Growing Together In Grace and Goodness
1 Peter 2:1-10
George Owen Walton was born on May 15, 1907, in Rocky Mount, Virginia. He was an estate appraiser. He went into the homes of people who had died and told their children how much their things were worth. And because of that, he usually had first dibs on rare coins, guns, jewelry, stamps, and books – he could offer to buy the items before they were sold at the estate sale – and he built up quite a collection. At one point in his career, he had an opportunity to purchase one of only five 1913 Liberty Head nickels ever minted, and he jumped at the chance. He paid $3,750 for the treasure in 1945 and told his family that it was worth a fortune. But after he died in a car crash on his way to a coin show in 1962, appraisers surprisingly declared his nickel a fake. They marked it “no value,” returned it to the disappointed family, and the coin stayed hidden in a strongbox on the floor of a closet.
Eventually his nephew, Ryan Givens, inherited the nickel. Even though it had been dismissed as a counterfeit, something told him that his uncle was right. In 2003 the other four 1913 Liberty Head nickels went on display, and a million dollar prize was offered to anyone who could produce the fifth. Givens submitted his coin for evaluation once more. After hours of comparing and contrasting against the other four nickels, six expert appraisers announced that Walton’s coin was the real deal.
Eventually Givens sold the nickel for $3.1 million – a hundred years after it was originally minted. Imagine a coin worth more than $3 million collecting dust in the back corner of a closet for decades and decades because it seemed worthless, even to expert eyes. The coin that had been cast aside as worthless was actually a priceless treasure.
This spring we’re walking together through the tiny New Testament book of 1 Peter. It’s actually a letter written by St. Peter, who was imprisoned in Rome and nearing execution. And he wrote it to economically poor and disadvantaged Christians living in backwater towns on the fringes of the Roman empire. These new Christ followers were coming under increasing pressure because of their faith and were facing the prospect of outright persecution, jail, and death because of their faith in Jesus. They were tempted to try to blend in to their culture, but following Jesus has a way of making people stand out, even though we aren’t trying to stand out. So Peter, who once denied even knowing Jesus, and who is now facing a death sentence because of his faith in Jesus, writes to encourage them to stand strong in the face of adversity.
That’s why he talks so much in this letter about hope, and it’s why we’re calling this sermon series “A Living Hope.” The hope Peter talks about, the hope we have in Christ, is based in the reality of the life and death and resurrection of Christ in the past, AND in the certainty of his promised return in the future. Our hope isn’t just in what Jesus has done in the past, but in what he continues to do in and through us, and in what he WILL DO in the future when he returns. But this hope isn’t just active in us as individuals. In Christ, you and I, as followers of Jesus, walking this path of life together, are being formed together into a spiritual house, with Jesus as the cornerstone of that house. Turn with me to 1 Peter 2:1-10.
Peter begins this section of his letter by telling us to “put away” certain things. Things that marked our old way of living before we came placed our faith in Christ. He kind of pictures us as taking these things off and laying them aside, like dirty old clothes. This list of things to “put away,” or “take off,” has two things in common. The first is that they each one is a cancer that will completely destroy community and fellowship.
Malice is ill-will toward another person or group of people. It is THE force that destroys fellowship, and it is the inner heart attitude that leads to the other things on the list.
Deceit and hypocrisy involve pretense and deception, either toward other people or before God. Deceit is speaking or acting falsely, and with ulterior motives. Hypocrisy is inconsistency in our thoughts or in the way we live. A hypocrite is someone who acts one way at church, and another way at home or at work.
Envy is an inner attitude that is often behind hypocrisy and deceit. Envy is the opposite of wanting what is best for others and working for what is best for others. It isn’t just wanting what other people have, although that can be a part of it. If I am struggling in some way, envy can lead me to wish that someone else were struggling like me, or maybe even worse than me, so that I can feel better about myself.
Slander, then, is the outworking of envy. It can be speaking falsely about someone else, OR criticizing someone else when they aren’t present to defend themselves. In the church, we do this and then call it “sharing a problem” or “sharing a prayer request or concern” for someone. Gossip and slander – two sides of the same coin.
Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander – all are devastating to community. That is the first thing they have in common. The second is that they’re all things that we so often tolerate in the church today. They lead us to behavior that is nice to someone’s face, when they are present, and divisive and negative when they aren’t. Instead of dealing with things directly, with gentleness and compassion, and then moving forward together, we’re divisive, talking about people behind their backs, dividing the body of Christ.
In this world, and as human beings, we tend toward fractured relationships and fractured communities. It’s must easier for us to go to war than it is to maintain peace and relationship. Are divided in our homes, divided in our neighborhoods, divided in our businesses, and divided in our churches. And the only thing that matters to most of us is our own perspective, our own wants and desires, and our own needs. We celebrate the individual. In fact, we worship the individual.
And it is in that fractured, individual world that God is building a community, a fellowship, a body, a family. In America, and in other cultures influenced by the American way, the individual is what matters. We don’t go to sports events to see teams win, we go to see stars perform. We’re obsessed with celebrities and heroes, not the accomplishments of teams of nobodies. The only thing that matters is what I want and what I need, and if those things don’t appear to hurt anyone else … well then, to each his own. Even in the church, we want celebrity pastors and rock star worship leaders. Worship music has become an outlet for performers who can’t make it in the mainstream music industry, a way of building an audience. And we talk about a personal relationship with Christ that really isn’t anyone else’s business. If faith is really JUST about me and God, then that’s all that matters. There IS no body of Christ. There IS no people (notice the plural there) of God. There IS no family (again, that’s a plural word) of God. There IS no us. There is only me.
But that isn’t the picture that Peter paints of life in Christ, or of the church. Look at Vv. 4-8.
Life in Christ begins with, well, Christ, right. HE is the cornerstone. Today, with modern surveying and construction methods, cornerstones aren’t as important as they once were. In a poured concrete foundation there is no cornerstone. Many buildings have a symbolic cornerstone, but it doesn’t play the role that cornerstones once played. Until the modern era, the entire building was build in alignment with the cornerstone. For millennia, the cornerstone was the first stone laid for the foundation of a structure, and all other stones making up the foundation of that structure were laid in reference to that one, all-important cornerstone. The cornerstone also oriented the building in a specific direction. Once the cornerstone was set, the team of stoneworkers and masons constructing the building knew exactly how to lay every other stone in the foundation, and based on that foundation, the structures of the building itself. They knew where the front, back, and sides of the building would be, so they knew which direction the building would be facing.
Jesus is the cornerstone of the life of hope God gives to those who follow him. It is on Jesus that life in the kingdom of God rises and falls. Jesus is either the cornerstone of life or the stumbling block over which you will eventually trip and fall. There is no middle ground with Jesus. Your life is either built on him or you will eventually trip over him. Those who reject him will eventually stumble over him and fall. But to those who accept him he is the cornerstone of life.
Without Jesus, none of the rest of the parts of the building fit together right. And ultimately, the building will not stand. Apart from Christ, there is no real hope. And here’s the funny thing … Jesus, the cornerstone, is actually the stone rejected by others who are attempting to build lives of salvation and hope. God has taken the stone rejected by humanity – cast aside as unusable, construction waste, refuse – and used THAT STONE as the cornerstone of the structure he is building. So everything else God is building is built in reference to Jesus, and according to the direction and orientation set by Jesus, the cornerstone.
But Jesus isn’t the cornerstone first and foremost of MY life that I am building, completely separated from everyone else. He is the cornerstone of OUR life together that GOD is building. And only because of that, growing out of that, is Jesus the cornerstone of MY life. When you place your faith in Christ, you become a living stone in the larger life that God is building, a member of the family of God, and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. You enter a new reality. Pastor Eugene Peterson, the one whose personal translation of the Bible became The Message paraphrase, said, “Our community does not need a church to craft little programs to assuage their consciences or perceived needs for safety. It needs us to invite people into a new reality ruled by the Kingdom of God.”
Let me ask you a question. If God took his hand off the church, how much of what we do, day to day and week to week, would fall apart. How much of what we do really depends on God in order to succeed. Some of you might be whispering “everything would fall apart,” but would it? Now, I don’t think there are very many churches that are completely devoid of the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. God has always and will always, because of his grace, specialize in using broken vessels to get his work done. But are we really engaging in ministry and life together as a church in such a way that everything we do depends on God in order to succeed? If everything is built on and in reference to the cornerstone of Christ, then everything we do must depend on God. And God doesn’t need large groups of people to accomplish amazing things. He just needs people willing to follow his direction and trust him with the results.
Now, here’s where we usually miss what God is doing. Look at V. 5. If Jesus is the cornerstone, where do the rest of the stones for the spiritual structure God is building come from? They’re our ministries, right? No. They’re us. You and me. We are living stones that are being built together on the cornerstone of Jesus into the spiritual structure God is building. The stones are people. Not ministries and programs. Sure, those things are important in our culture, but they aren’t the stones. We are. The people. It is people who matter. And we aren’t individual stones lying in a field, disconnected from one another. That isn’t a house. That isn’t a structure. That’s a mess. No, we’ve been gathered together in order to be placed together to accomplish together something that no one stone can accomplish alone. And what is that something?
Look at the end of V. 5. How did Peter’s audience understand sacrifices? What were they? They were acts of worship, right? The building God is putting together is called first and foremost to worship God. What our community needs, more than our programs and ministries, more than a food pantry and a community meal and a children’s ministry, is to be invited into a life of worship of God. Not an hour of perfect lighting cues and flawless musical performances and a rousing speech, but authentic worship of the God of the universe who created them, who loves them, who died for their sins, who rose in victory over death, and who holds this universe securely in the palm of his hand and is guiding its destiny. They don’t need a sermon on 5 strategies for managing finances according to Jesus or 3 ways to raise your kids. They need a living encounter with God in the pages of Scripture. God is not a self-help guru and the Bible is not a self-help book. In our darkest moments, God doesn’t give us a list of 5 things to do or not do, he gives us himself. Worship is an encounter with God, and that is something that cannot be programed in a set list or lighting cue sheet, and it is something that cannot be guaranteed in even the most expertly crafted, precisely 30 minute sermon. It’s something that happens in God’s time, and in God’s way. It depends completely and totally on God, not on us. But we don’t come here to be entertained, or to have our emotions stoked. We come here to encounter God together. That’s what our community needs.
Second, God’s building is growing to maturity in our faith in Christ, and to do that, we have to acknowledge that we are completely and totally dependent upon God, just as a baby is completely dependent upon her mother for the milk needed to nourish her and enable her to grow to maturity. Look at Vv. 2-3. In other places in the Bible, milk is used to describe the basic teaching of the faith that is necessary for those who are new to the faith, as opposed to the meat needed by more mature followers of Jesus. But that isn’t what Peter is doing here. He’s simply talking about our need for spiritual nourishment. He uses milk because infants are completely dependent on their mothers for milk, and he’s focused on our complete and total dependence on God. And he feeds us as we encounter him through his word. And we are nourished within the body of Christ.
Third, we share the life we’ve found in Christ with others. Look at Vv. 9-10. In the Old Testament, priests were there to serve as go-betweens between the people and God. They offered sacrifices on behalf of the people and performed the acts necessary for the people to be made right with God. And then Jesus came along as the perfect, ultimate, once and for all sacrifice. And now, the people of God, all of the people of God, are like a kingdom full of priests, proclaiming in word and in deed the goodness of God before the watching world. We are a people being formed into a living building that encounters God in worship, that grows to maturity in Christ, and that proclaims the goodness of God. Worship, word, and witness.
God is building this living building. He gives it its purpose. He gives it its life. Jesus is the blueprint and the cornerstone. Everything is oriented to Christ and patterned after Christ. Every meal served. Every can of good given. Every prayer offered and every life touched. God has placed us, as A church, part of THE church, in this neighborhood, in this community. And our community needs us to be a people who facilitate authentic encounters with God in worship, and then enables them to join us in growing to maturity in Christ as we encounter God in his word, as they join us in proclaiming the goodness of God in witness. Let us pray.