We occasionally hear about “troublesome church members” who manage to upset their congregations in a variety of way. They complain, are disgruntled, or are just insolent about anything and everything. The sermons are too long. The staff gets paid too much. Children don’t behave. The sanctuary is too hot, or too cold. The pew bible someone’s great, great grandfather donated is not in the pew rack anymore.
All churches have people who make being church…arduous.
This is true for the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Bath, England, but the people making trouble aren’t current members in the pews complaining about the length of the sermon or the sanctuary temperature. Rather they are those from centuries past—they are the dead bodies in the basement. Literally. And they’re threatening to upset the church in quite a literal way.
Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Bath, England, commonly known as Bath Abbey, was founded as a monastery in the seventh century and has been holding worship on that site ever since. The current building is a Gothic cathedral more than 500 years old, but it sits on the remains of a massive Norman cathedral that predated it.
Across the centuries an estimated 6,000 people have been buried just below the stone flooring of the church. The problem is that over time, as those bodies reduced to bones and as the graves settled, holes have opened up beneath the floor, threatening the stability of the church. Literally. Today, on any given Sunday morning there is a real likelihood the floors could collapse beneath the feet of someone about to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
An extensive project is now underway to stabilize the edifice. It involves digging out much of what soil and disturbed human remains are under the floor, filling the voids with concrete and grouting and then putting the earth, human remains, bits of coffin, and inscribed plaques back under the floor. Prayers and words of holy liturgy over the whole re-interment are all part of the process as well.
The result is a rebuilt church—built upon a literal foundation of its people.
Now I realize this set-up implies that I am seemingly advocating we start burying people in the church foundation—and this past week’s construction work around the church, that included trench digging along the east wall of the gym, may get people wondering if I’ve already started this process. But I assure you, the kind of church building Peter is recommending is vastly different, and far more solid. And ethical. And legal.
“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The idea of the members being part and parcel of the church itself is a clear teaching of the pericope from I Peter, especially because of its metaphor of Christ as the Cornerstone, to whom we come to be built “like living stones … into a spiritual house.”
In fact, with this image, Christian believers are every part of the building, with the Cornerstone giving us its firm foundation. And they are not dead bones or cremains—but rather living stones. That means the people then, and the people today—you and me—we are living stones called to build the Church.
Let’s be clear, though; we’re talking about living stoneS, not a living stone—or only a few stones. It’s not possible to build a structure with only the cornerstone and a few other stones.
In fact, except when speaking of the Cornerstone that is Christ, all of the other metaphors in these verses are in their plural form. As commentator Lewis Donelson says, “Holiness is not any individual’s own possession; it exists when someone loves another. The kind of holiness that comes from the ‘living stone’ exists only in community.”
The idea, of course, is not only that holiness, good deeds, spiritual growth and the like are best fostered by a faith community, but also that the community itself, and not the individual, is the primary channel of faith. These stones become “living” by coming to the Cornerstone. And when we come to the cornerstone we discover how we fit into God’s design and we become part of the work to build church. Yes we come as individuals—but we are built to be together, united—into a spiritual house.
So that’s what the text says, but, as we know, church attendance, at least in the northern hemisphere, has been dropping off for decades. A growing number of people are saying they like Jesus but not the church—we talked about this last week.
And how does the church respond—like it always has for centuries—making the argument that people should go to church because the church will benefit them with fellowship, moral guidance, biblical instruction, opportunities to recharge, spiritual encouragement and the like, always quoting Scripture like Hebrews 10:25; Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12 and others.
And yes, the list of benefits is valid, and those Scripture verses are correct, but we can’t escape the feeling that they’ve been called up to function, respectively, as the “carrot” and the “stick” idiom—the “carrot” being the benefit and the “stick” being the Bible verses.
But we must remember the carrot-and-stick idiom arose from a reward-punishment technique for getting mules to go where someone wanted them to go. Which means, if this is our technique, we have to wonder how much spiritual value these presentations have? We have to ask, does this build the church? Or are we simply trying to get people to go where we want them to go? Because truthfully, not everybody feels the need for a church body to offer fellowship and moral guidance, especially if they are comfortably introverted, have a close family and good friendships— or maybe have a whole bunch of upright and supportive people who “like” them on Facebook.
There has got to be more than just a reward-punishment idiom. And that is what Peter is calling for us to build—with Christ as our cornerstone.
Peter never gets into carrot-and-stick stuff. Rather he calls us to come to Christ the Cornerstone, and let ourselves, like living stones, be built into a spiritual house.
For many, coming to Christ awakens a hunger to learn more and go deeper, and even find ways to serve.
For many, being part of the church feeds their soul in ways no other place can.
For many, being part of the church gives them support and meaning and direction.
For many, being part of the church gives them a hope, peace, joy, and love that this world cannot give.
For many, being part of the church means being part of something that is bigger than them, and will endure long after them.
When we create space for people to be met as they need to be met, and discover what being part of the church will mean for them and give to them, then that is when we build church.
A book written in the first part of the last century as an overview of military training in the United States, is titled “Every Man a Brick.” The book, in part, tells of a Spartan king who boasted to a visiting monarch about the walls of Sparta.
The visiting royal looked around but could see no barricade, and so he said, “Where are these walls about which you boast so much?” The host pointed to his troops and said, “These are the walls of Sparta— every man a brick.” But the book goes on to explain Sparta’s eventual downfall and concludes by saying, “The Spartans had the right idea; a nation’s insurance must consist of its own able-bodied citizens; like those of Sparta. The walls of our nation are our own people, but the component parts of the walls must be something better than ‘gold bricks.’”
“Gold brick,” you might know, is a term for something that looks valuable but is actually worthless, and that was the cause of Sparta’s eventual fall. The people were there. They were present. They were able bodies. The sight of them was impressive. But they only looked the part. They did not fulfill their role.
Peter doesn’t mention “gold bricks” in our text, but the “dead bones” he does mention are the “gold-brick” equivalent for Peter— stones that makes them stumble, rock that makes them fall. Peter’s call living for stones means the vitality of the church hinges upon its members having found life by coming to the original living stone, and then responding to God’s call to come to Christ with the varied talents we have and let ourselves be cemented into the structure of the church.
It is worth remembering in context of today’s message; Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and said he would build a new one “not made with hands.” In our text, Peter is picking up that line of thought.
Scholar, Clifford Walter Edwards, writes, “The old temple has passed away and Jesus himself is the foundation of a new temple. He builds a new spiritual house, employing as building material the very lives of his followers. The special place for meeting God, once confined to Mount Zion, is no longer limited to one place, but is free, available to all through the living community of the redeemed. Wherever the redeem gather in Christ’s name, there is the spiritual house of God.”
Christ asks us to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house—to function as part of what God is building, in this world and for the next world. This is what God asks us to do. That’s neither a carrot nor a stick—it is not a reward/punishment idiom. It is God wanting us to build a living body, where people can meet the divine.
So as Bath Abbey, and even our own building, shows us— cathedrals and churches will crumble, deteriorate, and give way. But should our sanctuaries fall it won’t matter—as long as there are living stones who will still gather in Christ’s name to do the work of God.
So may we present ourselves as building material—living stones—so that in us and through us, with Christ as the cornerstone, the church is built again and again—built to be vibrant with the life Christ gives; where you, me, and others can meet God and build church. Amen.