1 Peter 2:2-10
April 20, 2008
5th Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:2-10
April 20, 2008
5th Sunday of Easter
In the spring of the year when I was 11 years old the only grandparent I ever knew had a fall, and broke her hip, and spent time in a hospital followed by what was supposed to be rehab in a nursing home. My grandmother lived in Philadelphia, and we were about an hour away in south Jersey. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, my mom would drive to Philadelphia to see her. I would usually go along, passing the time by listening to pop songs on AM radio. My memory of my mom at that time was that she was tense and worried. But music often had the ability to shake away her blues, and if the right song came on, she would sing right along with me. The one song that never failed to make her smile and laugh played pretty regularly in those days; it was a song by Paul Simon. The chorus went,
Oh, my mama loves me. She loves me.
She get down on her knees and hugs me.
She loves me like a rock.
She rocks me like the rock of ages, and love me.
She loves me loves me loves me loves me.
At age 11, the political content of the verses eluded me. But I knew just what that chorus meant. And as I rode along with my mom, driving to be with her mom, I knew she knew what it meant, too. She loves me loves me loves me loves me.
Obtain even a passing acquaintance with scripture and you will notice that stones and rocks are a foundational metaphor in the ancient and ongoing conversation around things divine. The psalmist, traditionally understood to be King David, says,
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold. ~ Psalm 18:1-2
The writer of Ecclesiastes is traditionally understood to be Solomon, David’s son. Writing in his old age, he tells us,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together… ~Ecclesiastes 3:1-5a
Stones figure in the story of the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God had parted the waters of the Jordan River, much like the parting of the sea at the Exodus, in order for the ark of the Covenant to pass by. So God instructs Joshua to have twelve stones from the Jordan set up as a monument. Joshua tells the people,
“When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” ~Joshua 4:6b-7
Stones and rocks are seen, in just these three passages, as imaging the sure and solid love of God, as representing significant moments in the lives of people of faith, and as being memorials of God’s miraculous and saving acts. Stones and rocks are a powerful way of imaging the fact that God loves us, loves us, loves us, loves us.
That theme continues in today’s reading from the first letter of Peter. This letter was not written to one particular church, but was intended for many churches, or, for the whole Church. The context of the letter is the persecution of a recently converted group of Christians, perhaps some incident like the stoning of Stephen from our first reading. It is a letter of encouragement to those who are suffering through difficult times, speaking of rejection and being chosen. It is also a letter to Christians who come from Gentile backgrounds, who are not Jewish. Despite this fact, it is clear from all the scripture quoted in the letter that these churches are already steeped in the Hebrew bible.
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.” ~1 Peter 2:4-6
Most of the non-literal references to “stones” in scripture have to do with that rock-solid, sure love of God. There are just two exceptions to that. First, there is Jesus’ assigning the nickname “Rocky” (or, as we know it, “Peter”) to his follower Simon. And the second instance is this letter, possibly written by Simon the Rock, in which he, in turn, uses that image—not for himself, but for all the followers of Jesus, those of us who make up the church. He calls us “living stones.”
Living stones: there’s an oxymoron for you. Literal stones, by the time they become stones, would seem to be anything but “living.” The end result of cooling magma, or deposits of sediment, or pressure or heat applied to already existing rocks, their overwhelming characteristic is solidity. I don’t know about you, but I learned by watching Sesame Street with my son what is the requirement for something to be called “living”: it eats, it breathes, it grows. Stones do none of these things.
But, Peter tells us, we are to become living stones, and the overwhelming characteristic of these stones is that they can be built into something, not just useful, but glorious: a spiritual house, says Peter, a royal priesthood. This is lofty language. It is just on the verge of losing us, I think, because it contains some words and concepts that are a little alien, and a little uncomfortable. Probably the one that makes us the most uncomfortable is this “priesthood” business; the “priesthood of all believers,” as it is supposed to apply to us.
I was born and raised Roman Catholic, as many of you know. When I was in high school I dated a boy who happened to be a Presbyterian. His name was M., and he regularly engaged me in a friendly and challenging debate about my beliefs. He was concerned, particularly, about my belief that ours was the one true church, and that all other churches were somehow lacking. I was not exactly theologically sophisticated as a teenager, but I knew that, for us Catholics, a lot depended on the presence of priests. Following the model of priesthood set up in the Hebrew Scriptures we believed that we needed priests to bridge that enormous gap between human beings and God. We needed a priest to consecrate the elements for Holy Communion, we needed a priest to absolve us from our sins… almost every sacrament required a priest to administer it. But, M. pointed out, if Jesus Christ is understood to be that bridge between human beings and God, where do we human beings fit into what Jesus has already done?
The words of my boyfriend stayed in the back of my mind for years and years, until the day I wandered into a Presbyterian Church and was introduced to this idea of the priesthood of all believers—an idea the Roman Catholic church also embraces, by the way. One writer has put it this way. “A priest is normally understood as being a human being who has a 'mediating' role between God and humanity. The term ‘priesthood of all believers; indicates that it is through ‘the Church’ [or, the community of the faithful] that this mediation takes place.”[i]
In other words, by understanding that we are a part of the priesthood of all believers, we are reminded of that it is our job as a community of faith to show the world what that means, to help to bridge that gap between this hurting world and God. To quote Saint Teresa of Avila, a great Catholic mystic and reformer,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.[ii]
We are to become living stones. We are to allow ourselves to be built into a community of faith through which we can carry out that tall order: being the compassionate eyes of Christ looking out upon the earth; being the energetic feet of Christ by which we go about doing good; being the hands of Christ by which the world is blessed. We are chosen and precious, Peter tells us, and we are to share with the whole world, in words and in action, our knowledge, rock-solid and sure, of the way God loves us, loves us, loves us, loves us. Amen.