“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house….”
I love this image from 1 Peter… envisioning members of the church as stones in the walls of a spiritual dwelling place.
It’s in one of my favorite texts from the Epistles too – from the second chapter of Ephesians: “So then you are no longer strangers and outsiders, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together into a dwelling-place for God.”
That image of believers as living stones shows up in other early Christian writings outside the Bible, too – most notably in a text written by a lay Christian named Hermas, who lived in Rome in the early 100s. I wrote a term paper on it in seminary because it delighted me so much!
Hermas describes a very detailed vision of the Church as a tower being built by angels, from all sorts of stones, representing all sorts of believers.
For example, the damaged stones lying around the tower are “those who have known the truth but did not abide in it.”
The cracked stones are “the ones who have something against one another in their hearts and are not at peace among themselves.”
Some round, white stones are beautiful, but don’t fit easily into the building. These are “the ones who have faith, but also have the riches of this world,” and struggle with faithfulness.
Some stones are too short to fit well, in the course of the building.
These stones stand for “those who have believed and live for the most part in righteousness, but they have a certain amount of lawlessness.” And there are many more…!
It’s a wonderfully detailed metaphor for all sorts of believers, semi-believers, ex-believers, and non-believers. And in Hermas’s vision, nearly all the types of stones are eventually included in God’s great building.
“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house….”
What is this building these writers envision? This spiritual house, with the apostles and prophets for its foundation, and Christ its cornerstone?
When we think of buildings plus God, we naturally think of a church building. But the first Christians didn’t meet in churches. They met in houses.
1 Peter was most likely written – in the name of Peter, not by Peter – in the late first century. But even then, fifty years into the Christian Era, buildings specifically for Christian worship weren’t a thing yet.
The earliest church archaeologists have found is a house in what’s now Syria that was adapted into a place of worship in the early 200s.
The earliest buildings built to be places of Christian worship came along later in that century. 150 years or more after this letter was written!
So what building does this author have in mind?
1 Peter gives us a clue when the text links the “spiritual house” with the image of Christian believers as a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices – evoking the ritual practices of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Judaism had long been a faith centered on one central Temple, the place to come closest to God.
Forty years after the first Easter, around the time Mark wrote down the first Gospel, that temple was destroyed by the Romans, as a Judean revolt against Roman rule was brutally crushed. Both Judaism and Christianity had to rethink what God’s house looked like.
And one of the ways early Christians did that was by developing this idea of a spiritual temple – impossible to destroy, and always accessible to everybody, because we are the very stones of its walls.
“Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
We are the stones, beloved siblings, living stones, each as unique as a stone on a lakeshore, but each with our place in the spiritual temple, God’s great house with its many dwelling-places.
The stones aren’t asked to be passive, but to find the place where they fit and to give their strength to something bigger… even though they can’t see the plan, and will not see the building’s completion.
Did you notice the other stones in our lessons today? The stones used to kill Stephen, the church’s first martyr.
Stephen’s story is in Acts chapter 6 and 7; the lectionary only gives us the very end of it. At the beginning of Acts chapter 6, we are told that there was conflict within the Christian community over fairness in food distribution to the needy. And the Twelve Apostles, the leaders of the early church, did what leaders do.
They said, Our work is too important for us to spend time resolving this; let’s appoint some people to deal with the problem.
They picked six men (…) and commissioned them to oversee food distribution, so they – the Apostles – could focus on prayer and the word of God. Stephen is one of those appointed deacons.
But Stephen doesn’t spend much time handing out bread and canned ham. Instead he turns out to be a gifted preacher, evangelist – and debater. He has public arguments about Jesus with people of other beliefs.
Before long he upsets enough people that he is arrested and brought before the Jewish Council.
Now, if you’re one of the religious leaders associated with the Temple, and people keep cropping up talking about that Jesus fellow you thought you had dealt with, you’re going to deal with them, too.
The charges against Stephen sound not unlike the charges against Jesus: “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy [the Temple] and change the customs that Moses handed down us.”
The high priest asks Stephen, “Are these things so?” And Stephen, according to Luke, gives a speech that is simultaneously an eloquent retelling of the sacred history of the Jewish people – and a harsh condemnation of current Jewish faith and leadership. He calls the Council betrayers and murderers who oppose God. The lectionary doesn’t give us that part of the story!
Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well, and the Council has Stephen stoned to death for blasphemy – speaking falsely about God.
Crucifixion was a Roman practice. Stoning – throwing stones at someone until they die – was the means of execution in the Hebrew Bible. Israel is a rocky land. There were always stones on hand.
So: stones become instruments of death for Stephen.
What is the difference between these stones? The stones of death, and the living stones built into a spiritual temple?
There are many answers to that question – but one big difference is whose hands they’re in. Whose hands they’re in… God’s, or humans’.
Who’s holding the stones – who’s deciding what to do with them, how to use them.
I’ve preached on these lessons several times over the years.
The first time was in 2008, when I was preparing to be ordained as a deacon, as part of my path to priesthood. These lessons made me reflect on my place in what God is building, as I took on a new role and new work in God’s holy house, the Church.
I reminded myself, in that sermon, that being a deacon or priest didn’t make me the architect, the builder. That my role remains a stone among other holy stones, placing myself in God’s hands to lend my strength to what God is doing.
I preached these texts again in 2014, six years into my ordained ministry, three years into being rector of St. Dunstan’s. We were over the initial hump of getting to know one another and beginning to think about possibilities together.
I wondered aloud, in that sermon, what kind of structure God was building us into, and invited us into some shared discernment about hopes and goals for the parish.
Now I’ve been here another nine years. (How is that possible?) And in that time I think some of the contours of the structure God is building here have become clear.
We are becoming a church that strives to welcome kids and youth in the fulness of who they are, and to nurture them in faith.
We are becoming a church that strives to be fully and gladly inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. A church that strives to weave creation care into our common life in an ongoing way. A church that tries to attend to the needs of our neighbors, and to name and reckon with injustice, past and present. A church that strives to take seriously the work of extending care and companionship to one another.
Some of those … architectural elements … are pretty solidly in place, though they may need some finishing work.
With others, we’re still building the support structures, or even laying foundation – but we’ve gotten a glimpse of the Architect’s sketches; we know what needs to be there.
Has anybody ever been out to Pope Farm Park? There’s a stone wall there that I really like.
Well: let’s be honest, it’s really more of a linear pile than a wall.
Drystone wall building is a skill that requires a lot of training and experience – knowing how to fit different sizes and shapes of stone together to build something strong and stable that will last decades or centuries, even without mortar holding it together.
Whoever built the wall at Pope Farm Park did not have that skill. They piled cobbles and small boulders together, to a height of maybe three feet. It wouldn’t contain a horse or a goat or a human; it probably wouldn’t even stop a motivated cow.
It’s the kind of wall you build because you need a place to put the stones from your field so they don’t keep damaging the blade of your plow.
And it’s beautiful.
It’s beautiful because we live in a place that was once covered by glaciers, by thousands of feet of ice.
As the Big Ice pushed into southern Wisconsin – and then as it shrunk back towards the north, eventually – it brought, and left, rocks and stones from all over. Our native geology here in Wisconsin – the ancient fossil-filled layers of the Niagara Escarpment to the east, the golden karst bedrock to the west – is hidden and complicated by stone from thousands of miles elsewhere.
That wall at Pope Farm Park – its stones are white and gray and yellow and orange and pink and brown and black and green. Large and small. Smooth and rough. Solid and composite. Veined and fossil-marked and decked with tiny hidden crystal caverns.
Hermas would love that wall.
As I said: I don’t know if whoever built that wall had anything in mind beyond marking a boundary and getting some rocks out of the fields.
But if not particularly skilled human hands can take that wild variety of stones and make this beautiful, chaotic wall, then what can God do with all of us?
I hope the stony lessons of the fifth Sunday in Easter in Year A of our lectionary cycle always remind us to place our trust in God the Builder.
Me, and you, and you, and you and&you&you&you&you – all of us – we and everything we bring to this community of faith, we’re just the raw materials. And that’s good.
That’s a relief. That’s holy and joyful.
Even if we’re sometimes a little reluctant to lay down our blueprints, our plans – I know I can be! – it’s good to know we’re not in charge.
Because history shows us again and again that when people pick up the stones, we’re about equally likely to build them into something beautiful or useful and to throw them at somebody with whom we disagree…
Like living stones, let us offer ourselves to be built into a spiritual house.
Look at yourselves, beloved friends, and look at one another,
and see someone who is useful to God,
who has a place in the mysterious architecture of the Kingdom.
May we have the grace and courage and patience
to put ourselves in God’s hands,
and give our strength to what God is building.