A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (7:55-60)
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Psalm (31:1-5, 15-16)
1 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
4 Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
5 Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
15 My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16 Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.”
A Reading from the First Letter of 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.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (14:1-14)
[Jesus told his disciples,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
by Jennifer Oldstone-Moore
2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
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. 6For 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.” 7To 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,” 8and “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. 9But 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. 10Once you were not apeople, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
I don’t know if any of you have been to Japan. It is a wonderful place to visit—full of natural beauty, with lush greenery, steep mountains and lots of fast rivers and waterfalls. It’s beautiful—but of course nature in Japan can be powerful and scary—just think of the earthquakes and also the disastrous tsunami a few years ago that overwhelmed that country. The Japanese regard nature as sacred, and feel a deep religious connection to the land. The spirits connected with nature are revered in Shinto, a Japanese religion. These spirits aren’t necessarily good, just awe inspiring, whether for beauty, or power, or both. When you go to Japan, you’ll come across those distinctive red gates, torii, at the entrance to Shinto shrines that are home to the spirits of the land, and places for people to worship the spirits. You’ll also see these gates marking a place of exceptional beauty, like a place in a forest that is next to a waterfall. To walk through one of these gates is to step on holy ground. But the Japanese also have distinctive ropes and strips of paper that they place around sacred objects, like old trees and large rocks. Again, the message is “this is holy; this is a spirit; approach with respect and awe.” One way to think about the gods of Shinto is “The hills are alive…” and in a very real way, I think this is true for the Japanese. Everything that might make you stop and take a second look, or catch your breath, is a spirit—a waterfall, a tree, an echo, a giant wave, and so on.
I don’t think that most of us regard the natural world this way. We may be awed by nature, we may see the world as sacred because it is a work of God’s creation, and a testament to God’s goodness and glory, but that’s different from seeing the hills and trees as spirits to be prayed to. And as far as rocks as spirits, I’m thinking that in my experience, we almost never set rocks or stones aside at all, except to make paths around or perhaps climb on.
Which is, I think, why this image of living stones in 1 Peter is so striking. “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house.” What is a “living stone”? We usually think of stones as dead things, the very opposite of living. We talk about things being stone cold dead; of being stony faced—meaning a hard, fixed expression; of a cruel and emotionless person having a heart of stone, of greedy people trying to get blood from a stone. (I can tell you that growing up with the last name “Oldstone” means I am very aware of all the things people associate with stones, because I’ve heard them all on the playground.) Even in the Bible stones are code for inanimate and dead. In Ezekiel God says to Israel: “I will take the stone heart from your chest and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) So living stones? What would a living stone be like for the people Peter is writing to, the new Christians?
This letter is using the picture of “living stones” to help these new Christians understand their new identity. They feel lost and threatened and out of place in their communities, like they are foreigners, not at home at all. The Romans are their rulers, and the Romans look with deep dislike and distaste (that’s on good days) at Christians. In the early days of the church, those who followed Jesus were considered an offshoot of Jews, which meant they had some measure of protection from Rome who tolerated Judaism as an ancient religion (although the Romans thought that this “worship only one God” thing was ridiculous and dangerous). But after awhile, the two were seen as separate, and then Christians couldn’t even have the limited protection of being Jewish in the Roman Empire. Christians refuse to worship the emperor—so they are traitors. Christians ignored the city gods who Romans thought protected the community—so they don’t care about their neighbors. Christians won’ t go to the sporting events and spectacles at the arena—they must hate humanity! And by the time 1 Peter was written, Christians had tasted persecution ordered by Roman officials who found them easy targets.
They are feeling afraid, and also not sure who they are, so this letter encourages them to embrace the new identity they have found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The letter energizes them, using this startling image: to be “living stones” and “though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…to be built into a spiritual house.”
What would be the characteristics of a living stone? A stone is something solid, planted firmly, dependable, probably still there for your grandchildren’s grandchildren. But living? It would change, breathe, interact, grow. Stones are solid, resting heavily on and in the ground. Stones also uphold. The living stones that are the new Christians are also pushing up, holding up the foundations of spiritual life, founding a community—a community that becomes the church. Living stones are firmly rooted, and they are a base from which the church, and the Kingdom, can be built. The community that Peter is addressing might babies in Christ (who still need spiritual milk), but they are the living stones who will create a new identity as the people of God through their prayer, their lives, and through their work following Christ. As “living stones” Christians are reminded that they are firmly situated in the knowledge of One God; and even though they feel like outsiders, they “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” With this identity, they must nurture themselves with faith, and they must help build—they must be the very building material, the living stones—of the spiritual house of God.
But this letter is also for us. Are we “new Christians”? Our situation is very different: Christianity has surely come a long way since the first century C.E. There are churches everywhere in America. Our government allows religious freedom—we’re not persecuted for our worship or our faith. Christianity is the dominant religion in the US—rather different from the situation of the early Christians in Rome. On the other hand, we know that in the Year of Our Lord 2014 the Kingdom is not fully built. There is still a need for living stones, solid and building a spiritual house.
What does that look like? You need building materials to make a church. I came here in September in the midst of talk of canopies, sheeting, and varnish, and linoleum, and all sorts of church-improvement stuff. But those materials that Carol was managing and listing every Sunday at announcements are not the capital “C” Church—they are only the raw materials of the structure around us. To be a Church, there have to be living stones. “Living stones” are people who believe that in order to bring the kingdom, we must be rooted in Word and Sacrament—as we are in Sunday worship—and then be “living canopies,” to keep the paths safe and heads dry; “living linoleum” to host Sunday coffee hour but also to provide space for groups doing their own work for the Kingdom here; “living step-guards” to help people move to new levels without stumbling. I guess some of you out there are “living toolsheds,” who provide means by which people can be secure. Becoming “living stones” must also be what the prophet Jeremiah had in mind when he said God will put the law within the people, and will write it on their hearts (rather than on stone tablets) (31:31-34), and what Paul in 2 Corinthians means when he admonishes the new believers to be “letters of Christ” written not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:3).
In my nine months at St Mark’s I’ve see the extent to which you are spiritual rocks and activated pebbles who are always in the process of building a Church of living stones that takes God’s good news out into the world in your hearts, and on your sleeves, in your hands, and through your arm muscles, in shopping carts, and hands that sew and cook and knit. I think that all these are what is meant when we are encouraged to be living stones. And, by the way, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for being “living books and instruction manuals” for me as I have been with you for seminary internship, helping me learn ways of faith and ministry.