The person getting baptized was about to be washed clean, a blank slate for God to work through. Teaching catechumens what life was going to be like, what life meant, and how to live was central to the idea of sharing the Gospel, and it mirrors for most of us what our mothers did for us. After all, isn’t it typically our mothers who set us up to see what life is going to be like?
Now, this basic, introductory message of First Peter is heavily reliant on quotations from earlier Scriptures. 5 of our 7 verses today are rough quotations or direct allusions to writings found in the Hebrew Bible, from Isaiah to Psalms to Hosea. Here, Peter uses these older texts to make the case that:
1) God’s Kingdom is like a temple or a sanctuary. It has many parts, but it ultimately serves as a place that marks holiness.
2) Jesus is the cornerstone upon which that whole sanctuary is built. Nothing else is as important, not even other miracles or acts of God.
3) The people of God are brought together so that they can participate in and remember the prior deeds of God.
4) Those people aren’t just coming into the sanctuary, they are also part of the building itself.
In other words, without the people of God, there is no sanctuary. But without the miraculous work of God, there is no people of God. And the most important work of God, the most important piece to this metaphor, is the person of Christ. That’s the key. Without Jesus, none of Christianity makes any sense. This biblical cornerstone takes us back to prophets and ancient Hebrew traditions, where in spite of our own mistakes and fears, God offers us sense of security. In fact, to some of these writers, it was precisely because of our failings that God sends something sure, something foundational, to guide us, to, dare I say, mother us. A stone which functions as a reference point, that all other stones and walls and archways and balconies are based on.
You can see why this is foundational to potential new Christians. Peter says we have to put Jesus at the center of our faith in order for our faith to make sense. If this really is key, then of course we want to teach that to those who are first learning about the faith! In First Peter, this is as basic as a mother teaching her child the alphabet. Remember, without the people of God, there is no sanctuary. Jesus is a cornerstone, sure, but without people who choose to become those living stones, building off the foundation that Christ sets, we will have no faith which can invite in new members, and no faith which can commemorate the past works of our God. New christians must have felt that pressure – this message not only makes you responsible for the building of the Church, but it also makes you like Christ.
John Calvin puts it this way: “In a word, Christ, did not ascend to heaven privately for himself, to live there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all godly people, and that in this way the head might be united to the members.”
More recently, Karl Jacobsen, a Lutheran minister in Minnesota summed today’s text in a much simpler fashion: “As Christ is, so is the Christian.” Since the language of First Peter is communal, I would reframe his summation this way: “As Christ is, so are God’s people.”
As Christ is, so are God’s people.
Christ is a living stone, and so are God’s people.
Christ is building a church, and so are God’s people.
Christ illustrates what justice and mercy truly are, and so do God’s people.
Christ welcomes in the stranger and turns them into family, and so do God’s people.
Now this is a wonderful message. But it doesn’t take into account the fact that those studying to become christians could pretty easily choose to drop out of the process. What is missing, then, is the idea of choice.
Choice vs. Obligation
Choice implies we are free to make a decision and to pursue it. The early christians had a choice about whether they would give up their old religion, give up relationships with family, even give up their safety, all in order to become like Christ. They could say yes. Or, they could say no.
Likewise, in this metaphor in the text, the builders had a choice. Look back at verse 4: “And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, even though it is choice and precious in the sight of God.” They could have accepted that Christ’s way was the best way. They could have said, “this is what we want to base our lives on, this is the metric by which we will measure every aspect of our lives.” But they didn’t. They rejected the stone. And so, they rejected the offer to be God’s people.
That same choice is set before us – will you follow Christ? Will you commit to being the same living stone that Christ is? Will you place the teaching and ministry of Christ as the foundation for your every action, every word you say, every dollar you spend, every relationship you start? Will you be completely transformed by it, so that others may build around you?
It’s important to recognize, however, that life is not all choices. We don’t get total control. Life is full of choices, yes, but it is balanced by lots and lots of obligations. There is a choice to follow Christ, but there is also an inherent obligation. Once you have chosen to be in, you are now part of a family. No ifs ands or buts. Once you were not a people, but you wanted in, so now you are the people. And being the people means you have expectations and standards. Once you are in you have a role to play. And there’s no giving up that role, only an obligation to live into it.
Whether we choose our role or it is thrust upon us, it’s how we respond that declares the praise of the LORD.
Mothers illustrate this point
I think mothers know this well. Many mothers choose pregnancy, adoption, or fostering. Introducing a child to the world is their choice. Others, however, find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, or caring for someone else’s child out of necessity. Grandparents, older siblings, even family friends sometimes take responsibility for raising up and caring for children. Still others wish they had someone to mother, but the choice seems to have been stolen from them – trying and trying for children, only to hit roadblock after roadblock.
Whether a mother finds herself in her role thanks to a choice, an obligation, or some combination, there is no difference in the expectation. Mothers are called into a new role, where they must become those living stones, a sure foundation, something solid on which others can build.
Let’s take my own mother as an example. She chose to have each of her children, though *someone* took longer to come along than they had planned, and then she took on the role of “mother.” She did so from the time my sister was born until 2010, when a new role was thrust upon her.
While hiking with me in the Smoky Mountains, my dad fell and hit his head. He broke several vertebrae, and he became quadriplegic. This means he cannot move any muscle below his shoulders. Family dinners now look like my mother feeding my dad every bite, offering every sip, and catching every stray crumb – for as remarkably normal as he is post-accident, none of these things are possible for him alone.
Now, my dad would be the first to tell you that he would never want to be known primarily for his disability. He is still the person he was from before the accident, and this isn’t a “woe is him, life is so hard” illustration. And frankly, all of us have needs. If he weren’t quadriplegic, he’d still need help doing certain things, just as I need help doing certain things, because that’s the nature of life. No one is an island, everyone needs someone else. He has different needs now, sure, but in a general sense he is no different than anyone else.
Still, his needs require unique care. So my mother took that role and fulfilled it. Her children were grown, and she became ‘Mother 2 point Oh.’ She learned medical insurance and drug interactions. She learned how to stand up to doctors when they were wrong. She learned about accessible architecture and how to fix wheelchairs – her role was obligated to her, yet she willingly became a living stone, something strong and sure than would stand up to the pressures of the world.
Perhaps those early catechumens should have had her as an example. You want your actions to illustrate the work of God? You want to really follow Christ? If you really want to see sacrifice, look at a caregiver, look at a mother. Now not all mothers are shining examples of self-sacrifice, but I’d be willing to bet that all of us know a strong woman who found the strength to put our needs first, acting as a foundation for us. That’s a woman worth thanking today, regardless of whether she’s a traditional mother or not.
But this is the big take-away from this passage – we’re all called into this. The obligation is on each and every one of us. Following Christ means not just believing, but accepting the role and becoming a living stone ourselves, serving others in every single thing we do. So today, we thank God for the mothers who serve as our examples. Amen.