The Living Stone and a Chosen People
“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – 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. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his [marvelous] light. 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.”
How many of you recognize parts of this passage? “The Stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” We might also notice that this image of stones is familiar to us from many Bible stories. We might recall the stone that Jacob used as a pillow on his journey. John the Baptist proclaimed: “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9b) Jesus intercedes to save a woman’s life and says to her accusers: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) When the Pharisees challenge Jesus to quiet the crowd on the Palm Sunday Road, he tells them: “If they kept quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 17:40) The resurrection miracle is only revealed when the stone is rolled away. Today we see this image attached to Jesus and to his followers, and the image takes on life – “living stones”. I want us to think about this image of “living stones” today and what it might mean for our faith journey.
The translation I read earlier is from the New International Version. I want us to listen again to verses 4-5 and compare the image to the NRSV translation.
(NIV) “4As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him 5you 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.”
(NRSV) “4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like 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.”
Do you notice the difference in the way these two versions are worded? In the first, it sounds as if becoming a spiritual house is a passive act – “you are being built…” The NRSV makes it sound much more active – “Let yourselves be built.” This sounds more like a conscious choice by the believer to allow God to work in your life. I think that is a significant thing to think about in this passage. I also think it is important that we draw a distinction between “let yourself be built into a spiritual house” and builda spiritual house. If we were to go about building a spiritual house, we might think about capital campaigns and new buildings and carpet colors and stained glass. But, the “building” that Peter talks about is not something that we do. “Let yourselves be built” is something that Jesus Christ is doing and is not dependent on what the church building looks like. This building is not measured in bricks or acres or real estate appraisals. It’s not about the number of people sitting in the pews; it is about the faithfulness of the people sitting in the pews.
I think that part of the problem for us, is listening to Peter’s words with our 21st Century ears. The idea of a “holy priesthood” doesn’t really connect with our view of being a Christian today. Spiritual sacrifices are discussed in comparison with a culture of animal sacrifices we do not understand. We need to find a way to connect the idea of “spiritual buildings” to being a Christian in our culture. What seems to concern Christians today is carving out a meaningful role as a follower of Christ. Expressing a Christian identity can often be an alienating proclamation. There is so much division and misunderstanding and outright false teaching running around masquerading as “Christian”. Can you really claim to be a Christian without being one of those Christians? Can you claim to be a follower of Jesus without opening up stereotypical jokes and inappropriate images associated with so many in organized religions?
There have been countless studies done, books written, and gimmicks tried to address the issue of the decline of church in America. I have a book called, “So you don’t want to go to church anymore,” that deals with coming to a deep understanding of what really matters in our journey of faith. The book surprises you with its insight and cuts to the heart of why so many people are moving away from church, but not from Christ. I have another book called, “The Gospel According to Jesus,” that challenges us to re-read Scripture with a fuller understanding of what Jesus actually taught us during his life. And I have another called, “Meeting Jesus Again, For the First Time” that invites us to get to know Jesus for ourselves, as he is truly revealed in the Bible rather than how so many people tend to “reveal” him. My point is that a lot of very smart people seem to think that we – the church – have lost sight of who we – the followers of Christ – really are. When the church becomes disconnected from Jesus, we have no hope of connecting Jesus to people.
KTUL-TV recently did a story on why young people are disconnected from church and what might bring them back. It should come as no surprise that people, particularly younger people, leave the church because it no longer speaks to them in a meaningful way about things that matter to them. Church is often about rules and regulations, committee meetings, and unwelcoming cliques. Jesus was about helping, nurturing, feeding, healing, and loving.
Letting ourselves be built into spiritual houses is about releasing our grip on those things that hold us back from running into that marvelous light. At the very beginning of our reading this morning Peter says: “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” This is a way of clearing away those things that hinder the building of our spiritual foundation. Then he describes us as infants who need pure, spiritual milk in order to grow into our salvation. And then he talks about us as living stones allowing God to make of us what he will. All of these images are about life and growth and the excitement of being born into something new. That is what the church is supposed to be: about life and growth and excitement. Do we want a pile of rocks or living stones?
Professor Barbara Lundblad invites us to think about this: “When we let ourselves be built into a spiritual house by the presence of the living Christ, the results may not be very impressive. Some of these living stones are well educated; others have not finished high school. Two people saying ‘peace be with you,’ to each other may not have spoken since the contentious church council meeting. A baby keeps crying during the quietest parts of the sermon, and you can hear several people saying, ‘Pastor, this is why we need a policy: no children under five in worship.’” (Feasting on the Word, Y-A,V-2, P 463) Young people in the church, when they are here, may be more interested in texting than listening to another sermon that has nothing to say to them. Some people in church may look at others and think they should dress better, or be more attentive, or show up on time instead of ten minutes late. The living stones that make up the church are not perfectly shaped or smooth around the edges. And yet, all these living stones are assured that they are now God’s own people.
I believe that is important for us to notice…After Peter paints this picture of Jesus’ followers as living stones, he tells us that we – the church, the followers of Christ: “Are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Maybe that is why people leave the church or simply stay away; maybe that is why young people are not as interested in church: We are called to proclaim the Jesus who is about helping, nurturing, feeding, healing, and loving. But we are often heard proclaiming our own deeds and our own desires and our own agendas.
God’s own people – US – the living stones – live in the real world and the real world is in peril. We cannot afford to let anything get in the way of our proclaiming the mighty acts of Jesus who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. This proclamation is often very different from what young people see when they look at the church. Too often they do not see living stones, with all their imperfections, doing the work of Jesus in the real world…Too often they see a pile of rocks hidden behind stained glass windows trying desperately to stand in the face of a culture that wants something more from the “Jesus People”.
“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God,” Peter wrote. All my life I have heard the term “Chosen People” and been taught how that applied to the Israelites of the Old Testament. Today I think we hear Peter telling us that anyone and everyone who accepts the call to run from the darkness of sin into the marvelous light of redemption becomes one of God’s chosen. Today, God’s own people – US – the living stones – are empowered through Jesus Christ to sing, to protest, to dance, to pray, and to cry out. No stereotype can define us; no ridicule can stop us; no shallow expression of faith can represent us. Christ is risen and that is enough to sustain us. It is enough to turn us into living stones being built into spiritual houses. It is enough to take us from where we are to where God wants us to be. It is enough to support and empower us to be God’s church in the world and to lead more people into the marvelous light. Building with living stones means that God often has to work with irregular shapes and sizes. We should notice that this letter was written by Peter – “the Rock” – a stone marked by many flaws. As God works with us – living stones marked with many flaws – we must also recognize and accept the flawed living stones with whom we live and worship. I would much rather be a flawed living stone than be sitting on a dead pile of rocks. How about you? In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.