The 5th Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2023
When we listen to and read the Lectionary’s resurrection stories during Easter season, we often focus on what happened to Jesus: He is raised up from the dead, he appears suddenly without warning to the disciples, and later he sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ message to his people after the Resurrection is that no matter what happens to the disciples then, and to us now, the Father will not let defeat and death be the final word. God will raise us up just as he raised up Jesus from defeat to victory.
It’s at least as essential that we look at the effects of the Resurrection on Jesus’ disciples. We want to see its immediately powerful effects on the understandings and actions of Jesus’ disciples. Luke presents the outward expressions of this power in a narrative form in the Acts of the Apostles, beginning with Jesus’ being lifted out of their sight, and, a few days later, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Chapter 2 of Acts gives us an uplifting summary of how the fledgling Jesus community lived their new life in the Spirit:
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and broke bread in their homes, or from house to house. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community of those who were being saved.
Every day, Peter and John went to the Jerusalem Temple at 3 p.m. One day, a man lame from birth, asked for alms from Peter. But Peter gave him something better: he healed him from his affliction. The man, in his enthusiasm, caused a scene, which gave Peter a chance to share the story of the deeds and teachings of Jesus. And this was when things got precarious for the new community. Before Peter had even finished his account, the authorities arrived and arrested both him and John.
The community was growing exponentially, and it wasn’t long until the entire Jerusalem Council of elders was harassing the apostles, wanting to get rid of them. In today’s reading, we read of the first killing of the new community’s leader: Stephen. The members of the Council, so enraged by Stephen’s teaching that they were transformed into a murderous mob, which dragged him out of the city, battering him with stones until he was dead.
Though this isn’t in today’s reading, it was that day that a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, headed up by Saul, the fiercest opponent of the new community. Most of the believers were forced to flee, and those who stayed were hunted down and arrested. Those who were scattered, though, took the good news, the new story, with them, and proclaimed it in the new places they found themselves in.
They were now a community in diaspora, in exile. But though their time in physical community had been quite short, it had been enough: they had forged a new sense of identity, a new sense of lineage—of whose people they were. They had taken with them the apostles’ teachings, and the new practices they had experienced together in Jerusalem: of prayer, of simplicity and sharing, and particularly, the breaking of bread together with each other.
The decisiveness of the Resurrection for the emerging communities is also reflected in their new or reframed inner meanings and spiritual practices. Much of the development of the new spiritual understandings are reflected in the Epistles. The Epistle from which today’s Lectionary reading is taken is the First Letter of Peter. Here is an abridged version of the assigned passage from the epistle’s second chapter [1 Peter 2: 4-6, 9-10]
4- 6 Now come to him, who is a living stone. And even though this stone was rejected by humans, yet it was chosen and precious in God’s sight. And like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, and made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. You have become this people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into the marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
What first strikes me about this passage is how brash and defiant is its claiming for these new Jesus communities that they are a chosen people. This had long been the term that Jewish communities used to express their unique covenant relationship with God. It’s a good example of the Epistles working out new theological and spiritual understandings—or re-working older understandings to fit this new movement.
Another example of this re-working is in the metaphor in this passage of Jesus as a Living Stone. This image builds on a verse in Isaiah:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in himwill not be put to shame. [Isaiah 28:16]
The image of Christ as a Living Stone was alive for me this week. I have heard that all stone is actually alive—simply living at a slower frequency than what we more easily think of as aliveness. Still, I couldn’t hook my naïve image of stone with the metaphor of a Living Rock.
But to read the metaphor differently—to see the Living Stone as a human being, but with qualities of rock, instantly made sense. Rock as unbreakable, enduring, “rock-solid”—this has rich meaning for me. Christ, fully alive, fully receptive, fully responsive, fully passionate and compassionate—is also Christ unbreakable, unshakable, enduring, unwavering, unfaltering. This is the cornerstone of Isaiah, and an image that Jesus himself used in his teachings, as reflected in Matthew’s Gospel.
But this passage from Peter goes further: we ourselves are to be like living stones—in our full human aliveness. We, with all its vulnerabilities and imperfections, are yet also called to be that quality of unbreakable and unwavering; rock-solid and resolute. Now that is a mighty calling, indeed. If thinking about it, I’d consider myself more like limestone, I’m afraid. But all things become possible in Christ. And as the writer ends this passage,
“once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
As we are called to become like living stones, we are also called to allow ourselves to be built into a spiritual house. I feel stirred and inspired by this call. It reminds me in a fresh way that it’s not about our becoming something by our own willpower and effort. Instead, we’re called to ALLOW, to open ourselves to the grace of becoming an integral part of a structure built not to *my* design, but to the design of someone/something greater than me. I agree to allow myself to be shaped for a location in that overall design, and placed somewhere I fit into the overall purpose.
And I pondered how we living stones come together in the building of that house. An image I had of the mortar between the stones that hold them together might look like each of us standing shoulder to shoulder to those next to us, holding hands, in unshakable solidarity. And it struck me also that this house that we become part of is not limited by space, but for me it’s more important that it is not limited by time either. We are allowing ourselves to be part of the communion of saints who in all times have themselves allowed themselves to become living stones, embedded in a house designed by the master architect.
How do we undertake this allowing in our lives? To simply touch lightly on this question, I am thinking about the weekly Commitment in our Sunday liturgy. In it, we pray for the commitment to grow together—like the living stones that we are, coming together to create our part of the spiritual house. And we also we ask for strength and discipline to nurture our relationship with Christ and with creation, and to be in solidarity with all in need, and to work to end all war, violence and discord. That is, we are asking for the strength to freely allow ourselves to play our part in Christ’s overall design.
These are times that require that quality of steadfastness found in living stones. There is a book out by a popular progressive Christian pastor and writer, whose title asks, “Do I Stay Christan?”* The title reflects a real situation: this name, Christian, has been loudly and repeatedly associated by the nation’s white nationalist movement.
We are not the first Christian generation to find ourselves in precarious times, or times in which even the designation of Christian has become problematic. We are built into the same Christian house and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dietrich Bonhoffer, the unshakable, unwavering German pastor and theologian who stood rock-solid against the Nazi regime in Germany. There are others who have stood firmly in other ages when the craving for power or the urge for revenge have subverted the Christian identity.
But we remain a Resurrection People, Christ’s own people, a new people even after 2,000 years. Both Stephen’s willingness to stand rock-solid in front of the Jerusalem Council, and Peter’s exhortation to become living rocks, allowing ourselves to become part of a house of Christ’s own design are there to guide and encourage.
* Brian McLaren: Do I Stay Christian? ©2022