(Based upon a sermon first preached at Ingatestone United Reformed Church, Essex, May 22nd 2011)
“Come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also [are] like living stones.” (2:4, 5) Stones – chosen and precious, yet living; what a surprising image. I don’t mean the idea of precious stones. We all have images that come to mind when we hear the phrase, ‘precious stone’. As Marilyn Monroe puts it, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
“The French are glad to die for love.
They delight in fighting duels.
But I prefer a man who lives
And gives expensive jewels.
A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Stones, however, whether precious or otherwise, are not ‘living’. Many of our sayings that feature stones emphasise lack of life: stony silence, drop like a stone, stone-cold sober, ideas that fall on stony ground. This first letter of Peter, however, written to encourage a congregation in its Christian faith, speaks of living stones. It speaks of Jesus as a living stone. It speaks of his followers as living stones. The image of stones used in this scripture is not of pebbles you find on the beach or stones you view in a jewelry shop. The stones in this picture are the stonework that builds up and holds together a great building.
In Jesus’s day, the great building built with fine stones was the Jerusalem temple. It was the place where people flocked in order to ‘do business’ with God through prayer and sacrifices. This was overseen by cohorts of priests, helping people to connect with God and God with them. The temple was seen as the place where God was present in a special way, where God dwelt so to speak; God’s house: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122: 1)
When Jesus was in Jerusalem, visiting the Temple in the days just prior to his crucifixion, death and resurrection, the disciples draw his attention to the Temple building: “Look Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13: 1) Only a remnant of that Temple stonework remains today. As Jesus indicated in his reply to the disciples on that occasion, they would come crashing to the ground, and they did so in AD70 when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem.
The original recipients of this letter would have got that allusion to the temple stones. Whether or not the temple was still standing when the letter was written, they were being encouraged to see in Jesus the original purpose of the temple fulfilled, not just for Jerusalem, not just for the Jewish people, not just for their Samaritan cousins but for all the peoples of the world. Jesus, we hear is the living Stone and we also are living stones; living stones “being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (2: 5) So what does it mean for Jesus to be the living Stone today and what does it mean for us to be living stones being built into a spiritual house?
“See”, says the prophet Isaiah, quoted in Peter’s letter as a reference to Jesus, “I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28: 16 / 1 Peter 2: 6) (Incidentally, Isaiah’s call to the prophetic task came to him when worshipping in the temple.) As a living stone, Jesus represents all that the temple was intended to achieve. He provides a way for people to meet with God and be reconciled to God.
In the Jerusalem temple this was achieved through people going on a journey, a pilgrimage, and then offering a sacrifice. Think for example, of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, going up to the temple to sacrifice in order to give thanks to God for the birth of a child. Think of the small industry of money-changing and animal sales this generated, to the point that Jesus drove moneychangers from the temple because trade had become the central concern, rather than providing people with the means of making connect with God.
Now, we are told in Peter’s letter, Jesus is available to us as the means to make our connection with God. Instead of going to a temple we come to a person when we need to meet with God. As one hymn writer puts it, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” As Christians our focus is always on Jesus. All that effort that once went into the building of a temple with great stones can now be directed towards Jesus, who is described as the cornerstone of a new, spiritual building. All our learning about Jesus through the Bible stories, all our pondering on the stories Jesus told, all our emotional response to his death and resurrection, all our practical response through trying to love our neighbour, as instructed by Jesus; these things are our equivalent of the love lavished on the Jerusalem temple as a means, a way to being a people who are in a right relationship with God.
So, what about ourselves? Jesus, as this letter puts it, is a living stone, chosen and precious to God. Additionally, we learn “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house”. What sort of house are we supposed to be? When people think of church, believers and non-believers alike tend to think of the church building. Now, I love this church building. It is an elegant worship space, not over-ornate, but well-maintained (at some effort) and a very useful space both for worship and other activities. Church buildings, made of bricks, mortar, and fine stone, provide a visible presence, a reminder to one and all there have been and are a people concerned with following Jesus.
The physical building is not what the Bible is on about today. After all, the lesson is about Jesus as alternative to a physical building (the temple) and about us being built into a spiritual house, not a bricks and mortar one. The ancient word ‘ekklesia’, which is often translated as ‘church’ was a word that simply meant ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’; any group, sacred or secular that assembled or congregated together was an ‘ekklesia’. What mattered both then and now is the purpose for the gathering and what is done when people gather. What matters, in other words, is to be a Jesus people; what matters is to be a worshipping people; what matter is to be a sharing and welcoming people.
We are a Jesus people. We are an ekklesia, because God chose to meet with us in his Son Jesus. Take away Jesus from a Christian ekklesia and the whole structure comes tumbling down. If you take Jesus out of the Church, there is no hope because you take away the cross which is the means of our salvation. If you take Jesus out of the Church there is no Church because it was Jesus in the first place who gathered the makings of the first Christian Church around him, a group called the disciples. If you take Jesus out of the Church what remains is a completely different being because there is no longer a command to love one another, and there is no longer his call to love your neighbour as you love yourself. If we are ever tempted to have a church that functions simply as a social gathering, that forgets about Jesus, then the whole spiritual structure comes crashing down upon our ears. We will have removed cornerstone that sustains the spiritual structure. We are and must remain a Jesus people.
We are a Jesus people and we are a worshipping people. In verse nine we are urged to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We don’t worship simply because we see ourselves as a replacement for the temple. We worship because we want to respond appropriately to a loving God who, seeing the mess we make of life, responds with love, sending Jesus to us to call us and lead us out of lives of darkness into lives lived as God intends them to be. Our worship is a part of that. It is the appropriate response of creatures to their Creator. It is the right way to respond to God who has given us the precious gift of life and who holds out to us the prospect of eternal life. We are a Jesus people, and because we are a Jesus people, we gather to worship God.
We are a Jesus people. We are a people which gathers to worship God who has given us life. We are also, if we are a spiritual house, a welcoming and sharing people. What could be more natural? You receive a piece of good news, so you wish to share it with others. Those getting married send out invitations. Parents of the newborn are on the phone letting people know what time he arrived, what weight she was at birth, and what name they have foisted upon the child. Or someone gives you a huge box of chocolates and it’s only natural to share them around (though I struggle with that as far as the strawberry crèmes are concerned). As Peter puts it, “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.” (2: 10) What could, should be more natural than to share that with others? As God has welcomed us so we seek to be welcoming to others. As God has shared his Son with us so we seek to share what we have with others, in both spiritual and material ways.
So, we are reminded that Jesus, the living Stone, the cornerstone is foundational to all that we are as a Church. As a Church, an ekklesia, a gathering, an assembly, we are a Jesus people, a worshipping people, and a welcoming, sharing people. We welcome others because God has made us welcome. We share with others because God has shared Jesus with us. We are called to be living stones, showing in our lives that we are followers of Jesus Christ, the living stone who holds everything together, for us and for the world.