A metaphor is the use of one thing to symbolically describe another. Metaphors are most effective when the listeners are familiar with the word or phrase which is replacing the thing it is trying to describe. For instance, in our reading this morning Peter describes the newly baptized Christians to whom he is writing as infants longing for spiritual milk. This metaphor is right on time for me, because I spend a lot of time these days with an infant, Baby Ruth, and I’m quite familiar with how infants loooong for milk. When Ruthie wants some milk, it is not a mystery. She does not yet speak English, but boy is she an effective communicator. When she wants milk she lets you know, she starts wailing her head off. It often takes me a little longer that Ruth feels is appropriate for me to prepare a bottle for her, and again, she lets me know how she feels about this delay, usually by wailing right in my ear as I hold her. She doesn’t just want that milk, she yearns for it, she needs it, she’s gotta have it.
So what is Peter trying to tell us through the use of this metaphor? How is it that we as Christians are like infants longing for milk? The people to whom Peter was writing were new at this following Christ thing. Some of them were Jews, part of the community of Israel, who believed Christ to be the Messiah. Some of them were Gentiles, Romans and Greeks, and members of other nations that these Empires had conquered. Though they came from other traditions and cultures, they too had come to believe in the saving power of Jesus. Some of these people were wealthy, but more of them were not. Despite their many differences, what they all had in common was an experience of Jesus as the Christ. Everyone of them had heard about Jesus and been moved. Everyone of them had found something in the story of Jesus that appealed to them. Hearing of the love of this man, the healing that came from, the wisdom that he taught, the unbelievable grace with which he faced an unjust and brutal execution, they had been drawn to him. And now together in a congregation of people similarly attracted, they were beginning to experience his divine presence in their love for another, in their singing, their prayers, and their breaking of the bread.
So they were like infants in that they were new, new to the way of Christ. Like an infant they were experiencing the world in a new way for the first time. They were curious, excited, often scared, but mostly eager, eager to know and experience all of this new way.
Infants are new to the world and they also have a lot of growing to do. This is an important and sometimes controversial point, that Peter is making with his infant metaphor. In much of American Christianity salvation is often spoken of as a momentary thing, a one time assent to a proposition. When people ask if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or when they inquire as to whether or not you have been saved, it is this momentary, once and for all understanding of salvation that they are employing. In this understanding, all that is necessary for one’s salvation is the one moment, the decision, the baptism, the confession: before they were not saved, and after they are.
I fed Ruthie this morning, and though I don’t like to make predicitions about the future, I’m pretty confident that she is going to need to eat again. This is Peter’s understanding of salvation. Just as Ruthie needs to be fed again and again, so that she can grow to be an adult, so too must we be fed again and again by the Holy Spirit so that we may grow into our salvation. Our salvation is prepared for us by God and we are being shaped and formed by God into this salvation, in to this new way of being, into the Body of Christ. In Peter’s understanding salvation is a project that God is working on. She is shaping us, molding us into our salvation, creating us to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God.
Peter’s understanding of salvation is not only progressive, a process that we go through, a process through which God prepares us and molds us, it is also a communitarian understanding of salvation. In the modern world, especially here in the United States, there is a tremendous amount of emphasis given to the individual. It is our lives as individuals that are most important and most valued. We posess individual rights and individual freedoms, we cherish individual expression, we value independence above interdependence. This focus on the individual is also reflected within American Christianity. The question about salvation is an individual one, “Have You accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Here God is a personal God, concerned with primarily with your individual salvation, your personal relationship to Him. Salvation is located in the individual, it is a personal thing.
Peter, like Jesus, like all of the first apostles, is a Jew. Peter belongs to the nation of Israel, and like all Israelites he believes that Israel is the chosen people of God. It was God that made Israel into a people, a nation, a community. They were but a group of slaves in Egypt when God heard their cry. But through Moses God freed them, in the wilderness God shaped them,and by the giving of the law and the covenant God formed them into a people. What is important here is that God’s saving action creates a community, a people, where before there was none. God does not just free individuals from slavery, he frees the people. Moses does not say to Pharoah, Let Frank and George go, he says, “Let my people go.” The salvation of Frank and George and every individual Israelite is to be found in the salvation of the entire community.
In deciding to follow Jesus, Peter has not abandoned his identity as part of the nation of Israel. He has not set aside his understanding of God’s saving work as being the salvation of a community, the creation of a holy people. What Peter has come to see by following Jesus and the Risen Christ is that God’s saving action is creating a new people, a new community. The people of God, Israel, is now expanding in its inclusiveness. Once taken to mean only the community descended from those at Sinai, Israel is now coming to include persons from all the nations of the world. The new Israel, the Body of Christ, is to consist of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, man and woman. God is calling forth this new Israel from all the nations of the world, and Peter is writing to a small congregation of them. He is writing to a congregation of Gentiles and Jews, of servants and masters, of conquerors and conquered, telling them that the salvation they are growing into is a communal salvation. They will be saved as ancient Israel was saved, they will be saved by growing into a new community, a new people, the people of God. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
This new people, these chosen people of God, this holy nation, is the Church, the Body of Christ. It is precisely to this new Israel, to the Body of Christ, that we, each and everyone of us is called today. Here at St. Paul’s we try our very best to live out Peter’s understanding of salvation as progressive and communitarian. We begin each worship service with a prayer of confession, because although we have born anew in Jesus Christ, we acklowedge that we are but infants in our salvation. We recognize that we must grow into our salvation and we will stumble and slip as we do. We confess our sins to remind us of our need for that spiritual milk of Christ, to renew our yearning for it, to remind us of our dependence upon it.
We are also an intentionally multi-cultural church: we have members from Nigeria, from Argentina, from Mexico, from Democratic Republic of the Congo, from all over the United States. We seek to honor each and every one of these cultures for God has called his people from all of them. We believe that each of these cultures has something vital to offer to the Body of Christ, that each of them carries wisdom and traditions that will help us to grow into our salvation, into our destiny as a royal priesthood. By ourselves we cannot be a people, by ourselves we cannot grow into our salvation. Our salvation lies in our becoming the people of God together.
Today, the forces of nationalism, ethnic pride, and chauvinism are as strong as ever. They speak of the primacy of the nation, of the importance of putting America first, the need to look out for our own interests before the interests of others. It into this world, into this present moment, that we at St. Paul’s are being called by God to grow into our salvation as a people of God drawn together from all the nations of the earth. Into a world that seeks to deport and ban and wall off the glorious diversity of God’s people from one another, we are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, declaring that God’s salvation is for all cultures, and all nations, and all peoples. In a world that declares the extreme importance of the individual we are called to proclaim that our salvation is located in the creation of beloved community. This is no small thing. This is a difficult, controversial, somewhat dangerous calling. It is more than any of us can do alone, and more than all of us can do together. We will need help, we will need someone, something, to guide us on, to renew us, to revitalize us, to give us the wisdom and the courage that the moment calls for, we will need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. And that is what I yearn for, that is what I want us all to yearn for, the spiritual milk, the Holy Spirit. May we remember this precious gift, and may we all yearn for this spiritual milk, so that together, in the midst of this divided world, we can become a beloved community drawn from all the peoples of the world. May it be so.