I Peter 2: 2-10
I came to a greater appreciation of what’s involved in building a church or cathedral out of stone a few years ago when I read Ken Follett’s popular novel, Pillars of the Earth. One of the lead characters in the story is a builder who takes a job working on a cathedral in medieval Britain. We watch and learn with him as he struggles with the architectural challenges of his day: How tall can the walls be made before they become unsteady and topple over? How thick do they need to be in order to bear the weight of the roof? How can windows be put in to allow light to enter, without weakening the structure of the walls? The story records accidents and setbacks along the way as new designs are tested. Various types of workmen are needed, craftsmen in stone and wood and iron. It’s clear that building a cathedral in medieval Europe was a dangerous and risky endeavor, a significant challenge for all who were involved.
That background has given me a greater appreciation of our monastery chapel and the men who designed and built it. Let your eyes wander for a few moments around this place. Notice the proportions: the length of the sanctuary, the height of the walls, the spacing of windows and pillars and beams. And then take a moment to notice, one at a time, the uniquely-shaped stones that fit together to make these walls. Focus on one for a few moments, and then on another. Imagine how each of them was carved out of the quarry, and then chiseled and fitted to be exactly what the architect and builder needed that particular stone to be. Each one unique, each different, and each fitted exactly into its special place, joining with the others around it to produce strength and stability and beauty, and all according to a master plan.
So it is with us, says the author of First Peter. We are like stones in a building that is being erected on a solid and immovable cornerstone, which is Christ. He is the sure foundation, “a cornerstone chosen and precious” for those who have come to believe and trust in him. He is a “living stone” – not some dead figure from the past whose words and deeds we recall, but a living presence, active among us. And, like him, we too are “living stones,” who are “being built into a spiritual house” for the glory of God, and according to God’s masterful plan.
This is a rich metaphor. What does it mean for us?
I would like to suggest four possible implications of this metaphor for our lives:
First, it means that our lives are to be solidly centered upon Christ. He is that steady, immovable, sure presence who alone can provide a sure foundation for us – a foundation that is able to stand firm when the difficulties and challenges of life assault us. “On Christ the solid rock I stand,” the popular hymn puts it, “all other ground is sinking sand.”
The world offers us any number of attractive stones which we can choose as the cornerstone of our lives. They seem beautiful to us, and worthy. They draw praise from those around us. We may well be tempted to build our lives upon them. Here are a few: our personal gifts and talents, our wealth and our possessions, our achievements and our reputation, our charismatic personalities, our physical beauty, or our clever minds. And yet, as attractive as these things might be in the present moment, they can and will pass away. If we build on them, we may soon find ourselves on “sinking sand.” Our circumstances can change, our fortunes can fail, our bodies can decline, our good reputations can be tarnished. None of these good things will last. Christ alone is our sure foundation.
What will it mean for you to build your life upon that “chosen and precious” cornerstone, which is Christ?
Second, if we choose to build our lives on this cornerstone and offer ourselves to be built into a “spiritual house,” we will need to be shaped and fitted to fulfill the role the Master Builder has in mind for us. Normally, rocks taken from a quarry are not ready to be used for building, at least not right away. They need to be chiseled and formed; their rough edges need to be smoothed so they can fit tightly against the stones around them. And so it is with us. What “rough edges” might need to be smoothed in you? Could it be your speech that needs to change? your attitude? your self-centeredness? your stubbornness? your pride? What is it in you that needs to be re-formed or re-ordered in order for you to be more useful to God? The work of a stone mason is to chip away all that is not needed or that gets in the way. Will you welcome this process of change and transformation?
Third, the metaphor implies that we are not meant to stand on our own, but to be joined with others into a structure that is greater than its individual parts. We often fail to understand this in our day. We are constantly being encouraged to form ourselves, to create the life we want for ourselves, to seek our own goals and ends, to focus on our own individual achievements and successes. But one stone cannot make a house, or even a wall. We must be joined together if our lives are to have meaning.
To the Ephesians, Paul writes, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:19-22). We are to be joined not only with those whose lives touch ours in the present, but also with those who have gone before us and those who will come after us. We are “citizens with the saints” and “members of the household of God.”
What will it mean for you to look not only to your own interests, but to the collective interests of the whole Body? Are you willing to be joined together with others – with all the challenges and opportunities that human communities afford – so that something strong and beautiful and lasting can be made?
Fourth, the metaphor reminds us that it is a great privilege to be chosen and shaped and fitted into the dwelling place for God that God is fashioning. I suppose we might imagine that it was an honor for each of these stones to be selected to be incorporated into this place of worship. It was certainly an honor for those whose labor built this house; these two windows to my right are a gift from the men who worked on this site in the 1930’s; a sign of their gratitude for the privilege of having been employed in building this house of God. They counted it an honor.
The author of First Peter reminds his readers of the honor of being chosen to belong to God: “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (v.10). “You are a chosen race,” he tells them, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people!” Think what a great privilege this is. And all of this is for a single purpose, namely, “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v.9). This building that God is fashioning is meant for God’s glory. It is meant as a testimony to God’s might acts. These “living stones” will sing out the praises of the Lord. Their common life will proclaim God’s glory. What higher purpose or greater glory could an individual “stone” have than this, to be joined together with others to the praise of God’s name?
Finally, notice the verb that is used in the author’s injunction to his readers: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” (v.5). The Builder has a plan. There is a place for you. God will chisel and form you into what God intends you to be. Your part is to let God work with you, to give yourself over to him so that he might fashion you according to his divine purpose. Is this something you can do? Can you hand over your desire to fashion yourself and trust God to work with you and in you for God’s glory and for your good? If not, what prevents you from yielding yourself to God’s wise and skillful hand?
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (v.9). Let yourselves be built together into a spiritual house where God may reside and where all may find a resting place.
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