What is the Church?
(Sermon for first day in the Triangle Centre)
1 Peter 2:2-10
4 As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
‘See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.’
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,’
‘A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
It is often said that the church is what is left once the building has burnt down. Well, there’s been no fire, but we are unable to worship in our usual building and so we find we are being forced to engage with the reality of that statement. So, what is the church? Where is the church?
To help answer that question this morning I have chosen this passage in 1 Peter which speaks of a building project – a church building project no less, but not a building made with bricks and mortar.
Our reading starts where we must start, and I hope it doesn’t come as a shock to anyone: it starts with Jesus. Actually, the passage only mentions the name of Jesus once but the whole passage is saturated with his presence.
Right at the beginning we have these words: As you come to him, the living Stone …5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…’ Who is this original ‘living stone’? Jesus. And as we come to him, we too, become living stones being built into a spiritual house. Peter then says more about this original living stone. Quoting the prophet Isaiah he says: ´See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ A cornerstone is the foundation stone on which the whole edifice is supported and orientated.
Jesus is this cornerstone – this living stone; and note, when we come to him, we, also, become living stones being built into a spiritual house – and this house we call ‘The church’. The building we often call the church is simply a building in which the church happens to meet on rare occasions (1, 2 or even 3 hours a week is less than 2% of the 168 hours we have) – the vast majority of the time, the church – you and me, are elsewhere.
So, we are the church, described here, by Peter, as stones being built into a house. But note, the house being built is only meaningful in relationship to the cornerstone.
We are the church only in relationship to Jesus. Before we go further, can we just pause there. This is an idea we express often, but familiarity may breed, if not contempt, then maybe boredom or indifference! It is embedded in our mission statement: to be with Jesus, become like Jesus, do what Jesus did. But it’s not an optional extra. Those words are just stating the obvious. We can’t exist as the church or as individuals within the church, without being connected to Jesus. A brick unattached to a building is just a brick and it needs to be embedded into a building to be meaningful – similarly our connection to Jesus Christ is everything. That’s why we call ourselves Christians – it most clearly defines who we are!
As we embark on this next stage of our journey as the church in Liss (or, rather, one part of it), let’s remind ourselves of the fundamental necessity to be connected to Jesus from whom we receive life and meaning. Start with the mission statement (be with Jesus, become like Jesus, do what Jesus did). If it’s not on your wall, write it down and put it there so you can see it. This isn’t just a statement for an organisation but something every one of us should own for ourselves and possess with every fibre of our being. There is nothing more important.
There’s a lot more we could say about Jesus in this passage in Peter, but I want to look at another theme in these words and it’s one I’ve alluded to already: – bricks are meaningless unless joined to another brick and to another brick and to another brick and so on. As we come to Jesus, we become living stones – bricks! – to be joined together with other stones to become a house. It’s a very simple image really.
Every image of the church (Christian people), in the Bible is communal and relational – those who think the church is a building you visit as an individual once a week, stare at the back of someone’s head for an hour, go home and then have nothing to do with Christians until the following week – are not really part of the church as the Bible knows it!
So, how’s that going for us? I was reflecting on why we are here today and the work that has gone on for years to bring us to this place by so many people: the NFG meetings, the letters, phone calls and emails, the conversations, the emails, the PCCs and Standing Committees and Annual meetings, the prayer, the minute-taking, the emails, money given and managed, the emails, the energy expended to clear the church and move us to our various new homes and the many, many skills and talents that people have offered to bring us to this point. Surely all that is a part of what it means to be the church in relationship: living stones, joined and connected together; supporting stones around it and being supported by others.
Demonstrating this, I could also point to people who have been overwhelmed by love and generosity when they have needed it –a kind word by phone or letter, or a visit, an invite to dinner, practical support or financial help (and can I say thank you to everyone who has given to the discretionary fund I operate – you recently gave almost £700!). I could point to the connections made in home groups: opportunities to connect week-in, week-out with Christian brothers and sisters, learning to trust each other and build deeper relationships. I could point to those who help maintain and contribute to the smooth running of the building we call home and to the clergy and readers who give so generously of their time and talents. I could go on and on. All these are examples of living stones, in relationship, sharing lives together.
But we are not perfect yet. There are still lonely people in our church, people who need practical support, financial support. People who, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks. We are not always loving and encouraging in our words either face-to-face of behind people’s backs. We are not always as loving as we can be: you know, that challenging list in 1 Cor: patient, kind, not keeping a record of wrongs, not being selfish or rude. If you are human, like me, you will recognise that you are sometimes in the first list I read out and sometimes in the second – sometimes even at the same time! One of the comforts I take from this passage is that verse 5 says ‘you are being built into a spiritual house’. It’s a process, it takes time, but we can be confident that God will finish the job he’s started.
But the fact remains, you can’t come to Jesus (as verse 4 says) without coming to Christians! The life we experience from the cornerstone exists only in community. And, the sooner we learn that we need others, and they need us, the better. A building with bricks missing is a dangerous building and an ugly building. But God has placed the stones exactly where he wants them. If you are a Christian, then you are part of this amazing building whose source and life is the cornerstone. And you will have a place that is made just for you – a place no one else can take, and a place that will both support other stones around it and will be supported by other stones. It may be a good exercise this week for all of us to consider who we support and who is supporting us – write down names. And ask if you can be better at supporting those you support and also (and this is often harder for some of us), ask if you are really allowing others to support you – or are you too self-sufficient to need others? The answer is ‘no’ by the way!
People, we are the church – a rag-tag bunch of people from every background, colour, sex, race, age but we have one crucial and life-changing link – we are all joined vitally to the living stone, the cornerstone: Jesus Christ. From him we receive purpose and meaning.
The danger with the image of a building and of stones joined closely together is that it can seem a rather static image both literally and metaphorically. But then I thought of buildings that change people: a beautiful church or large cathedral may enable worship and awe, a hospital heals people, a power station provides life and energy, a house (and note Peter said we are being built into a spiritual house), a house provides security, warmth and love. Although it doesn’t use the word, the building referred to in this passage seems to be the temple– that is, the home of God! When we are secure in our connection to Jesus Christ the cornerstone and when we are in right relationship with the stones around us, we create a space where God dwells. Let that thought sink in. God inhabits the space we create through our relationship with Jesus and each other and it is then that our stated vision for the St Mary’s can become a reality: through us God can bring his light, life and love to a world which so desperately needs all of those things. And that is made a reality through a church building… made of living stones – wherever they happen to be.