A Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fifth Sunday in Easter. I Peter 2:2-10.
When he became one of Jesus’ first followers, his name was Simon. Upon recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus changes his name to Kephas, the Aramaic for “rock” which was later translated in the Greek as Petros or Peter. And Jesus told Peter that he would be the rock on which God’s kindom would be built—a key leader among the apostles who would lead the Jesus movement in its early years. At first, Peter shared the good news of Christ’s love and grace to Jews and Gentiles within Jerusalem but then was called many years later to take the message beyond the borders of Israel and into the wider Roman world.
I Peter is a letter that Peter dictated to his co-worker Silvanus, while living in Rome, and that was sent to Christian communities in the Roman province of Asia Minor which is modern day Turkey. The communities, made of mostly Gentile Christians, were persecuted for their religious beliefs by the Roman state. Throughout the letter, Peter tells them that they are chosen and exiled people who, because of Jesus, now belong to the family of Abraham; they are wandering exiles, misunderstood and mistreated, looking for their home in the promised land.
Peter further explains that God is inviting all people into a “new family centered around Jesus—a family that have a new identity as God’s beloved children and a new hope of a world reborn by God’s love when Jesus returns as king.” Peter expounds on this theme of identity by applying familiar Old Testament images about the family of Israel to the Gentiles. According to The Bible Project, an animated scripture commentary:
“They are the holy people of God now who are journeying through the wilderness. They are the people of the new Exodus who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus who is the ultimate Passover lamb. They are the people of the new covenant who have God’s word buried deep inside them, restoring their hearts and renewing their minds. They are the new temple built on the foundation of Jesus himself and they are the new kingdom of priests, serving God as representatives to the nations.”
The Bible Project team also points out that, toward the end of the letter, Peter urges these particular Christian communities to remain alert about the real enemy they’re facing, which happens to be bigger than the persecuting Empire:
“This hostility isn’t simply cultural or political. There are dark forces of spiritual evil at work inspiring hatred and violence, and they are to resist this evil by staying faithful to Jesus and his teachings and by anticipating his return and ultimate victory over such evil.”
Over the centuries, as the Jesus movement gained momentum and its message of good news spread across the globe, more and more people were chosen to be part of God’s family. This includes you and me.
And as people of God, we are also encouraged through the reading of this ancient letter to be living stones who are built into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood that adheres to the ways of Christ’s love and proclaims God’s grace in Christ to all. That is the ministry we’ve been called to do, the churches we’ve been called to create and the body of Christ we are called to emulate in word and deed.
Seems pretty clear and clean-cut, doesn’t it?
We can point to numerous examples of how we as Christians and the Church Universal live out our callings in some extraordinary ways. We can attest to significant moments in history when Christians have stood up to great physical and spiritual evils that inspired hate and violence. We can celebrate the ways in which the Church continues to push non-violently against acts of injustice in our community and world, refusing to sit on the sidelines and let systematic oppression destroy human dignity and rights.
And we wouldn’t be wrong for recognizing and affirming the work that has been done. Many believers work diligently to be living stones and holy priests who fashion spiritual houses or communities where all people, especially the most vulnerable, are fed, clothed, protected, nurtured and loved.
But I caution the mainline, majority white Protestant denominations from patting ourselves on the back too much. If we take a closer look at the spread of Christianity and the history of Christendom—from the time of Constantine who Christianized the Roman Empire, all the way through centuries of imperialism and colonialism, to right now—we must confess that despite our best efforts to become living stones that stand firmly against evil, we have become complicit to that evil. In many instances, we’ve built spiritual houses and holy priesthoods that keep out and exclude others based on their race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation and economic status. Directly and indirectly. Intentionally and unintentionally.
I realize that as I make such a statement, several of you are likely thinking, “Wait a minute. Our church, our doors in Anytown, USA, are open to anyone and everyone. All are welcome.” I understand and I believe that to be sincere and true.
And yet, it is 2020 and many pews and ministries across the nation don’t look as diverse as the neighborhoods and larger communities where they’re located. It is 2020 and the hate and violence and divisiveness, particularly regarding race relations, persists in spite of the achievements made during the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s.
When a young black man named Amaud Abrery can’t go jogging in broad daylight without being ambushed and killed by two armed white men in a pick-up truck, then our spiritual houses crumble.
When black people can’t relax in the comfort of their homes; or ask for help after a car crash ; or use a cell phone in their backyard; or leave a party to get to safety; or play loud music or sell Cd’s or sleep or walk home with a pack of Skittles from the store; or go to church or carry a lawful or numerous other routine activities without being murdered because of the color of their skin…our spiritual houses crumble.
When there are many whites that deny that racism is still a serious issue; or become outraged that a black football player kneels quietly on the sidelines of the field; or dismiss the existence of white privilege and micro-aggressions; or ignore testimonies from black and brown people who express how they’re tired of their bodies being expendable; or expect people of color to point out racism and help white folks be anti-racist…our spiritual houses crumble.
When there are many whites who stay silent about racial injustice; or pretend that it will get better someday, we just have to wait; or don’t hold their friend accountable when they make a racist joke; or believe it’s only a problem there and not here; or tokenize diversity to make themselves feel comfortable…our spiritual houses crumble.
Friends, whether you are members of Emory Presbyterian or not, I know this is not the message you expected to hear on this Sunday morning. It’s not the message I was planning to preach a week ago much less a month ago when I selected today’s scripture reading.
Peter’s message about becoming living stones is one of my favorites because it serves as a beautiful depiction of the Jesus movement and God’s kin-dom. Stones are remarkable, magnificent pieces of creation. They are exquisite in detail and shape. They are strong and sturdy. They form majestic mountains and delicate crossings along rivers and trails. They are used for protection and shelter. They can be fashioned into tools for building and also serve as seat to rest upon or lay one’s head. For millions of years, they’ve been symbolically used by varying cultures and religions to forge homes and communities and to mark or honor important life events.
In the Christian tradition and this season of Eastertide, “living stones” have great meaning. Reflecting on this scripture from I Peter, theologian Shively Smith observes:
“The ‘living stone’ imagery may invite us to consider resurrection as a site of repurposed life and reconstruction. Resurrection life creates the environment to house and honor the presence of God within and beyond Christian communities. … (The passage) celebrates the honor of being a family member of God. The passage concludes by deploying other metaphors to build believers’ appreciation for their new corporate identity and kinship. Believers who live inspirited by resurrection are invited to think of themselves and their communities as precious and valuable possessions, as royal dignitaries with spiritual inheritance as new people with a repurposed existence, and as priestly functionaries making sacrifice and worship to God.”
For us to think of ourselves and our communities as beloved and valuable, then we must always strive treat others as such and hold accountable those who reject black and brown “living stones” because they misperceive them as not being precious. We are unable to be spiritual houses of living stone and a holy priesthood chosen to proclaim God’s mercy if we don’t openly defy the racism that plagues the very air we breathe. PC(USA) minister the Rev. Dr. Jaqui Lewis, in a social media post this week, puts it this way:
If Christians do not confront Ahmaud Abrery’s lynching and cry for justice, words we speak about the cross are hollow. One cannot follow Christ but ignore neighbors’ crucifixions. The silence in much of white Christianity reveals a tradition that worships whiteness, not Jesus.
Our spiritual houses are cracked and crumbling because of the evil that is racism, but “living stones” can be re-purposed, rearranged, re-built—resurrected. If we rely on Christ as the cornerstone and foundation of love, we can resist the evil that fosters hate and violence. We can continue re-purposing, re-building and resurrecting. In the words of the executive presbyter of The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the Rev. Aisha Brooks Lytle, who spoke during Saturday’s Presbytery meeting, we can “see the pain, ask questions, demand justice, break the cycle, and repeat.”
 Commentary on I Peter 2:2-10 by Shively T.J. Smith https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4455