1 Peter 2: 2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
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. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But 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.Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
We all know the story of the 3 Little Pigs. The 3 little pigs all build their own houses- one with straw, one with sticks, and one with brick. The wolf comes along and blows the first house down, no problem, and eats the first pig. He then comes to the house of sticks and huffs and puffs and blows that house down, and eats the second pig. Then he comes to the house of bricks, and no matter how hard the wolf tries, he cannot blow that house down. So he tries to come down the chimney where the 3rd pig has a boiling pot of water ready for the wolf when he comes- and in the end, the 3rd pig survives and the wolf boils to death. Just think- we tell this story to our children- it’s kind of a disturbing story, isn’t it? But it’s clear to all who know the story that the house of bricks survived because it was strong and sturdy, and the 3rd little pig was able to outsmart the wolf because he knew what material to use. He also was the one who took the time to think, plan, and used his resources wisely when building his home. He was hardworking and not lazy like his brothers who just used the first and easiest thing they could find. The moral is clear: when we use our gifts and resources to the best of our abilities, when we lay our foundation with sturdy material, we lead lives that are strong and fruitful.
In today’s text, the message for us to hear is that we are to lay our foundation in Christ as the cornerstone, as our foundation, and then to become living stones ourselves so that we may build spiritual houses. With Christ as our foundation, we are to build houses not of straw or sticks, but houses of living stones. A few weeks ago, we talked about Christ being present in that strange stone in the story of Exodus when Moses strikes the rock and water comes out. Paul writes much much later that this stone was, in fact, Christ. And today, this image appears to us again in this context. In the ancient world, stones were a common building material. When Corey and I went to the Holy Land, there was stone everywhere we looked. Excavations that were taking place appeared as stones stacked on top of more stones. The temple mount was all stone. We saw piles of stone that would take hundreds of people or very heavy machinery to move.
I thought of when Jesus walked in front of the temple and told his disciples that not one stone would be left on top of the other. When I saw a pile of stones near one of the temple walls, I could envision this devastation that the disciples witnessed for themselves. Stone was a vital building material- sturdy and common- something that made walls and sacred spaces, homes for families, a sense of security. For the Jewish people, it was a stone that God used to lay the foundation of the world, and it was this same stone that held the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to have dwelled with the people. Many believe today that this stone, the Foundation Stone, is located at the Dome of the Rock toward the center of the Temple Mount. Jews today consider this the holiest site in Judaism and pray toward the Foundation Stone from all over the world. Islam also finds significance in the foundation stone as the site of the Holy of Holies, and where Mohammad possibly ascended to heaven. This is why they built the famous Dome of the Rock over it. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have had tensions for hundreds of years over this site…over this stone….the Foundation Stone.
So it is no wonder that the author of 1 Peter uses this image of a stone to encourage this early Christian community to bind together and come to Jesus as their Cornerstone so that they may gather the strength to become living stones, and with these living stones, to build spiritual houses. For us to be living stones means that we stand together to become something bigger than ourselves. For us to be living stones means at its simplest meaning, that we are living- alive- and not dead! For us to be living stones means that we don’t just sit by and be complacent and unmoving! A typical stone if we were to look at it, just sits there and doesn’t do anything unless we pick it up and move it, or if it is a large stone, we ourselves move it and put it to use as part of a bigger whole to construct a house or something else strong and useful. If we in the church are to be living stones, gaining our strength from Christ as our Cornerstone, then we are to be constantly growing and changing- not sitting by and doing nothing. If we in the church are to be living stones, we must not stand alone, but gather strength from Christ and then each other so that we build a community- that we build a spiritual house that will not fall. After all, community is the primary channel of faith. It takes all of us as living stones to build a spiritual house that is strong and vital. We are all living stones that contribute to the whole. If just one stone is dead, then what good is the house that we are building together?
It is a well-known fact that church attendance as a whole is dropping in the United States. People say that they like Jesus, but not the church, some don’t trust the institution, others simply do not make it a priority, and many say that church is irrelevant. And one of the main reasons that people don’t come to church is that they do not like Christians. I’ve used this example before, but to drive the point home, just go home and “google” “Why are Christians so…” and see what pops up. It depends on the day, but the other day when I did this, some of the top responses were, “Why are Christians so…mean…selfish…angry…judgmental…rude…and annoying. This says to me that if people think this of Christians as a whole, then Christians have not become living stones that build strong spiritual houses. They have become like the straw and sticks that make weak houses that do not stand up to anything or anyone. Church attendance is dropping because people look at people who claim Christ and see nothing but shallowness, hollowness, and weakness where they should be seeing strength, vitality, and life. We must begin to change this by becoming living stones- by strengthening ourselves through the tools that Christ gives to each of us. We do not become living stones if we let ourselves become weak and unsure of who and what we are as a church- not just as a building, but as a people.
The Abbey Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bath, England faced this problem when their current Gothic building, which is more than 500 years old began to crumble under their feet. The problem is that, over the centuries, an estimated 6,000 people have been buried just below the stone flooring of the church. The bodies were reduced to bones, the graves settled, and holes began to open up beneath the floor, which threatened the foundation and stability of the building to the point where it was very likely that the floor could collapse right in the middle of morning worship! Can you imagine praying the Lord’s prayer while the floor opened beneath your feet, revealing bones and remains of the dead?! Needless to say, this very unsettling situation had to be resolved, and a massive building project is now underway to stabilize the building and to dig out the disturbed remains and replacing them with plaques on the new flooring (Homiletics).
All this to say that the members of the church itself- past, present, and future, are just as important, if not more, than any church building itself. When Christ is the Cornerstone, we can come to be built like living stones into a spiritual house. With this powerful image, “Christian believers are every part of the building except the Cornerstone- not as dead bones or cremains, but living stones” (Homiletics). And notice that it’s not just one stone, but living stones. You can’t build a house with just a Cornerstone and one stone. It takes many stones. We come alive when we become part of a community of living stones and we gather at the Cornerstone to find life, nourishment, and strength. When we come to the Cornerstone that is Christ, we find out where we fit into God’s design for us as a spiritual house.
One of my favorite movies is Life as a House. It tells the story of George: divorced man who gets fired from his job, finds out he has terminal cancer, and decides to tear down his old house and build the house he has always dreamed of building. He forces his troubled teenage son to live with him for the summer while he builds the house in an attempt to re-build their relationship. In the midst of George building the house, people from the neighborhood and eventually the rest of his family, including his ex-wife and her children begin to pitch in and help. The troubled teenaged son begins to help as well, and starts to re-kindle his relationship with his dad. When he finds out his dad has cancer, he gets angry and wants to give up on the whole thing altogether. In the end, he realizes that he must finish the house for his father- they all must finish it for him to honor him and strengthen the bonds of love and family. At the end of the film, George passes away, and the beautiful house is gifted to a young woman whose life was changed forever when George’s father drove drunk years ago and paralyzed her. George wanted to give her a beautiful home, overlooking the sea as a gift, offering her the kind of life that she may not have had otherwise. Of course, the main message of the movie isn’t really about building a house. It’s about seeing life as a house and the people who are the materials that help us build and give our lives meaning. It’s about people coming together and building relationships, strengthening community, and showing love for each other and those they do not even know. George has this great line in the film: “I always thought of myself as a house. I was always what I lived in. It didn’t need to be big; it didn’t need to be beautiful; it just needed to be mine. I became what I was meant to be. I built myself a life… I built myself a house.” And he says to his son, “If you were a house, this is where you would want to be built: on rock, facing the sea. Listening. Listening.”
If we are to think of ourselves as a house, then we must be the living stones, grounded on Christ as our rock. The message today is that we must become living stones gathering strength from Christ as the Cornerstone, the Foundation Stone, the Rock and Redeemer that gives us life, who sustains and redeems us. When we gather our strength from this, then we become living stones, vital and strong. Coming to Christ as the Cornerstone for many people means that there is a hunger to learn more, to go deeper, to serve others. These things are why people come to church, but even more, these things helps us to make and build the church. This is our challenge as a church community- to each be living stones that build a strong spiritual house- a welcoming house for all to be loved, called, and shaped by God. God wants us to be part of an edifice where people can meet God. We must present ourselves as building material for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with the life Christ gives, where we and those who have not yet come to this place can meet God. Where we can come together and hear this good news: that once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we have not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. That happens when we come to Christ as the Cornerstone, and to one another as living stones. But this begins when we are willing to be those living stones for each other- not the decaying bones and bodies like the ones beneath the floors of Bath Abbey. We must be strong stones that can lay the foundation for a strong church with a strong future, vibrant ministries, and the ability to reach out to the community to show the love of Christ, to nurture and care for one another, and to be drawn in to the good news of the grace of God available to each and every person. Living stones recognize that the church isn’t just a building. The church is made up of the people who are the living stones. Living stones recognize that church isn’t just a place- it is a verb- an action word- a living word.
Living stones are just that- they are living, strong, vibrant, and always working to build strong houses. Living stones don’t just sit and watch the world go by- they participate, they engage, they reach out, they love, they welcome, they embrace friends and strangers alike, they step outside of themselves into the unknown, and they draw their strength from the one who gives life to even the heaviest and most stubborn of stones- Christ, Cornerstone, the Rock and strength of our lives. So may we build ourselves as spiritual houses, strong and vibrant for God. May we be a living stone this week and always. May we rise from our pews and leave this plain stone structure and allow God to work in our lives to become living stones. May we listen to God and let ourselves be built into spiritual houses to serve God, each in our own way as we rejoice and share in the good news that once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we did not receive mercy, but now we have received mercy. Thanks be to God. Amen.