Many American churches have long reveled in the cultural phenomenon known as the “potluck.” The regular challenge of the potluck is, of course, to maximize limited plate space by trying to fit as much food as possible. Rookies overload with the initial dishes and run out of room by the end of the table; veterans stand out for their expert and creative layering techniques.
The potluck plate is a fitting metaphor for our lives. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and we are called by God to use these assets wisely. The challenge is deciding how everything will fit. Our plates fill quickly—which isn’t all that surprising in our anxiety-ridden, fast-paced culture—with activities such as work and family and school and church and sports and rest and chores and . . . well, the list goes on.
In case you missed it, there’s a problem. “Well sure,” you might respond, “too much to do and too little time and energy. I need a bigger plate!” But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is the presence of one particular dish in our buffet line of life options: the one labeled “church.”
For followers of Christ, there is something deeply askew in our view of the world when Jesus’ church has become one option among many, one casual activity among a multitude.
An Identity Problem
Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, you’re dining alone at your favorite all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. As much food as you can dream of but no one to share it with.
Now, imagine a second scenario. Another meal, but one where you have gathered in celebration with loved ones around a home-cooked holiday feast.
Do you feel how these two experiences are drastically different?
One could certainly enjoy a buffet alone, but there is a profound relational reality that can take place over a meal, especially for believers called into God’s family (Luke 22:14-23; Gal. 6:10; Rev. 19:6-9). Here’s the point: The church is the family you’re eating with, not just another option on your plate.
Seeing the church as just another option among many is a problem of mistaken identity. It’s a problem of who we understand ourselves to be. If I see myself as ultimate, then everything on my plate serves me. Its purpose is to feed me, to satisfy me. I can take it or leave it based on my desires and preferences. As a result, we have become a culture of people dining alone at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Conversely, if my identity isn’t about me, then I recognize a reality that’s far bigger than me. All of a sudden, the plate of food in my hand takes on a more meaningful, relational significance—having more to do with serving that greater reality than with serving me. Understanding the bigger reality, and my place in the family, helps me to see church not as an option in a self-serving buffet line, but as a deeper reality which reorients how I see the meaning of my own life.
The Apostle Peter brings clarity to our identity as a people in two tightly packed verses:
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 (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
Our Identity is Plural
The first thing to notice from this text is the plural nature of the church. Race, priesthood, nation, and people are all collective nouns. The word choice here defines our identity as a community rather than as individuals.
In the context of 1 Peter 2, this communal reality has already been anchored in an architectural metaphor: the church is a “spiritual house” made up of “spiritual stones” (v. 5), with Jesus himself being the chosen and precious cornerstone (vv. 6-8). Each individual stone—unique in itself—takes on an even greater value as it fits in place and makes up the whole. Furthermore, the term “house” in 2:5 also alludes to the church as a family, living together under one roof with all of the relational beauty and messiness that comes with it.
But Peter isn’t finished helping us recalibrate our identity. He now describes the church using metaphors that beautifully connect our identity to Israel’s.
A Chosen Race AND PRIESTHOOD
God unilaterally elected Israel to be his special people, saying, “[T]he Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut. 10:15), calling them “…my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa. 43:20b-21).
In the same way, the church’s identity is grounded in the gracious doctrine of election: “But you are a chosen race…” (1 Pet. 2:9). In Jesus the Messiah, God has set his favor upon the church—made up of Jew and Gentile from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation—creating one, new race (see Eph. 2:11-22). His choice is not grounded in anything we have done but in his own sovereign pleasure.
A priest is one with the right of access to God, a privilege given to all believers through the work of our high priest, King Jesus (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). The church is uniquely positioned to both serve and have the ear of the king. Like the priests of old, our entire existence should be wrapped up in service to the king rather than ourselves. And because of the access he has provided to himself, we have the distinct privilege of serving the world through a ministry of intercession.
A Holy Nation And His own Possession
The church is “a holy nation,” which means we’ve been set apart for something special (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). We have a different purpose, call, and job than the rest of the world. Our existence should contrast with that of the world, as it is grounded in service to the king. Our “citizenship is in heaven” and our allegiance is not to any earthly nation or ruler (Phil. 3:20). It is to King Jesus alone.
In light of the church’s sole allegiance belonging to Christ, we are rightly referred to as “a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). This accentuates both God’s ownership of the church and his attitude towards her as “treasured” (Ex. 19:5). “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). He dearly loves his own.
A People Who Have Received Mercy
When God commanded the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament to marry a woman of questionable moral character, he was directed to give their children names such as “No Mercy” and “Not My People” (Hos. 1:6, 9). Like Hosea’s wife, Gomer, the people of Israel had been unfaithful to their husband, the Lord. Hosea’s children became prophetic arrows aimed at the idolatry and unfaithfulness of Israel. To not be God’s people was to be separated from him. To not receive mercy was to be under judgment. This is the tragic, natural state of fallen humanity apart from Christ.
But separation and judgment are not the last words! God “will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hos. 2:23). Just as God was merciful in his posture towards rebellious Israel, he is glad to extend mercy to depraved sinners. This gracious promise has become a reality in the church.
ALL BECAUSE OF JESUS
In the very center of these jam-packed verses, we find a surprise purpose statement: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are called to proclaim the excellence of Jesus, not ourselves. This statement fails to extol the value of the individual or the preferences of the consumer.
The church does not exist to selfishly glorify itself. Rather, the church exists by and for Jesus. Every piece of our identity is anchored in him and, therefore, our purpose is for him. He is everything to and for the church. The church has nothing and receives nothing apart from Jesus. The loftiness of our identity is a gift earned and purchased by another; therefore, all the glory for the worth, identity, and gifts of the church belong to Jesus. The church is what it is by Jesus Christ and for the glory of Jesus Christ!
And so, the church exists “to proclaim the excellencies” of Jesus. We are who we are in order to revel in his beauty, delight in his perfections, be astounded by his attributes, and wonder at his works. We live and breathe and fellowship and sing and preach and listen and pray and witness because we rejoice in the excellencies of Jesus.
When we have been “called . . . out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), suddenly we are members of a new kingdom (Col. 1:13), a new family. This new identity frees us from the anxious, fast-paced thinking of our culture to recognize the family we eat with—who are more important, real, glorious, beautiful, and messier than our own selfish desires. When we properly see and live out this identity as the family of God, we might just find our plates filling up with all the right things.
 See Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979), 43-44.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 21 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can read more from Mike on his blog.