Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:4–9
May 10, 2020
In today’s reading St Peter says “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pt. 2:5). We, who are accustomed to using Priest only for those ordained, may find this curious to say the least. The original hearers would have as well and for the same reason. We are all gentiles and to understand this passage we need to first comprehend the Jewish idea of covenant.
A covenant is an agreement that is more than a contract. It is a pledge to share life. A tribe would make a covenant with a King for protection or a nomadic chieftain with a landowner for grazing land. These were both life and death issues and the covenant was sealed by a meal to show its seriousness. An animal was sacrificed, and the parties ate it to share that life. Covenants require priests and the person who offered the sacrifice and recited the terms of the agreement acted as a priest. The nature of the priesthood depends upon the covenant. Uniquely, the Hebrews showed their fidelity to their covenant not only or even principally by offering sacrifices and gifts, but rather by adopting a way of life. Thus, obeying the law was the principal sacrifice.
For several weeks members of the parish have celebrated Lauds (Morning prayer) on Fridays and have recited Psalm 51:
For you do not desire sacrifice;
burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit;
God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart
Peter’s audience were gentile converts in what is now Turkey and, if they were truly Roman, their view of priesthood would have been quite transactional. They would pay to have sacrifices performed for personal good and the welfare of the State and then would leave the gods alone. If they were seeking a moral life, they would adopt a philosophy like the Stoics we saw last week. A broken spirit for the worship of God was an idea from another world. Perhaps it is the same with us. We might well believe that offering a sacrifice that has any meaning is the responsibility of the ordained alone and judged by how accurately the ritual is performed. Yet Peter also says today:
But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own.
(1 Pt. 2:9)
Not you have a priesthood, but you are a priesthood. Only the ordained preside at the Eucharist but all of us are called to ratify the covenant by offering “spiritual sacrifices” which does not mean just prayer and meditation.
Paul, a contemporary of St. Peter, expressed this most clearly:
I urge you therefore, brothers,
by the mercies of God,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God,
your spiritual worship.
Peter began this passage today by telling us that we were to be living stones of the house of God, the building blocks of the Church. Once more there are echoes of St. Paul about being built up by our actions:
So with yourselves;
since you are eager for spiritual gifts,
strive to excel in them
for building up the church
(1 Co. 14:12)
Paul taught the disciples at Corinth that God gives us many gifts and they are not for us as individuals but for the entire body of Christ. When we use them properly, they become “spiritual sacrifices” and we strengthen the covenant.
For the disciples, actions as diverse as teaching, administration, including collecting money, and for Paul and Peter, suffering are priestly acts because they build up the church. Love not blood makes them sacrifices.
But we may well ask where is the Eucharist in all this? “Who said Mass?” Not only in Peter but in the entire New Testament only Jesus is called a Christian Priest. We also do not see any individual offering the Eucharist and presiding at table in 70 AD, but by 90 AD Christian writings were full of references to and rules for Eucharistic celebration. What does this mean?
First the answer to who was presiding at the Eucharist is hiding in plain sight. A rabbi would often hold special meals with his close disciples. They formally began with the breaking of bread and the rabbi giving pieces to his assembled disciples and ended with a blessing over a cup of wine. The rabbi would use these opportunities to express his distinctive religious views. The earliest description of Jesus’ words for the institution the Eucharist at the last supper are from St. Paul around 55 AD.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,
and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said,
“This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
(1 Co. 11:23–26)
He clearly states that it is “the new covenant” that is offered for the disciples. Remembrance means far more than an act of memory but true participation. No Jew and few contemporary gentiles would have missed the sacrificial imagery. They would have recognized that this is a covenant forming offering.
Although at first almost hidden, why did the Eucharist become so important so quickly? Partially, of course, because the Temple in Jerusalem stood until 70 AD and many Christians sought to sacrifice in both. After the destruction of the temple, the Eucharist was left standing. The increasingly gentile composition of the Church’s membership was also important. Yet I think the answer is quite simple. The Eucharist is what the church says it is: a real participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Consequently, the Eucharist is the “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324 quoting from Lumen Gentium, par 11) As Jesus is really present in the Eucharist everything comes from it; as we seek to offer all to Jesus, everything comes to it. The other sacrifices are important but are fulfilled only when joined with the Eucharist.
This long and unwelcome Eucharistic fast that we are experiencing in the COVID-19 lockdown is teaching us this.
You may well object that I am not experiencing this fast. I say Mass everyday with Msgr. Al and Fr. John. The liturgies are very meditative and spiritual, yet curiously unsatisfactory.
Eucharist is a verb. It has an end and that end is not the last words of the ritual but in our building up the house of God: our community and, most particularly, our local Church. The regular participation in the Eucharist in near isolation has made me more eager to engage in my society and community and see it bear real fruit.
You are perhaps having the opposite experience. Some of you may be tested as never before. You may have been ill yourselves or taken care of someone. You may be an essential and at-risk worker or perhaps have been furloughed or lost your job completely. When I tell people that I have worked “above the store” for over 40 years, I am quickly reminded “not with children.” When you respond to these situations with love, you are offering “spiritual sacrifices”—truly Priestly acts. They reaffirm our covenant with God. Yet we know that these sacrifices need to be joined to the Eucharist, literally nailed to the cross with Jesus, for them to be complete.
We often speak at St. Charles of “collaborative ministry.” This usually and correctly means sharing our different gifts and skills to build up our community. But it also means sharing our different experiences. We have experienced this Eucharistic Fast from different perspectives and I think our ministries will be more powerful for it when begin face-to-face collaboration again.
We know in our very bones in a way that we never did before that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Let this challenge us to join our sacrifices to His to make Him really present in the world.