The one we celebrate at Easter is the one that was Rejected and Risen. We are encouraged to believe ourselves included when we feel rejected. And we who feel confident about what and who is in and what or who is out are challenged to think again, to look through the lens of the One who was rejected and see the world anew. (RCL Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24: and John 10:11-18)
This week we have two very powerful images, or metaphors, of the role and nature of Jesus – as the Good Shepherd and as the Stone the Builders Rejected. One is comforting and the other is more disconcerting and challenging. Both images are both ordinary images drawn from everyday first century life and both are established strong religious images with claims to power and authority.
The good shepherd would have been an image that the listeners of Jesus would have instantly identified with, understood and been comforted and inspired by. Most of the listeners would have instantly understood the allusion to King David the Shepherd King and therefore the claim that Jesus was of that same lineage.
Likewise with the image of the stone that the builders rejected. On the one hand it was an ordinary everyday image literally of a stone which was overlooked or rejected in a building project. But it would also have been a provocative indictment on the religious leaders who were concerned about Peter’s preaching, those who had a vested interest in the temple as it was, and who had, in a manner of speaking rejected Jesus as the cornerstone in their handing him over to the authorities for blasphemy and death by crucifixion only weeks before. And by the time the Acts of the Apostles were recorded – after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE –an even stronger indictment on the religious leaders of the temple.
In this season of Easter, as we continue to invite the meaning of resurrection to unfold in us, I want to explore with you what it might mean for us to be founded upon the one who was rejected, who was not recognised by his own religious brothers and sisters and citizens as being worthy to be included let alone recognised as the anointed one – the cornerstone.
Firstly, as we know from Peter’s preaching and Paul’s writing, the early Christians came to understand that they were called upon to preach Christ crucified. But what did that, and does that, mean? Well literally they were preaching that the one they followed still, and proclaimed as the anointed one, the holy one of Israel, was the one that had been rejected, passed over, misunderstood, and killed. From the beginning Christianity was a critique of the religious authorities although not of Judaism itself.
It was also a proclaiming of the extraordinary claim that God Almighty had become human, that the Creator of all that was, is and ever shall be had become vulnerable creature. The risen Jesus still bore the scars of the cross. The experience of becoming human was not something that God got over – God was forever changed by the experience!!! Just as Jacob, in the Old Testament, having wrestled with the divine in the wilderness was struck in the hip socket and forever after walked with a limp, so Jesus, having been human, forever afterward bore the scars of the nails and the spear in his side. Resurrection did not undo the experience of having been one with us.
In the particularity of the story of Jesus’ life, death and who he chose to reveal himself to in resurrection there is both a reaffirmation of the amazing truth that the image of God is in all of us and the radical challenge that Jesus brought this light to shine most particularly on those usually overlooked and rejected.
And this incredibly unbelievably profound love for us and with us is understood to have had an atoning impact on our relationship with God. That is the sacrificial love of Jesus expressed for us in life even unto death and resurrected life sets right, or reconciles, opens up, our relationship with God as individuals and as peoples.
All this, and much more, is conveyed in the central tenant of Christianity which has at its heart the image of Christ crucified, the stone the builders rejected, the high priest who is also the sacrificed one. And these understandings, and the historical reality of being a minority group, meant that the early church kept this upside down inside out theology that saw God as especially present in the marginalised, the broken, and the martyred.
But then Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century when Constantine was converted. This was arguably a mixed blessing. It certainly meant that the message of Christianity was spread far and wide – to the ends of the earth. And Christian values and ethics became influential in all aspects of life. But as we know from contemporary politics power corrupts and whilst it is not impossible to be a politician and a decent humble human being, it is difficult. Much of church history’s darkest deeds, and there are some truly horrendous epochs to choose from, was connected with the church’s engagement with state power. G K Chesterton, a theologian and church historian said: “the cosiness between the church and the state is good for the state and bad for the church”.
Arguably Christendom in the West has been in decline for over 250 years, but very rapidly since WWII although to different extents in different countries and cultures. Here in Australia to a significant extent, even more so in the United Kingdom and less so in the US of A. whereas in some African nations for example there has been a dramatic growth. Many in the Western church mourn the passing of the good old days and I have sympathy for those who remember with gratitude and fondness a time now gone.
But I for one do not mourn the passing of Christendom into history. Partly I suppose because it is hard to miss what one did not know and also because I think that the connection of church and “proper” society hogtied us, crippled us and made it difficult for us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus’ radical and inclusive love and life changing spirit. We confused the status quo with the kingdom. So while I am sad that there are people who are not getting to hear the goodnews of God’s love for all I am not sad that only the genuinely committed need come to church these days. And indeed many very committed people of faith do not feel as though they belong in traditional church but gather in “virtual communities” of like minds and hearts and souls.
So how are we, the few, the remnant, the truly committed to go forward while the buildings we do have threaten to crumble and fall and the community we are a part of dwindles? How are we to be true to the stone that the builders rejected while surviving?
I think the sermon of Peter reminds us to put “first things first”. To remember that our true foundation stone is Jesus the rejected one and that our highest priority is to follow this one, and to spread the goodnews of God’s love to all. The first priority is for each of us to renew our commitment to following the rejected one who is also the risen one. To worship yes but even more to follow. We are to be imitators of Christ, that is, we are to so closely follow him that we shape every aspect of our life on how we understand his teachings and example. This can be radically different to just worshiping him (whilst not in any way suggesting that we do not worship the Living God and his Beloved son I fear that we have forgotten to follow).
Our second priority flows from this and is to be good neighbours to those near and far. We who are committed need to heed the letter of John this week and not only speak love but do love so that this goodnews might be heard and experienced. As John expresses this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17) This is a claim upon not only our material resources but also our time and affections. We as church need to grow in our outward focus and question our support for culturally mainstream preferences and presumptions. The church that once often led social reform has to a terrible extent become the last bastion of old self interested unquestioned beliefs and practices. We have, I say again, too often confused the status quo with the kingdom.
And only thirdly is maintenance of church structures – ecclesiastical and literal – our priority. The concern so many of us have in the church of how to keep the buildings open and concerns we have for our position in society, as individuals and as church, keep us busy and anxious about things that should not be our first priority (I say this as clergy who spends so much of my “vocational energy” worrying about and servicing buildings and institutional requirements!). While there are weighty matters to be considered we must not let concern about earthly structures distract us from the eternal charge to follow the one who is the cornerstone of the true and living temple. So in this unfolding season of Easter let us affirm Jesus the rejected and risen one as the centre of our lives and live and work outward from there.
Even so, come Lord Je