Taking Our Role as Royal Priests

Szabina Sztojka's sermon on the theme of Reconciliation, given on the 19th August in the Scottish Mission in Budapest

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10

Chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation… these words became very important in the reconciliation work in Rwanda, where I had the chance to learn this February at the International School of Reconciliation. The reconciliation work started after the genocide. When, during the holy week of 1994, the conflict between the three groups created by colonizers (called Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa) culminated. The majority Hutu targeted the minority Tutsi population, nearly 1 million people died, and millions became refugees. Neighbors cut up their neighbors with machetes. This happened 24 years ago, but I saw that the wounds of these people are so deep that the genocide still defines their lives. So the reconciliation work is still happening. Being there, I witnessed things that I could never imagine before. I saw God and God’s people in a different and new way. I knew then, I have to share this wherever I go and I could not wait for this moment. Please allow me to tell you something I witnessed there.

As part of the International School of Reconciliation, we went into communities to run workshops. We visited a rural village where the genocide was largest. In our workshops, we had both Hutu and Tutsi participants – victims and perpetrators. There was a moment during our workshop where people shared their pain. They wrote it down on a piece of paper, shared with another person, and prayed together. Participants had a chance to give it to God on the cross by nailing their written pain to the cross. After that, we brought the cross outside, took the papers down and burned them. It was a sacred space; as people were looking at the flames, I looked at them and I felt their pain. Participants were then invited to lay flowers in the ashes for those loved ones they never got the chance to bury. People started to gather and tell stories about their loved ones, how they died or saw them for the last time, and of the children they could not protect. The pain was unbearable, even after 24 years. Then we stood in a circle and prayed for hope in God to trust him that he can bring beauty out of our ashes and pain. I was standing between a victim and a killer; I was holding their hands and praying for them. Some hours later we were inside again, and a man was standing in front of the whole room. The rain was loudly pouring outside, but that was the only sound, because the whole room went silent. The man started speaking. The words he spoke were the truth that everybody has already knew, but it needed to be said. During the genocide, he was a Hutu, killed so many people in this village. “I have asked for forgiveness from many but there is someone here, a woman, and I killed all her family, nine people,” he said. “I am asking for your forgiveness. I did awful things. Because of me you are alone, you have no one, and you lost everybody. I am begging you to forgive me.” The lady stood up and shared that she indeed lost all of her family because of this man. She hated all Hutu, they destroyed everything. But this day, because of God, she could forgive him. She hugged him and he sobbed on her shoulder. Chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation…Peter wrote his letter to Gentile Christian scattered around. He wrote them to encourage them as Christians to form internal bonds with each other as one body, as one house of God, so that they could be united even if they felt alone. For that they were offered a new identity. What is this new identity?

Their new identity is this: chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, and God’s special possession. This new identity is for the communities and we receive this new identity so that we might be one. Because God’s desire for us to be one, to be united, as God is unity in himself and it was his intention also for us. We were not one people, but now we are the people of God.

So God calls us a chosen people, according to other translations: chosen race. And I don’t have to talk to you about races, you know more than me about this. God’s heart longs for us to be one, from different races to look at each other as one people, God’s holy nation. Of course, this does not mean we need to leave behind our culture and identity, as Israel and Jesus too kept it, we can too. But we are offered a new and restored identity and we are called for a change. As Peter writes, “But now you are, means once you were not,” this language calls us for conversion and confession at every gathering of the church, again and again. Because many times we don’t act like a chosen people. In Rwanda, Christians killed Christians and pastors gathered people in their churches, so they can be killed. I am pained when I look at my church, its division throughout denomination, its racism: the way they exclude Roma people. It is painful and many times I wonder if I want to serve a church like this. If all these years (7) in seminary worth it.

But I learned something in Rwanda. As I realized that there is a process in the text. We are a chosen people, but to be called a holy nation, united and God’s possession we need to do something. We need to live up to our priestly roles as Christians. What does this mean and what should it look like?

As we study the work of priests in the Old Testament, it can give us understanding of what God expects of all of us under the New Covenant. The most important role of the priest was to go-between. He was the one who would bear the sins of the people before God, representing them. The priest stood in for his nation. The priest had a role of mediation between God and the nation. The priest was to offer sacrifices. As part of the royal priesthood today, we are mediators between God and nations. We are mediators between people groups and nations, so we might be one. We need to stand in the gap for our people, so people might be reconciled with each other. Why? Because the greatest wounds against mankind are not committed by individuals, but by corporate bodies – churches, ethnic groups, cultures – and we tend to excuse ourselves from taking personal responsibility. We need to realize our responsibility, because even in our individualistic culture we are part of people groups.

I realized that too. You know that my ethnicity is Roma. We have ethnic conflict in our country but since I am Christian I have never though I need to forgive something to the Hungarian majority. In Rwanda, in the first few days we also participated in the workshop. My mentor and previous manager was there too. She went and kneeled in front of the room when it was time. She started speaking saying, “I am asking for forgiveness in the name of all Hungarian for everything they did to Roma people. The way we rejected you, mocked you in school, excluded you, made you second class citizens and made you think that you are a curse”. I was like why is this woman apologizing she always accepted me. But then I started sobbing… the Holy Spirit brought up hidden memories in me that I never forgave. I went to her hug her and with the tears forgiveness came. And I didn’t even know I had to forgive for the Hungarian people the way they treated my or my family.

It is hard to find the way towards this responsibility. But I have heard how people try here. And all of we try here is very good and needed. But I have seen the power of sincere repentance and confession. Sometimes it takes to say: I am sorry for what happened to your people and what is happening today. I am sorry for what my people did to yours.

I don’t know how it would happen here. Please help me… Maybe it something like saying:

I am so sorry that we, Hungarians, do not appreciate your cultures and we think better of ourselves. I am so sorry that we see only see the color of your skin, and assume things. I am honestly sorry and it breaks my heart that my people are afraid of black people. In the name of Hungarians I am so sorry that we called you migrant and taught our children to be afraid of you. I am so sorry that we made you feel like that you do not have a right to live here. In the name of my Roma people I am sorry that we mocked you or took anything from you.

This is the best start for reconciliation. It helps us to repent, get rid of the guilt. It heals the other.

Our darkness, that Peter writes, is division, is disunity. But we are called out from it and called to be one people of God. Believers who are God’s hope for healing the nations. Confession must come from the depths of our heart. Identifying with the wrongdoings of our forefathers and with our people must lead to different action.  God’s plan is that God’s people adopt this way of life and become priestly reconcilers to hurting people. We need to start here, in our community. We are all part of the royal priesthood, we are called to be mediators. My question for you: Are you ready?

Szabina Sztojka 

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We encourage you to read our  former GM intern Kearstin Bailey's blog about her time, spent in Hungary.