The First Letter of Peter—which is being read through in the Revised Common Lectionary (and in the Roman Lectionary on which it is based) during these weeks of Easter—will not get the attention the Gospels do. I doubt many of you will write or hear sermons primarily on a 1 Peter text (let me know!), so here while I will focus on the Epistle I’ll come back to thoughts about tying it in to the Gospel.
The setting of the letter, including date and place of writing, is contested, but what strikes me as more interesting is the audience. They are treated rhetorically as though Jewish—as members of the diaspora, and contrasted with gentiles—but there are signs (references to former idolatry, enslaved status) that this at least wasn’t literally or formerly true of them all. How this matters may become clear later.
The word “spiritual” pops up a lot in the NRSV of today’s Epistle—first regarding “spiritual milk,” (v.2) and then in the phrases “spiritual temple” and “spiritual sacrifices,” both in v.5.
There are actually two different words involved here: in the opening metaphor of Sunday’s Epistle, the “spiritual milk” of Christian faith is actually logikos milk, a word you can quickly see is related to logic, and could better be translated by—or at least is as close to—something like “rational.” The other place in the NT the word appears to similar effect is Rom 12:1, where the offering of the believer as a “living sacrifice” is termed “logikos worship.” While “rationality” may intellectualize the issue too far, this isn’t a statement about material versus immaterial. The KJV translated this phrase “milk of the word,” not referring to scripture itself but like John’s Gospel, seeing the Word (Logos) undergirding all creation, as its truth (cf. also v. 8, and 1:23). So perhaps “true milk” (and “true worship” etc.) would work.
While all these are imperfect translations, the problem with “spiritual milk” is that modern readers may think this means something like “invisible, immaterial” milk, as opposed to actual material stuff. And the implication of that false move is inevitably individualistic and pietistic; the “spiritual” becomes the personal and the interior, and this is absolutely not the point. While the milk in question may not be material, logikos here is a contrast not with what is physical but with what is irrational, disordered, or untrue. Faith is true milk, not invisible milk.
In verse 5 however the “spiritual” temple and sacrifices are not “logikos” but “pneumatikos.” This means “spiritual” quite literally, of the S/spirit (pneuma), but again not quite in the “immaterial” sense people may assume. Our text uses this language of Spirit similarly to Pauline letters; compare Gal 6:1, where the believers themselves are pneumatikos, indicating not their lack of physical being but their orientation to the Spirit of God; and songs can be pneumatikos, referring to their significance, not their material form or lack of it (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).
So when the believers are called a “spiritual temple” offering “spiritual sacrifices,” we are obviously in the realm of the metaphorical, but not necessarily of the immaterial, and we are certainly talking about communal rather than individual experience and practice. This literal temple is not one made of stones in the usual sense, but a temple of the Spirit, built out of their own lives, “living stones” founded on the living stone of Jesus Christ. Christians are embodied beings as he was (or is), and their community, the church, is now a temple not because they are invisible, but because their worship is directed by and to the Spirit of God—more in contrast to the other temples of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1) than to that of Jerusalem.
Interestingly the Qumran sectarians, authors or readers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, worked with a similar idea of being themselves a communal temple. They had seceded from the regular life of the Jerusalem Temple, regarding it as corrupt, and saw their own community with its life and prayer as a sanctuary, even as a means of atonement. While the original addressees of 1 Peter are unlikely to have rejected the Jerusalem Temple as such (a bigger issue, including one of date, but compare the positive attitude of Luke-Acts), they are at a distance from it, and hence fair game for a metaphor that asks how holiness and worship function without access to the place where God dwelt.
This is where the possibility of the “spiritual” temple and sacrifice come in. Probably including people of Jewish and gentile origin, the first readers of 1 Peter certainly alienated from the local temples and “from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors…with perishable things like silver or gold” (1:18). Yet Jerusalem also was not really the answer to how new identity would give rise to worship.
Their mixed backgrounds made them a curious sort of group. Religion in the ancient world was ethnically specific; temples and sacrifices always belonged to a particular community or people. This new thing, this community, did not quite conform. The theme of resilience that is woven through the letter speaks to the need for endurance in the face of struggles related to this social and religious uncertainty, and emphasizes the gift that it was to be this new people, this new community. One of its loveliest moments of the Letter is in this reading:
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.
Our author (perhaps alluding to Hos 1-2) encourages the recipients to see themselves as a new people, with a common life that is a new kind of temple. They need not imagine themselves as less than those who could worship in Jerusalem, or those who attended pagan temples nearby, because they were living stones, founded on that one stone “chosen and precious” even though rejected, and now themselves a new temple.
Although this letter does not define its “spiritual sacrifices,” we have already seen these need not necessarily be invisible things; compare then Hebrews, which says that sharing economic resources with those who need them (13:17) is a pleasing sacrifice, or Paul’s account of the eucharistic meal as like the sacrifices of the Temple (1 Cor 11). Paul, in a passage already noted, also considers the whole of embodied Christian life as a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). “Sacrifice,” we may note, is here not self-abnegation or suffering, but gift. To offer spiritual sacrifices in and as a spiritual temple is to consider our lives as a gift, lived in accord with the gift of Jesus.
While the Gospel today, so often read at funerals, will often be thought of as about the afterlife, its themes are not so dissimilar to those of the Epistle. Both use ideas of place (house, temple) to think about the new identity and community given to followers of Jesus, not only beyond but in this life. Hence the lectionary serves us well by adding vv. 7-14 to the familiar words in John 14:1-6, to clarify that the point of Jesus’ self-description as way, truth, and life, and of the many “dwelling places” of the Father, have a present significance too. As in 1 Peter too, discipleship in John is a “place” where the embodied existence of the believer, and especially of the believing community, is enacted. This is true not just in those activities we now call “worship,” but in all “spiritual sacrifices”—the actions we take, and the gifts we give, that are now “spiritual” because we are led by the Spirit of Jesus.
I did actually preach on the 1 Peter reading for Easter 2, and had thought that if I were preaching weekly that I might want to do a 1 Peter sermon series -- perhaps in three years I'll have the opportunity! I'm still trying to decide whether I want to focus on the Gospel or on the 1 Peter reading for this coming Sunday, so your reflections on the latter (and its connection to the Gospel) are very helpful.