14 June 2015

Living Stones

1 Peter 2:1-10

Third Sunday after Pentecost/ 14th June 2015

“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…” (1 Pet. 2:4-5).  This is such a rich text, full of vivid images.  But it’s these two words, “living stones,” which, I think are particularly striking.

Jesus as cornerstone, we get that.  Jesus as chief cornerstone, that makes sense.  But what does it mean to say that Jesus is a “living stone”?  And, more, what does Peter mean when he refers to us as “living stones?”  It’s rich, poetic.  But what does it really mean?

The Greek text doesn’t really help us; it only complicates matters. The Greek reads: lithoi zontes.  Lithoi, plural of lithon, meaning “stone.”  Zontes means “living,” from the Greek zoe, meaning “life.”  Not just any kind of life, however.  There are two words for “life” in Greek:  bios and zoe.  Bios refers to natural life; zoe means life that is creative, productive.  Bios means simply existing; zoe means thriving.  So what does it means to say that we are thriving stones?  This is why it’s such a provocative image.  If you think about it, what could be more lifeless than a stone? Yet, the image Peter offers us is full of life and purpose.  That’s the tension here.

 Living stones. That was the theme chosen by the Church of Scotland for this year’s General Assembly, which took place in Edinburgh in mid-May. I was the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ecumenical delegate to the Assembly this year.  It was an honor, a privilege, and a joy to represent the PC(USA) in the Mother Kirk. (I will give a report after worship on Sunday, June 28.)  There were sermons preached on this text, reflections offered. But I don’t think I heard anyone dwell on the apparent contradiction embedded in this image.

As I reflected on this text and my experience over the last couple of weeks away, it struck me that I was surrounded by a lot of stone.  If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh you know that it’s a city of stone—stone cobbles in the streets of both the Old and New Towns, all kinds of stone used for building homes and churches and castles and fortresses and palaces–stone on top of very old stone, basalt, millions of years old.  All over Scotland, for centuries, the primary material used for building was stone.  In St. Andrews, you have the stone ruins of the old cathedral.  In the glens of Scotland you find the remains of cottages built of stone, three hundred years old or more.  There are stone walls dividing fields.  Stone everywhere.  I attended a seminar in Athens for part of my time away—there you have even older buildings made of stone.  The stone of the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, the remains of stone temples in Eleusis, temples built to other gods, former gods.  Temples built of marble.  Marble, from the Greek, marmaron, means “shining stone.”

Throughout Scotland you will find piles of stones at the top of the highest mountain peaks.  These stone piles are called cairns.  Originally, a cairn was a memorial to the dead.  When the Scots prepared for battle each warrior picked up a stone and added it to the pile.  When the battle was over, if you survived, you chose a stone and removed it from the pile.  The remaining stones became a memorial to those that died in battle.  Near where I grew up, in Kearny, New Jersey, a Scottish immigrant community, there is a modern-day cairn, built as a memorial for the Scots that left for America and for the Scots that left Kearny. These are stones that represent the living and the dead.  Memorial cairns are found all over the world, especially on the top of countless mountains.

 But Peter is not talking about “memorials” here.  He’s talking about something else.  Not dead stones, but living stones.  To state the obvious, stones are not alive. Technically speaking, they’re not even dead, because death implies they were once living and breathing.  They’re cold.  They’re lifeless.  Why use such a metaphor to describe the Church, to describe followers of Christ?

There are plenty of cold Christians.  There are plenty of cold churches.  There are plenty of lifeless Christians. There are plenty of lifeless churches.  It’s true.  But Peter wants us to know that that’s not who we really are. It’s not who we’re supposed to be.  We are something else. We are meant to be alive! 

 “There is a famous story from Sparta, in ancient Greece.  A Spartan king boasted to a visiting monarch about the walls of Sparta. The visiting monarch looked around and could see no walls.  He said to the Spartan king, ‘Where are these walls about which you boast so much?’  His host pointed to his bodyguard of magnificent troops.  'These,' he said, 'are the walls of Sparta, every man a brick,'" every man a stone.[1]

So, too, the Church.  You are the stones of Christ!

There are churches made of brick and stone all over the world.  You will find ruins to ancient temples and churches all over the Middle East and Europe.  It’s easy for Christians to boast about their churches and temples and buildings.  But to put our attention there is to completely miss the message of the gospel.

Jesus is the cornerstone, a living stone.  To be a follower of him, to be baptized in his name, means that we, too, share in the life of that “stone,” which means that we, too, become “living stones” like him.  We come to see that we share in the same life of Christ.  And when we share in his life God will use us and do something amazing with us.  

Living stones:  flesh and blood and spirit, being used by God, for God’s glory.  That’s who we are. God is trying to build something with us and we are asked to submit, to yield, allow ourselves to be used for the sake of God’s glory, so that we can be added, stone by stone, to what God is trying to build in the world today.  Not a physical temple, but a spiritual temple, a community of people.

A temple is the place where God dwells.  Every god/God needs a place to dwell.  Every god/God needs a temple.  The God of Israel had a temple in Jerusalem, but then God did something very new and different. God decided to dwell not in a temple made of stone, but one made of flesh and blood and spirit, in Jesus Christ. And we discover that God is still doing something similar in us.  We discover that God really wants to dwell in our hearts and minds and bodies and spirits. We realize that we are the dwelling place of the Most High.  We are being formed and reformed into the dwelling place of God. This, too, is part of the good news!

It is incumbent upon the church, every single one of us to remember who we are and what we are and what we’re called to do.  God is trying to build something good and beautiful and redemptive and holy with us.  God is building something good and beautiful and redemptive and holy through us.  God is building something good and beautiful and redemptive and holy for us—and not for us alone, but for the world.  This, too, is what it means to be a “chosen” race and a royal priesthood.  Israel was/is God’s chosen, not because they were better than every other group, but because God chose that particular people to serve the world. 

The same goes for us. This is the work we’re called to share in.

One of the pillars of the church that helped form me was James Loebell.  He loved this text from 1 Peter. It must have been one of his favorite verses because he was always reminding us to remember who we are. “Don’t you know who you are?” he would say.  “You 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” (1 Pet. 2:9).  You are a royal priesthood.  And what does a priest do?  A priest mediates the grace of God.  A priest is the conduit of God’s grace.  That’s what we are called to do.  That’s who we are.

Do you know who you are?  Do we, as the church, know who we are?  These are timely questions as we consider how the Envision Fund will deepen and expand the ministry of this church, as we consider what God is calling us to do and be.  Do we realize that God is at work here in us, doing something in us?  

We are being called to something infinitely greater than ourselves. We are each a single “stone”; however, stone after stone after stone is being gathered together to form something new—a dwelling place for God, a temple, in you and me and all of us together.  Amazing.  Simply amazing!

[1] Told by William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 195-196.

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