I relied quite a bit on the Lectionary commentary from the United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship in writing this sermon!
1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Giving all glory and honour to God.
We have had an opportunity to talk about our identity, who we are as a congregation, with a facilitator this past week, and to think even more about it with the United Church identity survey being done online. The author of the First Letter of Peter is writing a sermon to newly baptized Christians, and this week is telling them about who they are, and who we are, and about their identity as a people. The way First Peter puts it is that we are like living stones, being built into a spiritual house.
I used to be a pretty avid rock collector as a boy. I had igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge now, but when I was in theological college at Queen’s I would go to the geology museum and see rocks and crystals. I can see them here in Ingleside too, just near the bank where Marlene Waldroff’s father displayed some big rocks. And driving through New York State this week I went through some spectacular rock cuts in the Adirondack Mountains.
But these aren’t living rocks like the reading is talking about. This part about stones is actually a pun in the Greek the letter was written in originally. Jesus tells his friend and follower Simon, you are a rock, and on this rock I will build my church. He calls him Peter, from the Greek word for rock. It’s like nicknaming him Rocky. So this letter is like Rocky writing about living rocks.
The letter says, you are coming to God as a living stone. Even though this stone may have been rejected by humans, the way God sees it it is chosen and valuable. Whenever we feel like an outsider, whenever we’re not part of the in crowd, whenever it seems that we don’t belong, whenever we feel pushed aside and that we don’t count because of our beliefs or our appearance or our age or our gender or what town we’re from or anything else about us, this is what we must remember: from God’s perspective we are chosen, and we have value.
The ancient readers of this letter would recognize that the writer is referring to one of the Psalms, which says, the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. They saw this verse as a reference to Jesus, who was betrayed, and rejected, and put to death. Whenever we feel alienated and marginalized, God knows our hurt, our pain, for Jesus knew rejection. Yet he was raised from death to become the cornerstone of a new temple. This would be different from the Temple buildings Jesus and his friends visited in Jerusalem, constructed from physical stones. By the time this letter was written, that Temple was probably gone, because the Roman army crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple. The huge complex that took decades to build was burned and its great stones pulled down. Only part of its stone wall survives in Jerusalem today, the Western Wall where Jews come to pray.
That Temple, the centre of religious life, disappeared. But Jesus is the cornerstone of a new, spiritual temple, one that isn’t built with human hands and earthly materials. The letter tells us, you yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. We are like living stones no less than Jesus, for in his rising from death and our baptism, we have been made alive with him.
We are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple, which is the church – not the church in the sense of the bricks and mortar and plaster and glass around us, but the church as the community of believers, past, present and future. Jesus says, in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and it’s as if the church community of Newington and Ingleside is one room in this spiritual temple.
But we don’t build this spiritual structure. We don’t build the church as community. That’s hard for us to understand, because we, or at least Ontario Hydro, built this physical building with their hands and tools. But we don’t build the spiritual temple, the church: we are being built into it, incorporated into it. This is a really important part, a critical part, of what the author is trying to explain to us. We aren’t the builder. The builder is the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, who is at work always and everywhere. We join in the building, we participate in it, we are swept along and enlivened in and through it. But we don’t make it. God does.
God builds. And God calls. We are being built into this spiritual temple in which God’s Spirit lives, and we are given particular ways to fulfill our calling. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians about another way to describe the church, as the body of Christ, and all of us are members of the body, with different roles, just like feet and hands and eyes. Some of us, Paul says, are ordered ministers. Some teach. Some lead music. Some visit. Some cook. Some fix things. But no one has greater honour or wisdom than anyone else, Paul says. A modern way of putting it is the title of a book I started reading after the conference I went to, called Open Source Church. All of us contribute, all of us are called to leadership, and we all gain when all of us let the Spirit use us to feed ideas and energy into the church.
And this First Letter of Peter says that we are together a holy priesthood. That doesn’t mean we all have to wear shirts with clerical collars. But we are all priests. The writer is thinking of the priesthood in that physical Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times, as the priests sacrificed animals and birds to God. The members of the church, the living stones in this new spiritual temple, are a holy priesthood making spiritual sacrifices to God. Not physical sacrifices of meat and blood. But like those long-ago priests, we hold the world before God for God’s remaking. We hold ourselves and one another before God for God’s transformation. Just as the ancient priesthood had God’s authority, so do we – we have the authority of Jesus Christ, whom the Bible calls the chief high priest. And so we pray for the world, we pray for ourselves, we pray for one another, constantly interceding in prayer. A United Methodist Church author I was reading calls prayer “the unceasing heartbeat” of our participation as priests in God’s mission.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, people who are God’s own possession. That’s what this letter says. And these words cause some of us to kind of jump back in horror. We know how language like ‘chosen race’ has been used to justify slavery and genocide. We know what nations who claim to be holy have done, as they believe they can do no wrong. We know what violence and bloodshed and oppression result from words like these.
But, of course, that’s not at all what the author is preaching. Nor is it what the early believers in Jesus who heard it would hear. For the listeners when this letter was read out, at the end of the first century or so, these Christians in the first church communities, were mostly people with almost no power. These were people who were baptized, not as babies, but only after studying long and hard and taking vows that included pledging never to kill anyone for any reason. These were people who knew what it meant not to be people, who knew what it meant to be on the outside. To be told that the living stones rejected by humans are chosen and valuable to God, that they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that gave them identity, that gave them belonging, that was good news for them, these people who had been powerless and voiceless.
And so this vision of belonging to a people was not the way we would see it today. It didn’t draw on the imperial imagery of the empire in which these listeners lived - and we live - but on the Biblical images of the scattered tribal peoples of Israel, acting as a nation that was a light to the nations, a sign of God’s glory in their weakness. These hearers of the First Letter of Peter were an unlikely nation then, and now, a nation founded on communion with God in Jesus Christ and therefore with one another, a nation based on love of God and neighbour, a nation serving in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, a nation committed to constant lifting up of the world and humanity in prayer.
That was the nation, the people, of the early Christian church to which this letter was written. And it still is. As we process in our minds the meeting we just had, as we answer survey questions about our identity as a community of the United Church of Canada, a part of this spiritual temple, we can ask ourselves: If we are indeed like living stones, how is God building us into a temple of the Spirit? How are we carrying out our holy and royal priesthood? How can we live out the fullest possible vision of being a holy nation, God’s own people, in union with all the Christians who have gone before us in many generations? How are we speaking of God’s wonderful acts, God who called us into the light of the risen Christ? What emerges from the stories that we tell as living stones? These are questions for us as we sift through all that we have talked about in the last few days.
At the conference I was at, there was a session on science fiction and faith, and people talked about how the Christian story is reflected in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and other movies and TV shows and books and comics. I said that I was probably one of the few people there old enough to remember the first Star Trek TV series, and two things made it important for me: the stories, and the community it depicted. Star Trek was one of the few shows in the 1960s that had a black woman, and an Asian man, and a Russian, all working and living together. It modeled what a community should be like.
And so, sisters and brothers, as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, we try our best to lead Christ-like lives and model what a community - a community of love, a community of faith, a community of belonging, a community of welcome, a church - should be like, as we pray, as we care, as we act, as we tell the Christian story through our stories. And as our reading from the Good News According to John tells us, in believing in Jesus and following his way, we know and live truth, the very truth of God, and we will do the works that Jesus did, and even greater works for love and justice and peace. As the captain on Star Trek: The Next Generation used to say, make it so. Amen.