“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
I’ve given you all a stone today. You might like to hold it as you listen. You can take it home with you – in fact, please do! Put it somewhere special. Decorate it if you like, or don’t if you’d rather not.
Let’s ponder these stones for a moment, though. Each one is different – a different shape, colour and size. Some are smooth and round, some have rough edges where they have been broken at some point in their lives. I wonder where your stone came from, and what stories it could tell if it had a voice. Perhaps it was once part of a mountain. Perhaps it is limestone, built out of the shells of tiny sea creatures. Perhaps it has been at the bottom of the ocean, or the middle of a desert at some point in its long life. But now here it is, in your hand.
The Bible is full of stones, like the stony Middle Eastern landscapes which the people who wrote it knew. Of course, there is lush, green, fertile land in Israel, but there is also a great deal of desert, rocky wilderness in which life is tough.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that those make their way into so many Biblical stories.
In the Old Testament, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow when he lies down in the middle of nowhere and dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. He’s on the run from his family, having stolen his twin brother’s birthright, so he is amazed to find that God is still with him. He sets up the stone as a marker at the place he calls “Bethel” literally the “house of God”.
Stones were used as markers in other stories too. When the Israelites crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land, God told each tribe to bring a stone to make a cairn. In times to come they would see it, and show it to their children and remember the journey – and the God who had rescued them. These weren’t the only stones in that journey. The Ten Commandments were written by God on tablets of stone – another reminder of what the priorities of their new nation should be.
Stone was a symbol of permanence. It endured. It was solid. It said, “we are here to stay, and so is our God.”
Eventually the Israelites built themselves a stone Temple to worship in, replacing the temporary wooden structures that had gone before it. The altar was of stone too, unhewn stone, like a drystone wall. They weren’t to use chisels on it, presumably so they wouldn’t be tempted to carve images into it.
Of course, stones could also be instruments of death. David killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a sling-stone , and stoning was a common means of execution. Stones could make life tough in other ways too. The stony soil in the parable of the sower couldn’t nourish the seeds which fell on it. They sprang up, but then withered and died.
And stones could be barriers. The stone that was rolled across the mouth of Jesus’ tomb was meant to make sure his body stayed where it was. “Who will roll the stone away?” asked the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus. But God, it turned out, had that problem sorted out – stones were no barrier to him, any more than death was. I could go on. When you start looking for stones in the Bible you find them everywhere.
But let’s look at the readings we heard today. There were stones in both of them, but they were of a very different kind to the ones we are holding in our hands, very different from those other Biblical stones I have been talking about. The stone in the Gospel reading was St Peter, one of our Patron saints. His name was really Simon, but Jesus called him Petros, the rock. The name is a signal that Peter will be part of the foundation of the new community he is building. We find the same idea in the first letter of Peter, which talks about “living stones”. The author almost certainly isn’t St Peter. It is too late and too elegantly written to be the work of a Galilean fisherman. But the person who wrote it might have given it his name because he had known and followed him. He certainly seems to have stones on his mind. He talks about Jesus as the cornerstone of a new building. The cornerstone is the stone all the others are lined up with. It is vital, but it is only the beginning. It isn’t a building on its own. And that’s where we come in, because we are called to be stones too, “living stones”, like Jesus, used by God to build with.
I was struck by this phrase “living stones” this week as I thought about this passage. It’s an odd phrase. I wondered whether it was a common metaphor at the time, or whether this writer had invented it. It seems that he probably did. It’s not used anywhere else in the Bible, and doesn’t seem to be used in this sense in classical literature either.
But his hearers would have understood what he meant, because it grows out of ideas that were very much in people’s minds at the time.
Both the Gospel and the letter were probably written at some point shortly after AD 70, the date when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. It was a huge crisis point for the Jewish people. This massive stone edifice had looked indestructible, as if it would stand forever, but the Romans had other ideas, and razed it to the ground. Today there is just one wall of it left, the Western or wailing wall, where Jewish people go to pray.
The Romans didn’t just destroy a building when they knocked the Temple down, though; they destroyed an entire religious system. Ancient Judaism was based on sacrifice. This was how you drew close to God. Now there was nowhere to sacrifice, so how were you to encounter God, to be strengthened, forgiven , healed? Some turned increasingly to their scriptures and their laws, and focussed on these – the Pharisees - but those who followed Jesus said that they’d met God in him, a flesh and blood person. Once he was no longer physically with them, they believed his presence could still be felt through his Spirit at work in their communities as they learned to love and serve one another. They had met with God within the stone walls of the Temple, now they met him within the living stones of Jesus and the Christian community. They didn’t need monumental marble to mark out their sacred space; they made it themselves whenever they gathered together.
And this is still our calling; to be the “living stones” that make a Temple for our own time, a place where people can find God – not the only place of course, but one we deliberately make together.
To live up to that calling to be living stones, we need to ask ourselves two questions about ourselves.
First are we “living”? That doesn’t just mean that being physically alive, with breath in our bodies and a steady heartbeat, though that’s a good start! We also need to be spiritually alive, alive with the life of God. That’s a hard thing to describe, but my experience is that we know it when we find it. It’s not about being happy or feeling that your life is all sorted out. It is more to do with knowing that you aren’t alone, whatever it is you are going through God is going through it with you, that you have access to strength beyond your strength. All sorts of things can get in the way of that. Resentment, anxiety and the burdens of unforgiven sin can all deaden us spiritually. But it is often when things are apparently going well for us that we are most at risk of dying spiritually. We get smug and self-satisfied. We think we are fine just as we are, that we have all we need. We close ourselves off to anything beyond us and we stop growing and reflecting. The good news is, though, that God is good at bringing the dead to life – this is the God who raised Jesus from death. He is good at turning stone into flesh. He promised the Prophet Ezekiel that he would take away hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. The first reading summed it up. “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”. Through loving service, through the Bible, through prayer and worship and through one another God can bring us to life if we let him.
The second question we need to ask is about the stony part of that phrase. When we thought about stones earlier we saw they could be used for a lot of different purposes. A stone is just a stone until it is used for something. The “living stones” which the Bible talks about are very specifically meant to be put to use to build a Temple, joined to others to make a place where people can meet with God. A stone may be very fine, very beautiful, but on its own it can’t make a building. Of course we can live good and holy lives on our own, but we are called to do more than that. The stones God needs are the ones who are prepared to be committed to the wall, set in place next to others – perhaps not of their choosing - so that the whole structure can be strong, more than the sum of its parts. “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” says the reading. That’s why it matters that we come together, that we learn together, that we reach out together, because together we can build the generous place of welcome, the safe and holy space that we, and those around us, really need.
I don’t know what you will do with your stones, but I hope they will help you to think about your own calling, to be a living stone, alive with the life of God, part of a Temple that is big enough to welcome all who come to it.