Scholars can’t say definitively just who wrote the letter that makes up 1 Peter. Most likely it wasn’t Peter himself, but a later disciple of his. What we do know, though, is that this letter is addressed to exiles. It’s full of advice for a scattered people, for Christians facing persecution. It is a letter to people who, like Jesus, have been misunderstood or pushed aside. I’d venture a guess that just about every one of us has felt that way at some point or another. The verses we just heard tell us that even if those hardships are where we’ve been or where we are, they’re not where we’ll stay. We are, as Eugene Peterson interprets in The Message, “building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life.”
As we consider what these words might mean for us today, Jesus is, as usual, a good place to start. The writer of 1 Peter quotes Hebrew Scripture in verse six, calling Jesus “a cornerstone chosen and precious.” These days some physical cornerstones are more ceremonial than structural, taking the form of a large commemorative marker on the corner of a building, often bearing the year in which that building was constructed. But when it comes down to it, a cornerstone is the point from which the rest of a building is oriented. A cornerstone determines the direction of every stone after it. Subsequent stones are built into walls, and before you know it a whole building has emerged from that one starting point. We’re not talking just any kind of starter stone, either. Jesus is a “living stone,” says verse four, “rejected by mortals and precious in God’s sight.” This particular language of living stones would’ve been intended to counter the alternative of the time — to counter the stone statues, idols of the empire symbolizing everything that Christ was not. Jesus didn’t fit the mold or buy into the established power structures that kept people in their approved places. Being this cornerstone of conviction came at a high cost for Jesus. The simple yet prophetic act of loving people cost Jesus his very life, but through his death and resurrection we are emboldened to love deeply too.
It doesn’t stop there. Yes, Jesus is the living cornerstone, but we too are created to be living building blocks of a better world. And fear not, we aren’t in it alone. “Like newborn infants,” reads verse 2, “long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” God offers us nourishment, sustaining us through the hard work of being the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world.
It’s not just the smartest or nicest or most pious of us that are gathered into the body of Christ and given this charge. It’s every one of us, even — maybe especially — those of us who society has deemed unworthy. “Drink deep of God’s pure kindness,” Peterson interprets. Even the stones that the builders have cast aside, God has gathered to build up the body of Christ.
I imagine a young child walking along a pebbled beach. She doesn’t hurry, instead taking her time, soaking in the creation around her, eyes widening in wonder at the vastness of a seemingly never-ending ocean and the rich sounds and smells of a creation that is alive all around her. As her parents keep walking, overlooking or disregarding the seemingly similar stones around them, she notices the glint of a mineral or the subtle yet striking stripes of sediment in each small rock. She gleefully gathers souvenirs, handing each one over to a parent with the reverence that accompanies a prized possession. This pebble is the most beautiful pebble she has ever seen. And that one. And this one. Over and over.
We might be more like gravel, than polished stones that have been smoothed by time and weather. Every one of us is rough around an edge in one way or another. We may feel pretty inconsequential as we consider our imperfections or mistakes. And still God nourishes us. We have to show up, long for the milk that God provides. But it’s there. Whether we are people of confident, lifelong faith, full of more questions than convictions, or somewhere in between there is enough of God’s pure kindness to go around.
When we have embraced our place as Godly gravel? This nourishment from God is a blessing that carries further responsibility. God is faithful to us, so it’s our turn respond in faith too. Of course this is often easier said than done. What idols do we chase that get in the way of our being living stones? Is it reaching the ultimate career success? Having the image of a perfect family and the most put-together home? Clinging so tightly to being right that we are blind to the fact that another person could be right too? Fred Craddock reminds us that “What human beings want to build and what God is building are not always the same.”** Idols will always be there, but that doesn’t mean they always have to win. So what’s next, after we’ve embraced our identities as these living stones and acknowledged our call to align ourselves with Christ’s cornerstone of an example?
Together we are “to be built into a spiritual house,” verse five tells us, “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” By being in this room today we are no strangers to faithful spaces. This very sanctuary is a place where you all gather each week to nurture your faith. At UKirk Ole Miss we have our house too. It’s a little different, as it’s a building kind of tucked away a block or two off the Square in Oxford. It’s pretty easy to pass by, unless you notice the logo stickers on the windows, and it mayyy or may not have been a bar in a former life. Our furniture doesn’t all match, but it’s ours. A place to welcome young adults as they experience the wide open wilderness of being on their own often for the first time. Each week college students gather in our building — The Building, as we call it — and we share a meal. We worship. In between those Tuesday gatherings we use our space for studying or napping or from time to time for an episode of The Office on Netflix.
These physical places are wonderful for us, but the exiled people to whom 1 Peter was written didn’t have the temple in Jerusalem. What’s a people of God to do when they find themselves without a house? Get to work and build one. If we ourselves are the building blocks, it seems that it’s our communities — our relationships with each other — that become the spiritual house. I am certain that God is bigger than any one place, anyway.
So what does it look like to make our very lives a spiritual house? Just before I started seminary, I spent a year living in New Orleans with the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program. My fellow volunteers and I lived in an intentional Christian community together, but we also became stones built into the communities in which we served. That year challenged me and helped me grow in countless ways, but one of the clearest memories I have took place in my very first week there. My housemates and I, along with some volunteers from another program, were on a tour of the city. We saw some of the usual sites, and we got to know some new-to-us neighborhoods, and stood on the levee looking over the Lower Ninth Ward. What is most memorable about that day, however, is a comment that our tour guide — a local church member — made at the end of the tour. While we were debriefing the things we’d experienced that day, our guide shared some of her thoughts on the years following Hurricane Katrina. Six years had passed, at this point, and more than one house on our block still bore the spray paint Xs left behind by the searches carried out in the days and weeks immediately following the storm. As our guide painted a picture of the city’s recovery process, she included the gradual departure of the various forms of aid, and the media’s movement on to the next pieces of breaking news. But she made one thing clear. She said: “The church never forgot us.” Church people kept coming to help. Caring for our sisters and brothers even when everyone else has stopped is one way we can build up our spiritual houses.
Even when physical buildings are still crumbling, we as people of faith can live together as a spiritual house, inviting in everyone we can. And even more than that, by going out, to where everyone already is. Because as a people who have received such mercy from God, we can’t help but share it with others. A seminary professor of mine used to begin each class with a breath prayer, inviting us to inhale and and exhale together… Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s mercy to others. Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s mercy to others. Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s mercy to others.
This building and breathing will not always be easy. The world will tell us that hope is crazy, that peace between people is a far-off dream. Building and breathing God’s mercy in the world is hard work. But part of living is growing, and anyone who has done a renovation or other big project in their living space knows that growth is almost sure to be messy. As we renovate we might temporarily have to give up some of our own space, and no doubt a good bit of rearranging will be necessary. It might take a few tries to really feel settled back in. So it goes, when we grow. A friend of mine was describing an upcoming job interview when she said “I’m excited and terrified and curious!” It hit me then that that is a pretty good description of how I feel about ministry, most days. I’m excited every time someone asks an honest question about what God is doing in the world, or what they can be doing in the world. Sometimes I’m a little scared, when the realities of shrinking numbers surface again. I’m just about always curious. There’s work to do, but big numbers or not, the Spirit is on the move. As we heard from the psalmist earlier, “You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
The story of Christ, the story of the world, and the story of us are all connected, and God is there for every bit of it. Today is the fifth Sunday in the season of Easter — more than a month has passed since we gathered in that great celebration of resurrection. In reflecting on today’s words from 1 Peter, Joy Douglas Strome writes, “The genius of God’s actions on Easter Sunday is that there is death to counter every day, not just at Easter. There are oppressive structures to overturn every day, not just at Easter. There is life to be celebrated every day, not just at Easter.”*** In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the beginning of the church at Pentecost and after that we venture into ordinary time. But just because the season is labeled ordinary doesn’t mean our actions should be. Remember, “God’s faithfulness requires responding faith.” So as we go about life together, may we follow Christ the cornerstone who points the way, claiming our own part in building sanctuaries vibrant with life and being nourished by God’s mercy that never ends. Amen.
** Fred B. Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 37.
*** Joy Douglas Strome, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 464.