“Living Stone”

“Living Stone”
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 ; 1 Peter 2:4-10
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
May 7, 2023

A few years ago, I was in Jerusalem with a group of pastors, and as you would expect, we visited a bunch of the majestic churches there. And one of those was the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, a Catholic church just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem (front cover).

“Gallicantu” – Latin for “cock’s crow” – refers to Peter’s denying Jesus three times before the cock crowed.

And while this church is not quite as large as others in Jerusalem or around the world, it is 1000 years old and certainly stunning.

Soaring arches, beautiful architecture, and detailed Fresca art depicting biblical scenes.

Have you ever walked into one of these grand sanctuaries somewhere around the world? It feels like something happens when you enter. People start to quiet.

People who, maybe moments ago, were haggling for a deal on the market will light a simple candle, slip into the old wooden pew, and for the first time since they can remember – they will pray.

And that particular sensibility goes a long way back.

Since the time of King Solomon in ancient Israel, the physical Temple in Jerusalem was understood by God’s people to be the locus of God’s presence in the world.

And they designed and built the space in just such a way that its beauty and detail and inner and outer courts and all the rest made it clear that God dwells most especially here.

And yes, they also believed God was Lord of all and active beyond the walls of the Temple. But the Temple was the most central place in which the presence of God dwelt.

It perhaps difficult for us to appreciate just how profound a shift Peter names in our Scriptures this morning:

“Come to him (Jesus)… like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house (also translated “a Temple.”)

Or Paul in Ephesians puts it this way: “In him, (Jesus) the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”

They are essentially saying, “Yes, the presence of God is very much in the Temple…but the Temple is now the people of God, the church.”

It is no wonder if you read the whole of 1 Peter, you see Peter saying things to the church like….

  • have a unity of spirit, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (3:8)
  • clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another
  • (even when defending your faith): Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence…. (3:15-16)

When Peter sees the church, he sees the stunning Temple, God’s dwelling space, the holy of holies – and so reverence. Honor. Humility.

Of course, sometimes people forget, right?

I think of those times I’ve been in those soaring sanctuaries, and someone there just doesn’t seem to get it – you ever seen this?

Maybe you’ve been there, and they have tours going, so you expect some quiet photos and low chatter…

…But have you ever been in there and, though all the signs say not to do it…

  • There is someone clicking away with flash photography?
  • Or there’s a group casually rushing through and could care less about being in there for a second longer?
  • Or amid the low voices of the tour and the quiet prayer, there is this group laughing or talking loudly as if they have no idea where they are?

And really, it’s not just that their flash photography or fast pace or noise is annoying… it’s that they seem to have forgotten or not noticed where they are.

We think to ourselves, “This…is…holy(!) Can’t you see where we are?!”

In writing to the church, part of what Peter is doing is simply reminding them where they are.

“You are in the holy, living Temple of God. Precious, uniquely chiseled stones of the Most High on either side of you,” which means, of course, the bare minimum:

No snap judgments allowed.
No racing past another’s personhood.
No talking over and behind and around one another.
Or, as Peter himself puts it right before our passage: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”

How do we look upon one another?

  • Living stones being built around, alongside, upon us? A certain holy reverence when we see one another?
  • Have we ever been obnoxious tourists among the holy stones?
  • Have we ever trampled upon holy ground?

And if too often it seems we as individuals, we as a people, we as a society…if too often we are prone to trample upon holy ground with our thoughts, our words, our guns, our actions …

What do we do? What might help us see and honor and take seriously that we are on holy ground that invites a reverence and humility and are?

Maybe we remember where we are by first remembering who we are.

I was talking with a friend of mine who is a physical therapist, and he was sharing how he ends up seeing people all the time at a vulnerable season in life because they are facing some sort of weakness or injury or need for help.

It’s the kind of space where people are often a little more honest.

And he said that it always strikes him that as much as he works on the patients’ body, he inevitably works far more with their minds and hearts because that’s where so much of the guilt and shame are carried.

  • Shame about how their body looks and how the weight probably contributed to why they are here.
  • Shame about what they eat or don’t eat.
  • Shame about the fact that they should have known better about this injury or that chronic problem…
  • Regret about not addressing this sooner, about making the fix years ago.
  • Some sense of failure about who they are

“Scratch the surface of the façade,” he told me, “and so many people struggle mightily to love themselves.”

“Love your neighbor…as…yourself.”

Perhaps some of why even Christians who follow the God of Love, perhaps why we nevertheless struggle sometimes with…

judging one another,
gossiping about one another,
holding one another to impossible standards and bashing each other when we don’t meet them or prove hypocritical…

…perhaps one of the reasons we are not always a people of profound honor and reverence before one another is not simply that we forgot that they are holy stones.

Maybe we don’t believe that we are. Holy, beautiful, living stones filled with the presence of God Almighty.

Is it possible that are struggle to love well, love courageously, love friend and enemy…is it possible some of that is rooted in the fact that we know far-too-well…

  • all dirt and stains that have accumulated on this living stone?
  • All the ways anxiety and fear defeat this living stone time and again?
  • All the ways addiction or simmering anger or…keeps a stranglehold?

“Love your neighbor…as yourself.”

How perfect, I think, that St. Peter’s at Gallicantu in Jerusalem is such a soaring, beautiful church.

Here is a church that commemorates in a central way the fact that Peter denied Jesus three times. Three moments of failure to love neighbor, three moments of shame, three moments of weakness.

And yet the stones that comprise this church are beautiful. Strong. 1000 plus years.

What that church’s very beauty makes clear is that with our God,

  • it is precisely from stones of failure, shame, weakness…
  • Precisely from stones that can’t get it together and love neighbor or keep their lives swept clean…
  • it is precisely from such stones that enduring beauty is built.

And it is never about the stones doing that work.

Our Scriptures make clear… if the living stones are raised vertically and true and beautifully, it is because they rest their weight upon the cornerstone.

Did you notice how Peter puts it? “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a Temple.”

Not “build yourselves into a Temple,” but “let yourselves be built.” It is passive.

The idea being that the living stones simply let the weight of their being fall upon the cornerstone, and he enjoins and grows them.

Living stones need not grit their teeth and try harder to love one another or themselves…

The first and foremost call is let ourselves, our baggage, our failure, our fears, our dirt and stains… fall upon the cornerstone.

Imagine letting all that weight fall? Right next other stones letting all that weight fall?

Imagine then a few visitors coming to FPC… and perhaps they notice the stunning beauty…

But then they also see…

… a people who are quick to listen, slow to speak to another…

…they see a people who slow long enough before one another to see the beauty of each person’s gifts and encourage them…
…they see a real reverence given one toward another…

And maybe they can’t put the experience into words… They just know that whatever “holy” means, this is it.

More of whatever this is is what this world desperately needs.

…and of course what they will have seen are living stones who have thrown all of their weight upon the cornerstone whose perfect love cannot help but grow that which is sure and true, holy and good. Amen.

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert