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Spiritual Sacrifices: A Sermon for Seminarians

This is the second of two related sermons preached at General Theological Seminary. Here is the first.

By George Sumner

 March 5, 2019

I Peter 2:1-9

It is time for a changing of the guard, a new generation; maybe old-timers like me need to get on the boats headed to the land of the elves! These two sermons are really about the twin foci for the Church and its leaders, as a new generation rises to minister in a profoundly different culture.

Not that my generation got everything wrong. The emphasis on the baptismal covenant of the 1979 prayer book was spot on. But we were only able to grasp a part of our own rallying cry. The baptismal covenant was about lay empowerment, about yoking social to evangelistic concerns, well and good.

But did we really lay hold of the avowal of the Nicene Creed and its full-throated claim to the full divinity of Jesus Christ, or the imperative that all Christians share the saving word about him, or that the covenant itself is an instrument of catechesis, of educating the laity in the Word of God and the foundations of their faith? Or, did we, as with the national debt or global warming, just roll these over until another generation, yours, would come, to deal with them? I believe our presiding bishop’s calls to evangelism summon us to the rest of the baptismal covenant, late though the hour be.

Something similar is true as we listen to 1 Peter 2. Its proclamation that we are all, together, a priestly nation, is rousing and readily received. But what else does the passage say? What does being such a nation involve? 1 Peter 2 is in rapid succession about ethics, catechetics, Christology, ecclesiology, exegesis, soteriology, and cultural criticism.

The passage begins with a call to self-discipline, to purifying our hearts, so as to be, by God’s mercy, receptive to what God means to tell us. This receptivity allows us to make the first thing first: that Jesus Christ himself is the stone, the fundament, on which all else is built. The good news about him as Savior and Lord comes first.

Where I minister some people resist this because it sounds Baptist to them. What it actually sounds like is Christian! Come to the living stone, Jesus Christ, at once firm and set, but also dynamic and empowering. First Peter 2 is simply and radically Christocentric. All renewal and all creativity in theology and ministry involves recovering the foundation: Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.

Only in light of the confession of Jesus as Lord can we come to a right understanding of who we are. The church is indeed holy, a temple enabled to offer sacrifice. But its holiness is derivative of his, its sacrifice is the pleading of his for the sake of the world. One of the mainstays of prayer book spirituality is the reformed edge to its ancient catholicity. Christ is, by “the one sacrifice of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the whole world.” Lest there be any confusion,  Cranmer offers two threefold affirmations of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. We the temple, spiritually offering the sacrifice that he already has, not for ourselves but for the world.

Here, chapter two presents a connection to chapter one and its reference to exile. Jesus Christ is a stone over which some stand, but others trip. Our job is to make sure that any offense is in him and his cross, not in us. We are called out of darkness to be this temple. We are not different than our neighbors, no better, with nothing of our own to offer. Only this being called out makes us suitable to speak with our neighbors. Peter invites us to maintain the balancing act of difference and empathy, of distance and invitation.

To be sure, our passage affirms that we do have a special calling, a role of real significance in the drama of salvation. That is surely implied in being designated priests, God’s people, a temple as opposed to any old house. You who are to be ordained are given the role of being embodied reminders of this status bestowed on all God’s people. You are icons, but what you represent belongs to the whole people who belong to Christ.

My alma mater is Berkeley at Yale, and my teachers in turn studied and were formed by the likes of Richard Niebuhr. I don’t know if his book Christ and Culture is still required reading. One of Niebuhr’s most famous quotations is found in his “Social Sources of Denominationalism,” an indictment of the modernist theological liberalism:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross…”  Three quarters of a century later it still poses an insistent question to our Church.

If exile is the great question in our relation to the world, the great theme for our relation to our own belief, our own doctrine and spiritual life is this: what does it mean to be a spiritual temple offering sacrifice? This reality is not only incomprehensible to our time, but also deeply compelling. How can we escape the downward trajectory of corruption and anger around us? How can we understand realities like depression and addiction, which do not answer to our private wills, and imply the need for deliverance? When we are honest, we must admit that the alternatives we have tried have failed: counseling, social work, director of personal spiritual growth, political action. To an uncomprehending world, and even to ourselves, being a spiritual temple to show forth the all-sufficient sacrifice is a kind of paradoxical apologetic for the faith.

What does it then mean for us, late in the day, to be a spiritual temple offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for the one offered once and for all by and in Jesus? How might we grow into something so unapologetically catholic and evangelical? It would at least mean these three things, each surprising in the individualist, politically conflicted time we inhabit.

First, such a self-understanding is doctrinally laden. No bumper stick will suffice here. You would have to explain what Zion was, what the election of Israel was for, what the atoning death of Jesus means, and, in so doing, take your parish’s biblical literacy up several notches. This swims against the tide not only of your parish but also of our church as a whole.

Second, you would have to reclaim the doctrine of justification, and show how it articulates what’s good about the good news. If your people like to sing “Amazing Grace” they’re primed for this. The sacrifice isn’t ours! But we are broken enough for a sacrifice to be required. Grace comes first, but in its wake comes a robust doctrine of sin. A culture with addiction and depression is a culture ready to hear about the disease and not just the symptoms.

Third, to be a church offering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is to aim, by the grace of God, for conversion, not just consciousness raising, or self-improvement, or enlightenment, or generalized good will. That baptismal covenant was, after all, in the context of baptism, the sacrament of sharing Christ’s death and resurrection, of spitting in the Devil’s eye, and turning to the rising sun.

May God bless this new generation of leaders, as they, by no power of their own, are made a spiritual temple to show forth the wounded Lamb, who, behold, lives! In so doing may they know themselves to be given a share, come what may for the structures of the Church to which we are accustomed, in the new Zion, and the new Melchizedek. This provision will prove enough, and far more than enough, for your journey. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas





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