May 14, 2017
One of the New Testament’s favorite images is the stone, the simple, overlooked, inert stone. You see stones throughout the scripture in all kinds of ways. You might think of Jesus as the rock of our salvation (Psalm 18) or the man who built his house on solid rock (Matthew 7). Of course, you’ll think of the Apostle Peter who was named by Jesus, “the rock on which I’ll build my church” (Matthew 16).
These are just a few examples of how stones or rocks show up as witness to Jesus Christ. Stones are solid, unchanging, trustworthy, but they may cry out if God’s people are silent. Of course, at the center of it all is the stone that was rolled away from the tomb on Easter morning. Stones aren’t always positive though. It was by stoning that Stephen was killed. He was the first Christian martyr in the history of the church.
In 1 Peter, we turn to this image of stone. The letter was written at an unsettled time to a people who had been dislodged from their homes and everything they knew and trusted. If there have been people who needed solid rock to stand on, these were the people. The beginning of the letter tells us who they are -- “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ. To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”
All of those place names are small regions of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. The reason these recipients are there is because they are exiles of the Dispersion. What that’s referring to is the cataclysm of the year AD 70, when the Roman army crushed a Jewish rebellion in the first Jewish-Roman War. The army put an end to the revolt, scattered all the people, razed Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple and carried away the sacred treasures. Carved into The Arch of Titus in Rome, outside the colosseum, is a scene of soldiers carrying away a huge menorah. That’s in commemoration of this event. Some of those Jewish people who suffered from this, perhaps even some who were part of the first church in Jerusalem, some of those people fled to Asia Minor.
Imagine them for a moment . . . living there, far from their home. Probably they’ve lost just about everything, having run for their lives. They are refugees whose lives are not unlike refugees at any point in time, including these times today. They had lost everything, and we can’t diminish the impact that losing the Temple would have had. They had a belief that the Temple in Jerusalem would stand forever. They said: If you can’t trust anything else you can trust that those stones will stay standing. God lives there, and as long as the Temple stands, all is right, or can be made right in the world.
And now after 70 AD the Temple itself is in rubble.
Peter was writing to encourage people who were emotionally drained and disoriented by all they had been through. They were afraid that all that was good had been lost forever, that they were at an end. Peter writes to them that all is not lost, God is just beginning. To tell that story, he turns to stones and a building, how God is building a new dwelling place on earth and they are part of it.
It’s a compelling courageous word of hope: you are part of something new, emerging from the dust and rubble. It stands in the face of the temptation when all seems lost, to build a shelter in which to hide out from the world in fear. To Christians who had suffered, seen destruction, and felt themselves and what they knew turned to rubble, Peter says: you are not crushed rubble, you are living stones and God is building you up in the church.
Not everyone is able to hear that word. For people who are afraid, drained, disoriented and fearful, and who have a lot of money, there are other options. Just outside a town in northeast Texas, ground has been broken on a development called Trident Lakes. It offers a promise of safe, luxurious living in the aftermath of whatever apocalypse is upon us. A 700 acre piece of land is being converted into an off-the-grid community with 600 earth-sheltered condos selling for up to $1.5 million, set around three white-sand lagoons. Most of the square footage of each condo will be underground. Each is its own bunker. For your entertainment, while the world burns, an 18-hole golf course, an equestrian center, polo fields, gun ranges, tennis courts, and community center will be connected by a series of underground tunnels. Helipads will assist your coming and going, should you ever desire to go, once you have made the commitment to come. An armed guard will patrol the wall around the compound. The first part of the project to be completed is a 65-foot marble fountain ringed by mermen and horses that welcomes you to the property.
This is what they’re building out of nothing. Says the project’s spokesman, “This is going to be one of the nicest private country clubs in Texas, if not the US. Our grand vision is to provide our customers with a luxurious safe space.” (“A Home of Last Resort,” by Sonia Smith, Texas Monthly, May 2017).
It may be a sign of the times, but this isn’t for your run-of-the-mill doomsday-er. This isn’t for the guy with a tinfoil hat and cans of tuna in his mattress. This is much more sophisticated. The idea for Trident Lakes developed over the course of various cocktail parties in Dallas where a group of people discovered their “mutual alarm over terrorism and police shootings and decided to prepare for ‘a very murky future.’ We’ve been surprised by the almost equal distribution of people who say, ‘I’m scared of Trump because he’s going to take us to war,’ and those who say, ‘I’m scared of the Trump opposition that’s trying to overthrow the government. . .’ We’re finding out there’s no shortage of things to be scared about.” As it turns out, the marriage of fear and gobs of money may be the cocktail that heals our nation’s divisions. So far, Trident Lakes has more than 1000 people on its waiting list.
It turns out these doomsday developments are popping up, or tunneling under, empty fields throughout the country. We all know everything is bigger in Texas, so hats off to these guys for holding up the Lone Star tradition. Of course, in Texas we would have an apocalyptic bunker with a statue of mermen. But this isn’t the only bunker and not the only kind of bunker. Fear of the future, of others, of people who are different, of the culture, of the world around us, draws people to all kinds of bunkers.
Churches can very easily become bunker-mentality communities. There’s a church in Alabama that has submitted plans to establish its own police force. We can all succumb to this mentality, allowing fear to dominate our thinking, forgetting that even the most isolated, quiet, inaccessible monastery exists so that the monks can learn to pray for and love the world more fully. In Christian thinking there is no bunkering, no building walls, to keep the other out. And in the midst of whatever turmoil, God is to be a rock of refuge, but does not build us an impregnable fort either of relationships or ideas. Christians are always vulnerable to the other, and we’re told over and over that in the other is where we may just meet Jesus.
When Peter writes his letter to people who were actually struggling in all these kinds of ways, he says God is in the building business. It’s a new house God himself is building. This is not an end, this is a beginning. And God is just getting started.
God is building a new spiritual house, a temple. This must have sounded like very good news to people who felt like their connection with God had been crushed and their sanity had been severed. Maybe they were hoping for a walled compound to hide in until Jesus returned.
But Peter’s message is a little different than they may have expected, and certainly somewhat at odds with the vision birthed at those cocktail parties in Dallas. God is building a house, but God doesn’t build a house for you to hide out in from the world. God builds a house of you for the whole world.
You are the stones, you are living stones that God uses to construct this house. You are living stones and Christ is the cornerstone. In calling Christ the cornerstone of God’s spiritual house, Peter recalls Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28. Isaiah 28 was another time when people were afraid of what was going on all around them. To them it was said: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.’”
Psalm 118, also written in a time of turmoil, recalls the steadfast love of God and says this: “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
This image of Jesus Christ as a stone rejected that has now become the cornerstone is a favorite of the New Testament writers. They love this image and why not? It fits perfectly as an image of the one who was rejected and tossed out at his suffering only to be revealed as the precious and beautiful one at his resurrection. The great reversal of crucifixion to resurrection is mirrored in the reversal of a rejected stone being used as the cornerstone for the whole building.
Peter draws on this image again, calling Christ the cornerstone of God’s spiritual house and then builds on it by describing how in Christ, God was just beginning. Fused to the cornerstone, in this holy house, are other stones, living stones, you and me, cemented together in faith to become a holy house for God, a living temple for all people to come and meet their God.
This is Peter’s vision of the church. We are all living stones built together into a holy house for God, to serve in worship and witness. Naturally, having been named Peter—Petros—the Rock—Peter would be drawn to this idea.
We aren’t given a house; we become the house. We aren’t protected in a shelter, we become the house of God to which all the nations of the world will stream. We aren’t sealed off from the world; we are built into a holy house in ministry to the world.
At a time when, as it’s been observed, our nation is having a nervous breakdown, let the Christians in our land stop building bunkers and reinforcing buttressed walls. Let the Christians live into the high and lofty identity they have been given in Christ.
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.
In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house. We usually understand this ‘Father’s house’ to which Jesus goes to be heaven. Jesus is foretelling his ascension into heaven and promising to return someday to take his people to their true home.
All of that is comforting and hopeful and may be exactly the way to read it, but we may also see in Jesus preparing God’s house the promise of the church too. Jesus prepares the church, and a place in the church for all people. He was a carpenter’s son, after all, in a place with few trees so maybe he knew a little about using hammers and chisels on stone. I think he did. I think he knew something about that, and I think he’s still up to that good work, building and rebuilding this holy house of God, not with brick and mortar but with lives and relationships, with vulnerability and truth telling, with forgiveness and compassion, with patience and generosity, with tears and laughter, with faith and hope and by love, cementing us one with another that together we may be built up to be a house with a room for all people, to give glory to God by a holy sanctuary of persons, still standing after all these years, against which not even the gates of hell shall prevail.