Living stones

Reflections on 1 Peter 2:2-10 (edited version of sermon on 14th May 2017

It seems appropriate to pick up the theme of stones that runs through three of the readings today, and in particular the image of the cornerstone. This year celebrates 150 years since this beautiful church was completed – constructed 1865-1867.

In ancient building practices, the cornerstone was the principal stone placed at the corner of the edifice. The cornerstone was usually one of the largest, the most solid, and the most carefully constructed of any in the edifice. Jesus was described as the cornerstone that the church would be built upon, a unified body of believers, made up of Jew and Gentile.

And the church would be like ‘living stones’, each one lining up with the cornerstone. The early Christian community was described as the ‘spiritual house’ or the “household of God” (2:5), not describing a building but the people themselves. The brilliant Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, has explored Paul’s writings where he is convinced that the new temple of God is not a building but is the human person. Richard Rohr speaks more about this insight here.

After the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70CE, Jews and Christians were thrown into a state of profound crisis and disorientation. 
The temple had been the centre of Jewish life – the ‘house of God’, where God was present. 
The solid form of the temple gave way to new understandings – that God was present in the people, that they were like ‘living’ stones building something very new.

Bill Loader, reflecting on this text, says: ‘The stone imagery invites us to see ourselves as stones and then to see ourselves together as not a random pile of rocks or stones strewn across the landscape of interim territory, but as stones belonging to a structure built on Christ. It is a wonderful image of belonging. It invites us to our own imaginings and reflections: stones are old, young, brittle, strong, shiny; fractured, solid, large, small, differently shaped and oriented – there’s room for everyone. The image expands to include not only belonging in a building, but also belonging in creating a space for celebrating the presence of God. People together are sacred places and spaces, temples not made with hands. Though the traditional dwelling place of God is gone, a new house has in fact arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.

So the church came to be defined not as the building in which we meet but as the building we have become, the building we make together. Together, in our company, we make the space where people engage holiness and sense the presence of God.

“Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”. The word ‘priest’ comes from a Latin word that means ‘bridge-builder’. The priest is a bridge: priests form a bridge for God to come to the people and for the people to come to God. So the priesthood of all believers takes on a bridge building role in the community as a mission-shaped church.

Something happens in the establishment of a physical grand edifice that can change the location of the household of God away from the people to the building. The building itself is described as offering sacred space, and then the role of the people is described as ‘going to church’. Can you see how this changes the dynamic entirely? The building is a static object, predictable, solid, strong. When we gather here in the shelter and safety of this building, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who have walked these floorboards as we do, it is for the purpose of worship, enjoying Christian fellowship, offering hospitality, sharing stories of faith and our experience of God, being nurtured in the way of faith. But then we are sent out again, to join in with what God is doing in the world, to follow the example of Christ in ushering in the reign of God. It is to be the living stones that disperse, and then re-connect, disperse and re-connect. 1 Peter empowers its readers to choose to embody the place of God’s presence.

It would be easy to see the particularity of the ‘household of God’ as a retreat from the world, to be a people who live out a kind of purity from the world. But the cornerstone has shown us by example. We read those stories from week to week – Jesus with the tax collectors, and the last and the least. Breaking the purity code in order to bring release of those bound by disease. The Jesus mandate from Luke 4:16-21.

The Book of Acts shows how the early church continued to live and practice these kingdom principles that Jesus initiated. They were guided by a bigger vision – the realm of God. And all their living and actions were shaped by this. 

The early readers of 1 Peter 2:4-5 would have heard something very comforting – as well as unexpected and startlingly new. “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:4-5 NRSV).

It is our life’s calling. May it be so. Amen.