A certain congregation was about to erect a new church edifice. The building committee, in consecutive meetings passed the following resolutions:
1. We shall build a new church
2. The new building is to be located on the site of the old one.
3. The material in the old building is to be used in the new one.
4. We shall continue to use the old building until the new one is completed.
What is a church building? It's a holy place. It's a place where people gather to worship. It's a place where people encounter God. It's a place where God's people enjoy one another's company. It's a place where people get married, where babies are baptized, where funerals are held, where memories are made and lives remembered. It's a place where the stories of faith are told and retold. It's a place we teach and it's a place where we learn.
Our reading from Genesis this morning is a small part of the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac who will later be called "Israel." Jacob is the least likely of patriarchs. Of all the biblical patriarchs, he is the most enigmatic. He never
exhibits either the awesome faith of Abraham or the level-headedness of Isaac. He is, in fact, a scoundrel. He's tricked his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing of the first-born; his character emerges through a series of deceptions .• intrigues, and conflicts. He will wrestle with God and be given the name "Israel," the name that will identify his descendants for the rest of time. He must be taught by God; he has some learning to do.
In the story we heard today, (Gen 28 10-17) he is on the run. He is afraid of his brother, whom he has cheated, so he has taken off. His father has told him to flee to Haran (his grandfather Abraham's original home) and there find a wife. Along the way, he camps near a town called Luz and has this dream that we have all heard of before, the vision of a ladder on which angels are traveling back and forth between heaven and Earth. He learns that, like Moses before him, he is standing on holy ground. He says, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven," and so he renames it, Bethel, "House of God." A lot of sermons have been preached about Jacob and his character flaws, or about this vision and what the angels coming and going might mean.
But, today, what I want to call to our attention is what God says to Jacob:
"Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring."
The descendants of Jacob would go forth from that place to spread blessing to all the corners of the earth - to west, to east, to north, to south. They would go out from that place to change the world.
There's an Orthodox Jewish translation of this text that goes: If Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth; and you shall burst forth to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." That's a great image: Jacob and his descendants would not, could not stay in that awesome place; they could not stay in the house of God or at the gate of heaven. They had to leave, to spread from the Holy land, to "burst forth" bringing a transformation to the world that would be explosive and dramatic.
Now, we are not gathered in a desert wilderness. We have not gone to sleep on holy stones. We have not seen angels climbing to rocks to heaven ... but we have, and do, gather in a church building, a place that for many is an
awesome place, a house of God, and a gate of heaven, a place where children have been blessed, where children have been told the stories of God, the stories of Jesus, where hymns of joy have been sung. We are gathered in this place to reaffirm our commitment that heritage and that ministry, to renew this place and to renew the ministry done here.
But like Bethel where Jacob camped for the night, this is not a place to stay; it is a place to leave. It's a place from which the people of God are sent into the world.
Church buildings are centers of ministry, places of assembly, where God's people gather to worship, to hear the good news, and to be transformed, not for themselves but in order to be sent back out into the world, to "burst forth" and change the world. Jesus' fast words to his followers were, "Go ... and make disciples!" (Matt. 28:19)
And, in our gospel lesson today, Jesus gives his followers their marching orders. "The Lord appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." Some commentators suggest that seventy disciples were chosen because in rabbinic tradition, seventy represents the total number of nations in the world. Just as the children of Jacob were to spread to every corner of the earth, the disciples of Jesus are to go to every nation in the world. As the descendants of Israel are to be a blessing to others, the disciples of Jesus are to go into the world and announce that "the kingdom of God has come near."
Church buildings, worship spaces and fellowship halls, are the bases from which the church is sent out to do that, as the disciples in today's reading from Luke were sent out by Jesus.
Church buildings don't change the world. They may be awesome; they may be houses of God; they may be gates of heaven. A sign of the faith of our fathers, of the communities of our ancestors. But by themselves, these edifices don't win people to Jesus, nurture sours to maturity, or change the world. Church buildings are meant to be the bases from which the people of God do that. Church buildings are meant to be places of life, living, breathing, growing, exciting places of life.
(Peter 2:4-8) There's another way that we might interpret what constitutes a Church Building: In today's epistle, Peter talks about growing into loving
unity. But in his imagery, he uses some terms that might not be very familiar to us ... Peter says that we are living stones being built up as a spiritual house. Sounds rather odd, doesn't it? But when you think about it, it is the perfect analogy. The first time the Bible uses the word "church," it is described as something that is built. Jesus said, Matt. 16:18 " ... upon this rock I will build My church ... " When we consider this, the church is indeed a building; but the building material isn't the steel, wood and stone which surrounds us. The building material is us. We are the living stones that make up the church of the living God (lTim. 3:15).
And so the spiritual house is not this structure where we're seated this morning. It is US, as we are fastened and fitted together, and united in one purpose - to be the house of God. Peter says that we are all bricks in the same wall. And this analogy helps to understand why we need to practice loving unity. Can you imagine if the bricks that form the walls in your own house began to fight and disagree? "I'm not sitting next to him "I don't want to be in that group!" "She's making me uncomfortable!"
As Jesus said in Matthew 12, "Any house divided against itself will not stand." How can we keep (or stop) this from happening in the house of God? Peter says here that in coming to Him, we will be built up. You can't construct a building without a good foundation. And, of course, you recall that Jesus spoke of the man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. It is all-important that a house be built on a good, solid foundation.
And what foundation is the living church built upon? Jesus told Peter, "Upon this rock I will build My church."
What rock was that? Many people say that Jesus meant Peter was going to be the foundation of the church. Can you imagine the pressure he must have felt? Any church built with me as the foundation might as well be made of straw, 'cause it's coming down soonl Fortunately, that is not the case. Instead, when speaking with the Pharisees, Jesus had asked the disciples,
" ••• who do you say that' am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ,
the Son of the living God."
That proclamation is the foundation upon which Jesus builds the church: He is the Christ, the Son of God. And so the way we wilt be built up is by coming
to Him. This helps us to understand the words that Peter uses next ... He is the cornerstone: Not only is Jesus our foundation, but also the cornerstone that we build upon. Peter is quoting Isaiah 28, in which God says: "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the level..." This is His elaboration on this analogy of the cornerstone.
In the days before laser levels, rangefinders, CAD systems, Global Position System survey equipment, and other high-tech gadgetry, there were more rudimentary methods of getting a building built right. Back then, the cornerstone was the starting point for all building above the foundation. It was perfectly leveled and precisely aligned. Throughout the rest of the building project, the cornerstone became the basis for determining every measurement, uniformity, and alignment.
Jesus is the cornerstone of this building that we're forming. And that means HE should be OUR standard of measure and alignment. And so, all of us living stones really should be asking ourselves, "What standard has Jesus set? How can I align myself to His teaching in this situation?"
Unfortunately, not everybody is - or was - on board with this plan. Remember, He is also lithe stone which the builders rejected."
In Psalm 118, we hear that "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. In Isaiah, chapter 8: " ••• He shall become a sanctuary; But to both the houses of Israel, a stone to strike and a rock to stumble over, and a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble over them, then they will fall and be broken ... " The builders rejected this cornerstone. Instead of accepting it, they stumbled over it. This is picturesque speech for the fact that the Jewish leaders of the day failed to receive Jesus Christ as their Messiah. He was the cornerstone, but the builders rejected Him. They were offended by Him, and stumbled over Him. Why did they reject Him to their own stumbling? Peter says it's because they were disobedient to the Word of God.
Ultimately, that is what anyone's rejection of Jesus Christ comes down to: they refuse to obey God's Word. Peter had used these words before, in a very public setting. In the book of Acts we read that he and John had miraculously healed a lame man, and drawn a crowd. They used the opportunity to preach the resurrection of Jesus. But the leaders of the Jews threw Peter and John in jail for this (Acts 4:3).
Instead of keeping quiet, Peter and John simply turned around and preached the same message to them: The Jewish leaders who had rejected salvation, the builders who had rejected the very cornerstone of the temple, and who had stumbled over the rock. Ultimately, they would be crushed by that same rock, for Jesus had said, Matt. 21:44 " ••• he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust." It's better to fall on the rock than to have it fall on us!
We all live through tribulations and tragedy: Our hearts have been broken over loss and sin and enmity with God. But we are the living stones that make up the church - those stones aligned to the chief Cornerstone - and Peter has some encouraging words for us ... He tells us that "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a a people for you possession, that you may proclaim the eexcellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. He goes on to day that "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy"
We were not a holy nation before, but we are now.
We did not belong to God before, but we do now.
We were in darkness before, but are in light now.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished all of these things for us - for all of us. So let's remember that we're an living stones in the same wall, the same temple. To be structurally sound, we must live in unity, being aligned to our Cornerstone.
So, again, what is a church building? I would suggest two answers: The living, breathing stones bound around the cornerstone that create the foundation of Church and faith, and these creations of brick, mortar, wood, steel and stone where we come to celebrate, but also from which we venture forth. From these places, these improved places, these living, breathing and growing places, we will leave. We will "burst forth" to tell in story and in song, in words and in deeds, in actions and in ministries, of the love of God. We will tell of God to laughing children, to strong children, to hungry children, to mourning children, to children in need, to all of God's children; we will tell them of desert midnights and blazing stars; we will tell them that the kingdom of God has come near!