Sunday 10 May 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
This Sunday we are in the second week of a four-week series on the Epistle of First Peter. Last week, we talked about 1 Peter’s call to endurance, to the ways that God’s grace changes underserved suffering into to something inspiring and transformational. This week we will talk about how God works to construct Christian community.
First Peter is a letter written by the apostle Peter or by someone else in his name and addressed to remote Christian communities in what we now call Turkey, but was then part of the Greek-speaking, eastern half of the Roman Empire. These Christian communities feel themselves to be under some kind of threat. They have a bit of a siege mentality. There is a cost to pay for their faith in Jesus. They have in some ways alienated themselves from the world around them. They have marked themselves out as strange, peculiar. It is to this church-under-siege that 1 Peter is addressed.
In the passage we read this morning, the author provides a new twist on a familiar image from the Hebrew Bible, the image of a stone or rock. Stone symbolizes strength, sturdiness, unshakability. The sturdiness of a stone represents a sure foundation. This image gets used throughout our tradition. The wise man built his house upon a rock. A solid rock that cannot be moved.
Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures had shared stories about a foundation stone being present at the beginning of the universe. In these stories, the first act of creation was to set a stone that would be the center of the universe and the base upon which everything else was built. The foundation stone was set as a cap over the chaos of the waters of the deep.
First Peter references this understanding of creation as it is found in Isaiah 28:16. “Thus says the Lord God, Look! I’m laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a valuable cornerstone, a sure foundation: the one who trusts won’t tremble.” It’s actually quoted here in 1 Peter 2:6. And the author identifies this foundation stone with Jesus. Jesus serves as the foundation upon which the rest of the universe is built.
This foundation stone can be simultaneously a source of strength and an obstacle on which to stumble. Again, 1 Peter is referencing Isaiah, this time 8:14. “God will become a sanctuary—but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on.” This foundation stone is strong to build on, but it can really get in the way of those who try to work against it. As Psalm 118:22 puts it, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
First Peter references all of these bits of biblical stone imagery, but also creates a rather strange variation to them. Peter describes Jesus as a living stone. A living stone. That’s a pretty tough image to get one’s head around. A stone is pretty much always an inanimate object. It’s the very fact that it doesn’t move, it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t speak, that makes it stone-like in the first place.
So what is a living stone? I was surprised to find that there are actually several things that are called living stone. There is an African succulent plant that looks a bit like a stone. LivingStone is also the brand name of a line of acrylic solid surface countertops designed to look like stone. Apparently Palestinian Christians are sometimes referred to as living stones. There’s a filter-feeding, invertebrate sea animal found off the coast of Peru and Chile called a living rock. It looks like a rock filled with organs. Fans of Marvel may remember a character named Korg from Thor: Ragnarok. He describes himself as a pile of rocks, waving at you. “I’m made of rocks, as you can see, but don’t let that intimidate you. You don’t need to be afraid unless you’re made of scissors.”
Referring to Jesus as a living stone establishes him as the foundation of the faith, but it also emphasizes his victory over death. Jesus was not only once alive. He was alive, and then he died, and then he came to life again. To bring a dead body to life is like bringing a stone to life. It works against the commonly understood nature of things.
I find this reference to Jesus as a living stone quite interesting, but it’s not nearly as interesting as what 1 Peter does next. Immediately after calling Jesus a living stone, the writer tells the readers that they are also living stones. That is to say that they have a life that is beyond normal life. They share in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ. Through their connection to Jesus, they too will conquer death.
But 1 Peter draws out the metaphor even further. “You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.” We are not just living stones on their own. We are brought together to build something. The Greek is a little vague. It’s not clear whether these scattered Christians are being built together by an outside force (presumably God) or whether they are building themselves together. In either case, they are coming together to create something, to build something, something that is strong, built on a sure foundation, and will last the test of time.
What is being built is also a little unclear. The translation we read this morning says that it is a spiritual temple. The Greek word is οικος. It gives us both the word ecumenical and the word economy. The most common definition for it is house. It can also mean household, that is, all of the land and people that go into the operation of a large estate. And it is a word that is sometimes used in reference to the temple.
And so these Christians are being built, like living stones, into a spiritual house, a spiritual household, a spiritual temple. Even if there is no physical temple left to worship in, the people themselves become the temple. The people themselves become the priests, the altar, and the sacrifice. The people themselves become the sacrament.
Right now there are a lot of temples standing empty and unused. There are a lot of churches and synagogues and mosques that are essentially vacant. We cannot gather together in the spaces where we usually gather, to sing the songs, to speak the word, to share the meal.
There are five of us here in this sanctuary right now. It seems very empty. It is much different as the set for a video program than it is as a space for communal worship. In a very real sense, this building is not the church right now, because this is not where the people are.
And it is a good reminder to us that church is not and has never been a building. Like the old Sunday school song, the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. Even the most glorious of cathedrals is built from lifeless stones. The church is built of living stones.
It is a good reminder to us that church is not what we do between these four walls. Church is what we do everywhere that we go. Church is the way that we hear the Word of God and also live it out. Church is the way that we ask for forgiveness and the way that we forgive. Church is the way that we share food and fellowship. It is not this building, it is our Christian community. Even if this building, or many others like it, is vacant, that does not mean that there is no church. You and I are the church. We are the church together.
And yet, we must also acknowledge that that is a bittersweet realization. The church is not a building, the church is the people. But the church is supposed to be the people gathered. It is, literally, the congregation, the coming together.
And it’s not just the building that we’re being deprived of right now, is it? No. We’re being deprived of the gathering, of the coming together, of the congregation, of the communion. At least here in Hood River, we are being deprived of even the smallest of gatherings. I can’t even visit you in your home right now.
And we know why that is. And we know that it is the right thing given the current circumstances. But that does not make it any easier.
In some ways we are experiencing something like the early church, because we know that sometimes it was difficult for them to gather. When they experienced persecution, they could not come together openly to worship. Sometimes they met in catacombs, in underground graveyards, because that was the only place that they could find that was safe. Gathering in a place of death to celebrate the transforming power of resurrection life.
And I have to say, sometimes the internet feels like a graveyard. Sometimes Facebook and Zoom seem like catacombs. Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad that we have this digital space to gather. But it certainly lacks the life of actually being together in the same room, doesn’t it? Meeting through a screen is always meeting through a shroud. But right now, it is one of the best places we have to come together. And like the early Christians, we will make the best of what we have as we look forward to a time of more perfect fulfillment.
Whatever the circumstance, whatever the barriers that we may face, we know that God is still drawing us together, across space and distance, as living stones into a spiritual temple. Even when it is hard for us to feel that communion, it is still present and real through the grace of our God. We the people are the church, and God makes us one.
May we make use of all of the means that we have to connect with one another. May we hold one another, and all of God’s children in prayer. May we live out the reality of a living temple, brought together by God. And may we build it all on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ.