Do you know the song that goes like this, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people…”
Great song, but, I feel like this pandemic is making us second guess the lyrics. Don’t you find yourselves longing after the church building? Online worship is great, but it’s just not the same when we’re not in the building.
In this week’s reading Peter actually makes it sound like the church is a building, but in a metaphorical way. He refers back to the scriptures and reminds them of the Good News, that Jesus is the stone set in Zion which the prophets anticipated. Jesus is the one who comes as a stumbling block to many, but has turned out to be the bedrock of a New Creation. Jesus, says Peter, is the Rock who was rejected by the builders but who was then raised and revealed as the Cornerstone of a whole New Existence.
Now, think about that. Why would a builder reject a stone? Well a builder wants a nice, clean, level stone, right? It needs to bear the right load, so it needs to measure up. It needs to be both level and plumb. That means that for Christ to have been rejected, he must have appeared to those who rejected him to have been at least a half a bubble off plumb.
He wasn’t the right kind of teacher, wasn’t the right kind of Roman, wasn’t the right kind of Jew, and wasn’t the right kind of savior, so they tossed him out, assuming he wasn’t the right kind of stone.
But then, in an earth tilting twist, it turns out CHrist wasn’t the one who was “off,” it was the builders. The one that they rejected was raised and revealed to be the foundation of a new world, a new creation. The stone that was rejected became the new cornerstone.
Peter says, “therefore, Come to him, this living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen by God, and like living stones yourselves, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house. Come and be formed by the one who called you out of the shadow of death, and into his glorious light.”
This is Good News for any people who find themselves in the shadow of death this week, feeling lost or un-Grounded. Peter says, again, you’re already Grounded. Christ is the new Cornerstone not of a building but of all creation, including you. You can lean on him, and let yourself be reshaped according to the example of Christ as one of his living stones.
There’s a church about a mile away from here, First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Manassas, FAME for short. It has Methodist in the name because they too are Methodists, we used to be one church, but when some African American Methodists were rejected by their white siblings in Christ and forced to worship in the balcony, they ended up starting their own denomination and we have been alienated from one another ever since.
This week, after I heard the news about Ahmaud Arbery, I decided to reach out to the pastor of FAME church, pastor Goggins. I’ve seen her out walking so I asked if I could join her. She welcomed me.
I asked Pastor Goggins about what it was like for her to hear the news of Mr. Arbery’s death. She said it left her once again laying in bed talking to God and asking “How Long, O Lord?” That’s a quote from the Psalms, by the way. It’s a prayer you might have been saying in this pandemic, but this one is not just about social distancing, it’s about structural racism and injustice. How Long, O Lord, must the human family be divided against each other and live with injustice? How Long, O Lord?
In some Black theology, this question on a week like this is why this cornerstone passage is so important, believe this passage reveals to despised and rejected people that they have a despised and rejected savior. It does not answer the “How Long, O Lord?” question with a timeline or some kind of divinely ordained 3 phase process of reconciliation. It responds to the cries of bodies that are despised and rejected by becoming one of them, taking on a despised and rejected body. .
Their cries are heard and responded to by a God who takes on a body himself, and is then wrongly accused, hunted down, and killed… and then he is raised. The Good News of Christ for the despised and rejected in this world is that the One who holds the keys of hell and death, the Living Cornerstone, has a body shaped and scarred like theirs. And that means that the hope of a New Resurrection Existence, and a Resurrected body like his is also their sure hope. And in the meantime, it reveals an existence they are freed to expect, to demand, and to build, like living stones, for in Christ, this justice, this reconciliation, this human dignity, it is not just an eventual promise, it is a present reality whose foundation has already been laid.
Here at Grace, this modern building’s cornerstone is somewhere outside. But, when you come to our building, you can see a former cornerstone displayed prominently. It’s incorporated into the foundation under the big bell we are ringing this Easter.
What you may not know is that soon after the African Methodist Episcopal church split off from the rest of the Methodist movement, the White methodists split too. They split over the question of slavery. Some Methodists saw it as sin. Others disagreed and fought for the preservation of the institution of slavery.
That latter group, the group of Methodists that was willing to enslave and sacrifice persons in order to prop up its economy, that was us. That was what was called the Methodist Episcopal Church South. And we were proud of it. Proud enough to make it our cornerstone. You can see it when you come to church, the cornerstone from our old building says Grace. M.E. Church South.
I’ve noticed at times when racial violence and other examples of white supremacy rear their head, there is a temptation among white folks, myself included, to distance ourselves from it. TO find some way to deny the racism we see, or to otherwise convince ourselves and others that we’re not racist, that that sin is not in us. But, I have come to believe that to do so is not only false, it is a rejection of Christ.
Instead, what Peter points out is that in Christ we have received Grace upon Grace. In Christ we see that God is the cornerstone not just for the despised and rejection but even for their despisers and rejectors. Even for sinners.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, yes, for the church huddled in homes and those that live in fear, and, miraculously, also for sinners, for those in need not just of rescue but conversion.
I’m glad it’s there, that cornerstone. I cringe every time I see it, but I’m glad it’s there because it’s a reminder. It’s a reminder of our constant need for the good news that Christ is our cornerstone, even ours, and that he’s a living stone, shaping us constantly, even while we are yet sinners, shaping us into a spiritual house that proclaims the mighty acts of the One who called them out of the shadow of Sin and Death and into his glorious light.
The church is not a building, we know that quite well in a pandemic, it’s true. But, even when we are apart, the church is still the only structure I know which is built on a foundation which can bear every kind of load, and which shapes and reshapes its own stones. It is the only structure I know which welcomes both the sinner and the sinned against and helps them walk side by side. It is the only place I can find which is not just a place, but a people, founded not on our own perfection, but on a person, Christ or Cornerstone who is making all things new.
So, whatever shape you’re in this week, hear the good news in the words of Peter.
Once you were not a people. Now, you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy. Now you have received mercy. Come to him, the cornerstone of a new Creation, and like living stones, let yourselves be built even now into a spiritual house that reveals the One who called you out of the shadow of Sin and Death, and into His glorious Light. Amen.