Easter 5, Year A
A few years ago the chapel of Virginia Theological Seminary suffered a catastrophic fire. Much of the building was wooden and it burned in less than an hour. Since it was in the middle of the day, many of the students witnessed their beloved and historic chapel burn. A reporter asked a student what it felt like to see her church burn to the ground. She replied, “That is not the church” and then indicating the people around her she said, “this is the church.” I assume that the statement was not meant to dismiss the importance of the building, but to indicate that the Church of Christ was the people of Christ, not the structure that housed the people of Christ.
In our reading from 2ndPeter, we hear about living stones. Jesus is compared to a living stone as are the people who Peter is writing to. It’s an odd phrase because we don’t usually associate a stone with life, which is one of the reasons why we can’t read this too literally. Peter makes that clear when he writes, “…and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
In the very early church (when 1stPeter was written), there were no physical structures dedicated to the Christian faith. Most Christians were worshipping in homes either because they feared persecution or because there was nowhere else to worship. There were no community centers or schools and they were no longer welcome in the temples. They did not have a house dedicated to God (like the Jews were used to having at this time period and we are accustomed to now). So Peter was urging them to create a spiritual house with themselves as the building blocks and Jesus as the cornerstone. Thus wherever they went, as long as they were together, they could be in a sacred place.
I suspect these words were a great comfort to the recipients of this letter. In the beginning Peter writes “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…” Because of this greeting, and other indicators in the letter, it is believed that the recipients of this letter were people who were displaced from their homes. Not only did they not have a place to worship, but they might not even have a place to live. It’s possible that some of these people were separated from their families and in many ways their heritage. So the idea that they could create a spiritual home wherever they were and with all different kinds of people gave them the promise of belonging, the promise of a home.
At the same time, it was a challenge. Jesus, this stone that had become the cornerstone, was a stone that others had rejected, rather dramatically and violently. It was a stone that caused some people to stumble. And the people who they were building this new spiritual home with were not necessarily the people they were used to worshipping with. They were people from various ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and social status. These living stones did not all look alike, nor did they necessarily fit together well…which is why that corner stone, that foundation of Jesus Christ was so critical. They were not meant to be a community of like-minded people. They were meant to be a spiritual house, a sacred space created to worship and honor God.
Many people believe that Christians worshipped only in homes before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. This is not entirely accurate. As the communities grew, in the 200’s and 300’s, special spaces were converted for the specific purpose of hosting a Christian community. If we were to see these places now, we might not recognize them as a church; but they were in the sense that they were buildings designed specifically for a community of Christians to gather and worship Jesus. They had created that space because they needed the space for more people to gather.
A lot of people today are questioning why we have church buildings now. Some people would recommend that we go back to house churches like the early church communities. Then we would not have worry as much about budgets and things like that. And I thought about that when I was discerning a call to St. John’s. What would it mean to be a pastor of community that was especially connected to the building where they worshipped? Why not start a bunch of house churches if that is what the church of the future looks like?
In ancient times, things that were considered rooted in the ground (like Stonehenge for instance or other huge stone structures) were considered to be living because they “seemed to possess some inherent integrity; their vitality was a function of their being rooted in place.” So in a sense, these monolithic structures were living stones because they were connected to the past. That is an intriguing idea when you consider that in the context of old church buildings like St. John’s. It makes me wonder what it is that makes a building a sacred space. I suppose there would be a different answer for each church and for each person. But what makes St. John’s especially sacred to me is it’s connection to all those who worshipped before. When I celebrate the Eucharist with the communion silver from 1618, it’s almost like I can feel the pulse of those who held those vessels in years past. It’s a profoundly holy experience. I have heard other people express that same connection; so I am fairly certain it’s not just me.
While I value that connection, that rootedness in the past, I fear that sometimes the roots keep us from growing in different directions, in seeing ourselves as living stones that have come together to create something sacredly new. The roots might be our rich history, but the cornerstone is always Jesus Christ. That is the one thing that brings us together—that keeps us together. That is who defines us. And together as living stones, we are called as Christians to build a spiritual house. That spiritual house is unlike any actual building because it is a building that is never complete. It is a building that we work on our whole lives. We work on it as individuals and we work on it as a community. In terms of our physical space- we know what our building looks like (and soon we will know what our renovated tower looks like), but what does our spiritual house look like? There are limits to what this beautiful building can do, but there are no limits to what our spiritual house can do—only those limits we inflict upon ourselves. So let us maintain this building and honor the connection to Christians and to God—but let us burn those limits we put on our spiritual house. Let’s never stop building and stretching.