Sermon Preached by Dr Richard A. Davis at St Ronan’s, Eastbourne, 18 May 2014
- John 14:1-14
- Acts 7:55-60
- 1 Peter 2:2-10
For our nation and our church these are times when we are tearing down and building up. No more so than in our second biggest city, Christchurch, which is still recovering from the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. I was amazed to see on Campbell Live the other night Christchurch’s CBD, which still has so many empty sites and so few people walking around.
Some of the shops and offices that previously buzzed with workers, shoppers, and tourists, now no longer exist and people are finding other places to be. The churches there have also been hit hard, requiring a rethinking of their mission, building needs, and an unanticipated pastoral focus on healing the hurts of such disruption. People are in mourning, not only for those killed in the quakes, but also for their city, neighborhoods, and homes.
In Lower Hutt at the moment there is outcry about demolishing the Town Hall and Horticultural Hall, landmarks in our city, and sites of so many happy memories. My own parents, who celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary this month had their wedding reception in the Horticultural Hall, considered the venue in those days. But perhaps if these halls are demolished a new generation can make their memories in new places fit for new purposes.
Human buildings fit for human purposes are essential for human flourishing, but this morning I wish to focus on the building up of the church by Christ, who makes his church out of “living stones”, as we heard read this morning from Peter’s first letter. This passage, rich with metaphors, speaks directly to our life as Christians growing from new born infants in the faith, to become a people set apart for the purposes of God.
This passage from 1 Peter offers counsel, as individuals, and as a church. Indeed, the passage talks of our role as living stones that are bound together to form a new people with a new role in the world.
What a strange expression – “living stones”. Clearly there are no such things as a stones that live, but here is an expression of a truth of our life together as a church.
But, what is the church? There is no simple answer to this question.
Some would see it as a club of Christians who agree to come together for a common purpose. But this voluntaristic view of the church denies the role Christians have traditionally affirmed for the role of Christ in making the church.
Another answer is that churches are the stones, glass, and wood that combine to provide us places of worship, hospitality, and community life. This is some truth in this position – churches are buildings. And there is a good case that buildings offer an architectural testimony to the community that worships there.
What do you think or feel when you see a church? If you have visited the magnificent cathedrals of Europe, or the ancient churches of the Middle East, you will surely agree that the very buildings, their surroundings, and furnishings cry out, even if the priests are silent when you visit.
Churches are testimonies to a continuity of Christian witness in those places, and they come to be identified with very places they are in. Consider St Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St Basil’s in Moscow. These cities are unimaginable without them. Closer to home the Christchurch cathedral, still on the logo of the City Council, stands as a reminder of Christianity’s place at the heart of the city.
But as we all know, the church is the people even more than the buildings. The early Christians had no separate buildings they worshiped in. They would have met in each other’s homes to read letters from the first Christian leaders and to read the scriptures together. They practiced radical hospitality, attracting new Christians by the lives they lived together.
What does it mean to be a royal or holy priesthood? Over the years this phrase has been used to suggest that the Church stands separate from the world. We are made from stones the world has rejected, standing on the cornerstone that the world rejected and crucified.
Many of us may have suffered for being Christians. And with an increasingly secular society that we live in the church cannot ask for any special favours. With the rise of militant atheism, and with more people rejecting faith altogether, the mocking of faith is something we need to prepare for. We are being separated from the mainstream, whether we like it or not.
I was very fortunate to spend several years studying theology in Edinburgh. Many weekends I would travel to the Highlands to go “hillwalking” – this isn’t tramping, but climbing hills much lower than our mountains, but usually in conditions that made them challenging nonetheless.
One common feature of the hills of Scotland are the dry stone walls that marked out fields and sometimes provide useful markers up ridges. They were usually built from the stones on the fields nearby. Made without any mortar, it is remarkable that these walls can withstand extreme climates and strong winds.
It is said that a good wall-maker will only pick up each stone once and find its perfect place in the wall without putting it back down. When you see how many stones there are, you don’t want to be lifting them up and then putting them back down, only to have to lift them back up again. A good wall builder can do maybe three metres in a day, which entails lifting about three tonnes of stone. This requires years of experience.
We can see ourselves as stones like these, living stones in the phrases of Peter. We are those stones, rejected from the pasture, pushed to the margins, and perceived to be useless in the field where the real action takes place. But in the hands of Christ we are placed, all of us, whatever our size or shape into our perfect place in the structure that fulfills his purpose. And once picked up by Christ out of the dirt, we are not put down, Christ uses us, in unison with others to build his Kingdom. We all have our place in his church, working together for the good of all.
A field is pointless without a wall around it; indeed it is not a field at all. The sheep will escape, or the ram will get in when you don’t want it to. The wall made of the stones pushed to the margins makes the pasture useful. In the hands of the skilled wall-maker the stones make the pasture what it was meant to be. This is an important point. The wall serves the pasture it encloses, it helps to make the pasture the best it can be.
Does our church serve the world with a message of peace, justice, and reconciliation? Or it is interested only in its own integrity, becoming a wall without any purpose except one that points to the fact it was formed by its maker?
As we know, in addition to wall-building, stones have many uses, and some are far from humane. Our reading from Acts this morning recounts the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned outside Jerusalem.
This is the very reversal of the images I have been using where the stones come together in unity to build up something new for Christ. In the story of Stephen one can imagine that if not enough stones were lying around, the people may have started to dismantle a wall or path using those stones to kill Stephen. If so, the rejection of Christ and the killing of Christ’s messenger meant the breaking up of the stones into individual weapons of violence and death.
Before he was condemned, Stephen, in this speech to the crowd, reminds the people of what the prophet Isaiah had said: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands”. Instead, as we learn from Peter, God builds his church out of living stones.
It is worth noting that Saul was present at the stoning, and approved of Stephen’s execution. This Saul later converted on the road to Damascus, became St Paul, the first Christian theologian, who was himself flogged, shipwrecked and imprisoned and may himself have been martyred by beheading or upside down crucifixion. Who knows what effect Stephen’s martyrdom had on him, and the others? We shall never know, but to this day the stories of martyrs have continued to inspire Christian faith.
There are still people who are being killed for professing Christ. This week a pregnant women, Meriam Yehya from Sudan was condemned to prison, lashing and hanging for apostasy in abandoning Islam for Christianity and for refusing to renounce her faith in Christ.
Have you ever wondered what you would do if faced with death because of your faith? Would you take the chance to renounce your faith and escape death? You might feel like me – I know what I would like to do in that situation, but I’m uncertain what I would do until I’m placed in that position.
Christians who face persecution because of their faith may remain faithful for two reasons. First, that they have built their faith on the sure, unshakeable foundation of Christ. Second, they have a community of other Christians around them supporting them and perhaps facing persecution together. As living stones of the church we are not isolated from communities of support, but are bound together by God into a structure that can withstand anything the world can throw at it.
In the church today images of stones may be useful in thinking through the meaning of church and our role in it. As some churches are demolished, rebuilt, or sold, brick by brick, the image of living stones can be useful as we know, as Stephen reminds us, that God is not bound by the work of human hands and lives in our midst.
Finally, in addition to the image of living stones, I wish to offer another image of stones for our churches today. In a declining church, some of our Presbyterian parishes may feel isolated as other parishes around them close, encouraging them to look further afield for help. Such churches, rather than being a stone bound to others in a strong church, may appear to be more like a stepping stone – far enough apart to be just in reach from the next with a long stride. One should not be disheartened by such an image; anyone who has been hill-walking in Scotland will know that hikers seek out those stepping stones which are just above water in order to make the journey with dry feet and a sure stable foothold. Those stones carry us forward, and we can be grateful for them, whether we stand there only the once, or whether it’s a daily or weekly resting spot on our journey of life.