Sunday, July 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Cornerstone"

Acts 4:1 to 12

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them. 2 They were incensed that the apostles were teaching the people and announcing that the resurrection of the dead was happening because of Jesus. 3 They seized Peter and John and put them in prison until the next day. (It was already evening.) 4 Many who heard the word became believers, and their number grew to about five thousand. 

 5 The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, 6 along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?” 

8 Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, 9 are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Four

The nine year old boy, dressed simply in a plain t shirt and camo shorts, was so small that he required a milk crate to stand on in order to be seen over the podium in the city council chambers.  But seen he was, and in an extraordinarily powerful way, as the council voted unanimously to temporarily stay a citywide ordinance banning freestanding structures in the front yards of houses.

And why would a nine year old kid care about such an obscure city law?  Well, because he had become enamored with the Little Free Library movement, which strives to place small, mailbox type “libraries,” basically, book depositories, on street corners of residential areas across the country as a means of fostering literacy in children and community in adults.  The entire scheme is dependent on the “take a book, return a book in its place” honor code, and this boy, Spencer, decided, with his parents’ blessing, to build a Little Free Library for himself and his friends and neighbors to enjoy.

Until he and his parents received a cease and desist order from the city of Leawood, Kansas (which, by the by, is right next door to my hometown of Overland Park), saying the Little Free Library violated this obscure ordinance, and must be taken down.  Which led to the boy’s testimony upon a milk crate at a city council meeting last Monday.  Which in turn led to the council remedying what was, originally, a rather heartless rejection of a young boy’s attempts to simply better his community.  And in reading about Spencer’s initial rejection by his hometown, I reached immediately for the verse that Peter recites here, which was cited by Jesus before him, and was in turn written into the Psalms before Jesus ever arrived: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The library that was once rejected has become a little boy’s cornerstone.  How amazing that truly is.

This is a new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply in verses 8 to 12.

Now, the basic plot of Acts 4 should be pretty familiar to us: a religious teacher is in Jerusalem, the religious teacher does and says amazing things, and the religious teacher soon gets arrested for it.

That’s exactly what happens to Jesus in the Passion.  It is what happens to Peter and John as well, albeit with different short term ending (but ultimately, a similar long term ending for Peter, as he is eventually martyred via crucifixion some 30 years after the timeline that Acts of the Apostles covers).  But how Peter responds to his arrest, imprisonment, and interrogation is profoundly different from how Jesus responded to His.

If you recall, Jesus was almost completely silent throughout the interrogations of both Caiaphas, the high priest, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, breaking that silence only to confirm His status as the Son of God.  Peter, on the other hand, is inspired by the Holy Spirit to make a rather profound declaration about this Jesus who had remained silent.  What makes this contrast even more striking is that when Jesus did in fact engage the temple authorities who persecuted Him, He often did so in riddles, parables, and Socratic dialogue in order to trap His opponents (like when He asks for a denarius coin when asked whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not in order to discredit the temple authorities who are asking Him this). 

And that contrast is an appropriate one: Jesus uses wit, cleverness, and a divine amount of foresight to discredit his questioners.  Peter, on the other hand, is not divine…he is a humble fisherman whose name means “Rock,” or even “Rockhead” (like “blockhead” in Peanuts!), and so his defense, rather than relying on wit, simply barrels right over his questioners with its directness, laying blame directly on them for abusing their authority to have Jesus crucified.  Jesus was the type to slip away from crowds completely unnoticed.  Peter, had the technology been available to him, would probably have preferred to drive a Mack truck through the gates to escape the crowds.

In other words, Peter is a very different man compared to his teacher.  Which perhaps ought not to surprise us: Plato differed from Socrates, Alexander differed from Aristotle, and so too does Peter differ from Jesus.  But being his own person does not exclude Peter from keeping Jesus as the, as he puts it, cornerstone of his faith in God.

That term, cornerstone, in verse 11 did not, as I said at the beginning, originate with Peter, or even with Jesus.  It originated with Psalm 118, which tradition says that David, the second king of Israel and progenitor of the Davidic familial line which Jesus Himself belongs to, wrote.  And even if, realistically, Psalm 118 might have been anonymously written, you can understand how tradition would ascribe the psalm to David precisely because of verse 27, which is the verse that Jesus cites in Luke 20 and the verse that Peter cites here.

David was once the cornerstone that a builder had at one point rejected.  The prophet Samuel had come to the estate of David’s father, Jesse, on God’s command that there, he would discover the next king of Israel.  One by one Jesse’s older sons came before Samuel, and each time, Samuel was convinced that this was the man God had chosen to lead Israel.  And each time, God said no.

Until he got to the youngest, littlest son.  Until he got to the proverbial runt of the litter.  Until he got to David.  And then God said a resounding, YES!  And Samuel swallowed whatever disbelief he may have harbored and anointed David the future king of Israel, and in so doing, turning that young boy into the cornerstone upon which an entire dynasty, kingdom, and unified nation would be built.

And then, a full millennium after David, comes Jesus Himself.  Born to dirt poor parents in a freaking barn after they were turned away from an inn, the baby who was rejected would grow into the man who was once more rejected, who would resurrect into the Christ who was, is, and will forever be the cornerstone of our faith and the faith of literally millions upon millions of people.  Bible professor Paul Walaskay could not put it better: “Peter identified Jesus as a stone that might have been rejected as ordinary and useless, but instead was chosen as the cornerstone of God’s work toward a redeemed universe.”

And one of those millions upon millions, Peter, would in turn be the cornerstone himself, for, in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 16 after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God: you are the rock upon which I shall build my church.

The cornerstone, in effect, on which the church was built.  A stone that once more builders are rejecting by arresting him and imprisoning him and questioning him with what was surely the utmost hostility is in the process of becoming the cornerstone of Christ’s brainchild: the Christian Church.

Despite how different he was from Jesus.  Despite how he had once denied Jesus.  Despite the fact that really, his name of Peter, of Rock, was probably kinda given as a commentary on his intelligence, or lack thereof.  Despite all of these things, the stone, the rock, has become the cornerstone.

You may feel like Peter or Jesus in this way…perhaps possessed of no one outstanding, savant like gift, feeling ordinary and useless, rejected by others and by the world because they did not hold you in any esteem.  It’s sadly far too easy to end up feeling worthless in a world where we spend way too much crucifying each other and not enough time resurrecting each other, where we spend too much energy burying one another and not enough energy lifting each other up out of the muck and the mud and the mess that our lives can, and do, become.  And when that happens, it becomes far too easy to see ourselves as worthless at just about anything!  For whenever that has happened to you by someone else, especially by someone in the church or claiming to act on behalf of Jesus Christ, I am so, so sorry.  That is not what we are meant to be about.  That is not what we are called to.

Because every once in a while, we reverse course.  We stop, realize what we have done, and we turn ourselves around.  The Leawood city council realized it, and decided to elevate a nine year old boy whose inarguably noble intention was simply to better his neighborhood.  Where in your life will you realize it?  Where have you been presented with a cornerstone upon which to help build your life and rejected it out of hand?  More the point, where have you actually offered yourself as a cornerstone for someone else, as opposed to offering yourself as a demolition ball or a stick of TNT?

Because Peter doesn’t refer to Jesus in terms of destruction…the holy dynamite our Lord and Savior is emphatically not.  The cornerstone, though, he emphatically is, and will forever be.  My cornerstone.  Your cornerstone.  Our cornerstone.

And as Peter bravely proclaims here to the temple authorities, in that divine cornerstone’s name you will find salvation.

By God’s grace, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 13, 2014

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