SJF • Easter 5a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
It is difficult for us, living in a nominally Christian country, to imagine what it was like for the earliest believers in Christ. They were a tiny minority wherever they went in the Jewish or the Roman world. Among the Jews, themselves a minority in the Empire, the Christians were an even smaller sub-group, put upon and persecuted from the very first. In today’s passage from Acts we witness the end that befell one of them, Stephen, a young Christian whose death was partly the doing of another young man, Saul. This Saul, this persecutor of the church, would later undergo a powerful conversion, and change more than his name, becoming one of its greatest champions, but also a victim of the persecutions against it.
Christians in those early days got it from both sides: opposition from many of the Jewish leaders, but from the Gentile pagans as well. Compared with the Empire’s pagan religions — from worship of the Emperor to worship of the ancient deities of Rome and Greece and Egypt, to the emerging mystery religions — the Christians were a pitiful few and far between. To get a sense today of what it was like to be Christian in those days, you would have to go to someplace like Saudi Arabia or Iran or Northeast Nigeria, where Christians are not only a minority, but are restricted and in some cases persecuted or killed.
The other thing it is hard for us to understand is based on the fact that in our culture being a Christian is respectable. Politicians today can wear their religion on their sleeve — or on their lapel — without fear. I am old enough to remember when John F Kennedy had to make up excuses for his being a Roman Catholic; but the issue barely came up with John Kerry — remember him? And the Mormon religion only came up as a footnote with Mitt Romney — remember him?
People today can be public about their faith, but in the early days of the church it was clearly not so, as our readings from Acts and First Peter show. As far as the majority — pagan or Jewish — was concerned, the Christians were a dangerous minority, a cult with strange ideas that went against everything that society held in high esteem. Many of the Jews of the Greek and Roman cities were upstanding citizens, many of them were leaders of commerce, and the Greek and Roman leaders of the territories wanted above all to keep the peace, and the wheels of commerce turning. These Christians, their opponents would say, were turning the world upside down. “They say that the poor should be treated as well as the rich — even that it is blessèd to be poor. What an idea! They claim that God came among us in the person of a convicted felon, a trouble-maker — a man who was executed for treason against the Emperor; and what’s more, they claim that this disreputable traitor, this rebel against all that is decent and civil was raised from the dead! I mean, really! What will they be telling us next? that we should join them?!” And so these pious upright citizens hounded the apostles from town to town, stirring up opposition against them, those people, those weird, strange cult-like people who were turning their world upside down.
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It is to address exactly this situation that Peter writes his first letter, offering good advice for those who are being persecuted for their beliefs. He tells the Christian believers to turn to Jesus — and to do so with the innocence and purity and naturalness of a newborn child reaching for its mother’s breast, to be held, protected, rocked and nourished. Don’t worry about being rejected — those who reject you now rejected Jesus before: and look! He, the stone rejected by the builders, has become the cornerstone of a new spiritual house, into which you are being incorporated like living stones. Yes, it’s true you were once no people — you were nobodies — but now you are God’s own people, and that makes you somebody!
The simple truth of all of this is that God has indeed turned the world upside down — and inside out! As Jesus’ own mother had sung at the beginning, when she heard the word of his Incarnation, “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly and meek. ”
And what could be more upside down and inside out than the resurrection itself? God has brought his own beloved Son out of the darkness of death and into the marvelous light of new life, rolling away the stone and turning the tomb that held him inside out. So too each Christian, is blessed and baptized and forgiven and freed from the death of sin. And no matter how lowly your estate before, you have become a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. No wonder the civic leaders of the status quo were worried about this new religion; no wonder the authorities wanted to clamp down on this new faith; the Gospel is nothing less than revolutionary!
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And the revolution continues for each Christian believer, if not at the scale of the worldly society, then at least for each and every one of us as we engage in our own struggles with the pressures each of us faces. For Christ turns each and every one of us, and our own personal worlds, upside down and inside out.
God, it seems, puts his people through a good bit of a tumble in this life. And we might well ask, Why? If Jesus loves us so much; if, as he says in today’s Gospel that he is going to prepare a place for us, and he will come and get us, why doesn’t he just do so and take us now? In a rapture — all of us, right now! Why the wait? Why do we go through this earthly life at all if what we are really meant for is heaven?
Well, Peter has already given us the answer. We are like newborns in the faith — our eyes closed and happily nursing on the spiritual milk of Mother Church, provided to us, and helping us to grow; but we are still in the process of growth into salvation, as Peter calls it. Only God knows when we will be ready for him to come to take us to our everlasting home. Sometimes indeed God seems to take people too soon, while there are others for whom, it seems, God holds back. But preparation is needed, and God is the preparer.
This is why Peter uses the image of a building: the stones for the building — which is to say, us — have to be cut and polished and fit into the places that God the heavenly Architect intends for them. And such preparation and such building takes time.
On the twenty-eighth will be the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for this church. This church didn’t just plop down fully made, unpacked out of a cardboard box and set up; it had to be built; a foundation had to be dug; stones had to be laid to hold up the rest of the building.
There’s a TV show on the Science Channel called “Strip the City” — I don’t know if any of you have seen it. But they make use of computer animation to peel away the outsides of buildings, and even of the streets — rolling them back like carpet to show the subways, and the plumbing, and the sewers and everything the lies underneath. It’s amazing: cities aren’t just from the ground up; they go down, down, down. And in fact it’s the stuff below that nourishes the city: that’s where the water comes from, that’s where the electricity comes from; that’s where people travel to and from their work. There’s a whole lot there, underneath — the foundation.
And for us something else is in that foundation. For us, that foundation is Jesus Christ; who was buried — remember — he was buried, he was put below, he descended into Hell, so that he could hold up a whole new world. Imagine the great building that this new world is: those who have gone before rest on that firm foundation of Jesus Christ, and other stones laid down rank by rank, like the Apostles. They rest on Christ, and then the next generation and the next, building and building this spiritual temple — into which we too will be added when our time comes, God’s time — not ours. He is the architect, we are the stones. God will take us when he knows that we have been tumbled enough through life to have our edges smoothed, our rough spots worn down, when we have been cut to shape and formed for the purpose God has for us.
But we are not quite ready yet. You may recall that famous line from a movie a few years back, when Jack Nicholson confronts Tom Cruise, who says he wants to know the truth. Nicholson snarls, “Truth! You can’t handle the truth!” Well, we face an even greater Truth; the one who is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life. And we know that that is true. But we are not yet quite ready to face the Living God in all his majesty and awe; we are still in our spiritual infancy, still incompletely formed and polished.
It is not that Jesus is not ready for us, but that we are not ready for him. We are still in the process of being shaped and formed for the proper fit in his temple on high. All our life is part of that preparation — a school of hard knocks sometimes, but also the school of God’s mercy. All our life is preparation. And when the time comes — God’s time, not ours — as that wonderful old hymn puts it, after “many a blow and biting sculpture” has “polished well those stones elect” we will find ourselves — one day — “in our places now compacted by the heavenly Architect.”
The time will come, beloved, when we close our eyes one last time on this earth, and Christ takes us by the hand to lead us to be with him where he is. The time will come when the pains and sorrows and challenges of being chiseled and battered and polished will be well worth it. When the heavenly Architect slips us into place in his temple in the heavenly city, we will see just why he has shaped us in the way he did, so that we could be all that he intends us to be: living stones for his spiritual temple — for ever. And in Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, we will bask forever in the radiancy of glory, and the bliss beyond compare.+