“Come to him, a living stone . . . . Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices.”
Our reading this Sunday from the First Letter of St. Peter launches us into the theme of all the readings. Peter is mixing metaphors, but in a useful way.
First, he talks about a house being built up. Even here the metaphor gets a little mixed, because it’s not clear whether we’re building up or down. Psalm 118’s “cornerstone,” which Peter cites later in our reading, is literally, both in Greek and in Hebrew, “the head of the angle.” It might be more helpful to think of the keystone in an arch: without it, the arch collapses.
But if you want to think about the cornerstone on a building, realize that the first stone you lay determines where every other stone will be – so you’d better be careful where you put it! Still, I like the structural importance of the keystone better: without it, the whole building collapses.
The point is that the building stands or falls in its relation to Jesus.
Peter’s second metaphor, however, is a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices. We could say that the cornerstone gives the means, but this metaphor gives the end, the goal. Christ builds us up – so that we can worship. Like any mixed metaphor, this one limps a little, but the point is that Christ gives us access to true worship.
And this is active. It’s not that he does the worship for us. He makes us worshipers. He makes us the priests – all of us. In fact, the ordained priesthood is there precisely as a sign of Christ making true prayer available to all God’s people. The ordained allow us to participate in the worship of the whole Church.
The cornerstone is a stumbling block, finally – to mix one more metaphor in – in the sense that without Christ, we lack that full access to the Father. We need him.
Jesus talks about the same thing in our reading from John’s Gospel. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” There’s actually a double conferral of grace here. First, Jesus himself has access only because it has been given to him – but, because it is given, he truly has access to the Father. He receives everything.
Then he gives it to us. And in this second link in the chain, again we have only because we have received – but then we truly have it. Jesus makes us a royal priesthood, or a “holy temple,” and thus we really are. Because he gives us access to the depths of prayer, we really can pray.
This is what he means when he says he is the way – through him we can actually get to the Father. And it’s what he means when he says he prepares a place for us: through him, we can really be there, with the Father.
But what does this look like, practically? All of this mystical theology pops its head up into the real world in Acts, where we see what the early Church looked like.
There is a dispute, because the Apostles are busy with “prayer and the ministry of the word,” and they don’t have time for “the daily distribution” to the widows. Do you see the two poles? There is prayer and service, our relationship with God and its expression in our relationship with our neighbor.
I think it’s a very sad thing that with the modern restoration of the diaconate we have set them up as mini-priests, also committed to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Traditionally and biblically, the whole point of the diaconate is that, though priestly work is essential, and in a certain sense it is highest, there is other work that is essential too. The prominence of deacons is supposed to remind us of the diversity of vocations, and of the importance of both what we do in Church and what we do outside.
Being built into a “royal priesthood” also means becoming a “holy nation,” marked for how we behave in relation to our neighbors. That’s why the deacon stands by the altar: because his service to the poor is just as essential as the priest’s service at the altar, and flows from it.
“Of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full,” says our Psalm. Transformed by Christ, we live out that kindness in the world.
How could we more intensely live the connection between the altar and the poor, between our union with Christ and our love of neighbor?