FIRST LESSON John 14:1-14 (p. 1675)
SECOND LESSON I Peter 2:2-10 (p. 1888)
SERMON: “The Living Stone and a Chosen People”
One of my favorite theologians and cartoonists was Charles Schultz, the artist who gave us the wonderful Peanuts cartoons. In one of my favorite cartoons, Lucy comes storming into the room and demands that Linus change TV channels and then threatens him with her fist if he doesn’t.
“What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus.
“These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they are nothing, but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”
“Which channel do you want?” asks Linus.
After a moment, he turns away, looks at his own fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Peter was writing some Christians who were facing slander and persecution. They were Christians in dispersion – exile. It letter intended to be passed from group to group to fortify these Christians and enable them to remain steadfast in their commitment to Christ. Peter wrote, “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people.” Pet encouraged them to stick together, united by their Christian faith.
It is important to consider this passage in light of the Old Testament concept of the Covenant. God promised Abraham that he would have descendants more numerous than the stars. In their old age Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes, was renamed Israel after wrestling with God. God promised the children of Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. God would bless the Israelites if they kept the Law and were faithful to God. In Christ we have the new Covenant, forgiveness of sin on the strength of Christ’s sacrificial death and the promise of eternal life grounded in his resurrection. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
These Christians knew what Peter was talking about. Once they had been no people, mere units in a collection of nations that could be classified as heathen. Among them were small pockets of Jews. They understood, also they had been proudly and falsely self-sufficient, but now they had become the recipients of God’s mercy.
If Peter had read Peanuts cartoons, he might well have employed the image of the people holding together, unified and so strengthened as fingers hold together to make a fist. Instead he used the building metaphor of Christ as the Cornerstone and the people as living stones.
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
In our day and age, unless you’re a stone mason, you probably don’t think much about cornerstones because most of our houses don’t have a cornerstone. We have poured concrete foundations, and studded walls. But in first century Israel the primary building material, or at least their foundation material, was stone. And the most important stone in the whole house was the cornerstone, the first stone to be laid in construction. It became the foundation upon which all the other stones were set. The cornerstone had to be the perfect stone and set just so because if it was off, even a little bit, the whole building was off. Those who are in construction know how frustrating it can be when a foundation is not plumb.
Peter tells us Jesus Christ is the stone that was rejected. He was rejected by the Jews. He was rejected by the Romans. When Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself, even his own Father rejected him, at least for a little while. But because he himself was sinless, because God’s plan was to redeem us by his sacrifice, God raised Jesus up and placed him as the Cornerstone. He is the foundation, there is no other foundation upon which we can build the church. Any other foundation would be flawed.
Christian believers are every part of the building except the Cornerstone – not as dead bones or cremains, but living stones.
There are some people making big trouble for the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Bath, England. They aren’t current members but those from centuries past. The people causing problems aren’t deadbeats in the pews but the dead bodies in the basement. And they’re threatening to upset the church in a quite literal way. The church, commonly known as Bath Abbey, is an Anglican parish, founded as a monastery in the seventh century. The current building is a Gothic cathedral more than 500 years old, but it sits on the remains of a massive Norman cathedral that predated it.
The problem is that, over the centuries, an estimated 6,000 people have been buried just below the stone flooring of the church. Over time, as those bodies were reduced to bones and as the graves settled, holes opened up beneath the floor, threatening the very stability of the building. Today, the likelihood that the floors could collapse beneath the feet of someone about to recite the Lord’s Prayer on any given Sunday morning is very real and unsettling.
An extensive project is now underway to stabilize the edifice, involving digging out much of what soil and disturbed human remains are under the floor, filling the empty spaces with grouting and then putting the earth, the human bones, bits of coffin handles and inscribed plaques, etc., back under the floor, and saying a prayer over the whole re-interment. Living stones, not dead bodies will build the church and spread the Good News.
And we are not so much God’s person, as God’s people.
Peter says to the people that they are living stones. Literally speaking, we know that stones are not alive, but inanimate objects. But they are essential parts of the building. If you had said to one of those first century Christians, “I’m going to the church,” they would not have understood you meant that you were going to this building. Those first century Christians understood the church, ecclesia – the Greek word from which we get “ecclesiastical” means those who are called out. They understood the church not as walls, floors, ceilings, windows or carpeting, but living and active people. The “chosen” are the people who have answered Christ’s call to faith and service.
Let us be sure to note that we’re talking about living stones, plural, not a living stone. It’s not possible to build a structure with only the cornerstone and one other stone. To use Peter’s language from this passage, we’re not God’s own person, but God’s own people. In fact, except when speaking of the Cornerstone that is Christ, all of the other metaphors in these verses are in their plural form. As commentator Lewis R. Donelson says it, “Holiness is not any individual’s own possession; it exists when someone loves another. The kind of holiness that comes from the ‘living stone’ exists only in community.” A Christian hermit makes no sense.
Of course, this is where we run into trouble. The trouble with churches isn’t the foundation – it’s the multitude of flaws in the many building blocks. But if we were all as perfect as the Lord, we wouldn’t need forgiveness; we wouldn’t need a Savior. The church will always be a flawed institution because it will always be made of broken people. This human brokenness tends to drive some people away. But trying to live faithfully without the church has its limitations.
There is something vital missing when anyone tries to be a Christian without being part of a Christian community. Yes, we know people can worship God out in the woods by themselves. Yes, you can read and study the scriptures on your own – although that can get you into theological trouble. But Christian faith is ultimately lived out in community, community which finds its unifying strength in the Good News of redemption and salvation through Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Savior.
I read this week about a painter of landscape scenes who always kept in front of him on his easel a number of precious stones-emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. When he was asked why, he said, “To help me keep my colors true. In course of time, without some constant reference, my eye might lose its perception of color tones, and the colors I choose may not be right, may not be what they once were.” One of the “Great Ends of the Church, as laid out in our Book of Order is “the preservation of the Truth.” Some of us work at theology and teach basic Christian doctrine to keep us from sliding too far down slippery slopes.
Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone, the foundation of the faith we profess. We can be assured that Christ will never fail us, never mess up, never forsake us, never give up, give in, or give out. We never have to apologize for Jesus, forgive Jesus, nor make excuses for Jesus. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord.
As long as we get as organized as Lucy’s fingers, stick together and build on the foundation of Christ the Lord, as long as we are not dead bones, but living stones, we will be God’s faithful people and builders of God’s church.