Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sermon - Easter 5 - 1 Peter 2:2-10

Easter 5
1 Peter 2:2-10
“Living Stones”

When I lived in New York I visited a well known Episcopal cathedral in the city called “St. John the Divine”. Construction on this building began in 1892, but when I visited in the early 90s it was still being built. In 1979 mayor Ed Koch spoke at a dedication ceremony marking some new construction, and he said, “I am told that some of the great cathedrals took over five hundred years to build. But I would like to remind you that we are only in our first hundred years.” Scaffolding decorated the building as late as 2007 and all the de stone masonry work still isn't done. Perhaps that's why the nickname of this church is “St. John the Unfinished”. It stands now only about 2/3s complete.

Today's Epistle lesson from 1 Peter brought me back to that unfinished cathedral. As Peter speaks of the construction of another building – not just any church, but THE church – a spiritual house which is also “under construction”. There is much to ponder here as we consider God the builder, Christ the cornerstone, and ourselves, the living stones in him.

Consider the essence of stones. They come in many shapes and sizes, and can be used for many purposes. From paperweights to skipping stones, to monuments and landmarks. In our reading from Acts, stones are used to kill the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. But perhaps man has mostly used stones for construction. Maybe that's because stones are strong and don't change or shift. Unlike wood or dirt or some other material, stone buildings will be around for a while.

One thing about stones, though, is they are not alive. They are anything but. They just sit there, doing nothing. So isn't it strange for Peter to speak of “living stones”? It's a clue that the stones he's speaking of are not stones at all. But like a builder uses stones to construct an edifice that will stand the test of time, so too does our Lord build his church to stand forever.

As Peter explains, God is the builder. Jesus, too, is the builder, of his church. “Thou art the Christ” Peter once said to Jesus, and our Lord replied, “You are Peter (which means 'rock'), and on this rock (that is, the confession you just made) I will build my church”

We may build the church buildings of rock and brick and wood. But the Triune God alone builds his church. God the Father lays the foundation by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. Jesus himself establishes the spiritual house mortared with his own blood shed at the cross.

The Holy Spirit calls and gathers people who were dead in sins, deader than rocks, and breathes life and faith into us, making us part of this eternal construction. God is the builder. We are the stones – living stones, now, passively placed together at his pleasure, by his hand and word of promise.

The “spiritual house” for God's ancient people was, of course, the temple. In fact, the very word for temple was simply “house” - however it was the house of God. Fitting that when God calls us sinners to repentance and faith, when he makes us his people in baptism, he dubs us his temple. The place where he dwells, both individually and together as a body.

Of course, if you look at the temple with earthly eyes, you see a broken-down old shed, or a ramshackle hut. You see shaky foundations and crooked walls, a leaky roof and windows that catch a draft. The temples of our bodies wear out and break down with disease and death. An honest look at ourselves shows we are far from the majestic palace that God deserves, our hearts unfit as a sanctuary for the Lord of creation to call home. Yes, these bodies are temples defiled by sin.

Or if you look at us all together, again you would see the same. We are an imperfect gathering of imperfect people. No Christian church is without sin and flaw and conflict and struggle. Even our own Lutheran Church-Missoui Synod suffers from internal divisions as we wrangle over the direction we should take as a church body. No, if we look at individuals, if we look at churches, or if we look at the church as a whole through earthly eyes, we see a dwelling that is shaky at best, and crumbling or even collapsed at worst.

How then do we understand Jesus promise, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”? How can we be a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen race, living stones built up into a great and mighty spiritual house? With man, of course this is impossible. But man is not the builder, God is.
He lays the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. And here we focus our attention. For in Christ, we have honor. By Christ we are part of the house. Through Christ we receive mercy. With Christ, we come from darkness to light.

Without Christ, the whole thing would come crashing down. But with him, and in him, this marvelous construction called the church is built to stand the test of time, and even the test of eternity.

Oh the earthly temple of the Old Testament was torn down. When the Romans came in 70 A.D. It was destroyed, never to stand again. What remains of it today is a crumbling western wall – and faint hints of its former glory.

But remember what Jesus said? “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days”. He wasn't talking about the stone columns of Herod's temple. He spoke of his own body – a temple which was destroyed in death on the cross. A temple which bore the sins of the world and destroyed them there – your sins and mine. But a temple which was rebuilt when God raised him from death on Easter morning, in a glorified body over which death has no power ever again.

And so in Christ we see a deeper reality than the shoddy construction of this world. We see beyond our own individual temples, and even beyond the imperfect church on earth. In Christ we see the construction of a spiritual house called the church, a universal and timeless gathering of people made holy by the blood of the lamb.

It is a construction, like St. John the Unfinished, which goes on. Through his word and by his sacraments God daily adds to the number of living stones in his church. And he also strengthens and builds us up, we who are part of the building already. When a child is baptized, another stone is laid. When a sinner repents, another stone is laid. When you hear and believe, the construction continues on God's holy eternal temple called the church.

But it is a construction, which one day will be complete. In fact, Jesus is already preparing a place, building mansions if you will, for his people in heaven. In our Gospel reading we have that powerful promise. A place prepared for all his people, a place prepared for you. Where the living stones of the church will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. For he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Living stones – together forever, alive forever, in Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

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