Peter compares the church to living stones, people in Christ who are being built up as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood. That person sitting on either side of you and in front of you and behind you on Sunday morning is a precious stone to God, a living stone that is connected to you by the blood and the Spirit of Christ. What makes the family of faith work together and stay together? A song from my past was called “We are Family,” and it’s a catchy tune. But how is the family held together in the song? They sing, “No we don’t get depressed, ‘cause here’s our golden rule: Have faith in you and the things you do; You won’t go wrong, this is our family jewel.” With all due respect to Sister Sledge, if my faith is in me or you or the things we do, we are in some deep trouble. No, we are living stones because of the cornerstone, Jesus Christ. And we are being built together by him and through his grace, day by day. It is a lifelong building project and the exciting thing is that there are new living stones being added to God’s building every day. Every time someone hears Jesus say, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” and does that, there’s a new living stone added to God’s building. We are family.
Some of my readers may remember Sunday morning, August 1, 1999, when Antioch was worshiping at what was then Arts Alive and is now Alamance Fine Arts Academy in downtown Burlington. One of our sons who was famous for his untimely febrile seizures had one in the middle of the sermon that day. His fever spiked, his eyes rolled back in his head, and pandemonium ensued. Someone called 911 and suddenly the police were coming in the front door while the firemen were coming through the back. A paramedic examining our son said, “Who are his parents?” The answer came back, “They’re not here right now; they’re at the hospital.” He persisted. “Well, someone needs to call them. I need to speak to his mom or dad.” One woman said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’s pushing right now.” The paramedic said, “Well, I need to speak to someone in the family.” John grinned and said, “We’re all family here!” And he was right. We are family, being built together as living stones who love each other more and more. If we are being built together, that begs the question…
Who is the builder? The cornerstone is! Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is building his church. Can I ask you something? If Jesus was building a housing development in your county, how many of you would want a house there? If Jesus was building a shopping center in your city, how many of you would want to shop there? But Jesus said he is building one thing on the earth. Only one. His church. Two questions, then. Is there anything more important on the earth than the church? And, if not, why are so many living stones disconnected? Why are so many believers living solitary lives of faith and worship apart from a local expression of the body of Christ?
I get it. Stones can have really rough edges and do damage to the others around them. Stones can lose their grip in the wall and fall away, making the wall more vulnerable to falling itself. But the truth remains that Jesus is building his church out of living but imperfect stones, people like you and me. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else but a living stone in the building that stands on Jesus. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but firmly connected to the other living stones in a healthy local church.
Want to join me?
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” How do we put off habits of sin and put on love for God and one another? By the power God gives us through the nourishment of his word, which is pure spiritual milk. And great news, there is no such thing as lactose intolerance when it comes to the milk of God’s word. We are to crave it to the point of a healthy addiction. Think of a newborn baby and his or her desire for milk. If that baby is healthy there is no need to coax it to drink. It cannot get enough. Any delay at feeding time when your baby is hungry will get a swift and loud reaction! For a growing infant, milk is not an optional extra. It is the sweet and pure means by which that baby grows healthy and strong. The word of God is that sweet and pure means by which you and I grow. And unlike the flowers and the grass and our own flesh, the word of God abides forever. Our flesh fades. I track the progress of that fade every morning when I look in the mirror. Eventually our flesh also fails. But the word of the Lord remains forever. And there is no substitute for it if we are to be healthy. No novel, no newsfeed, no social media, no entertainment can replace the word, and yet it often sits on our bedside stand while we feast on that which cannot satisfy.
What is the word of God and what does it do? It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb 4:12) His word pierces through every layer of who we are. God said his word, “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) His word never fails. The Psalmist wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” His word shows us which way to go. (Psalm 119:105) God said to Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29) Unlike the false prophets, God’s word will burn the straw of falsehood and break the hardest sinner’s heart. And I love the parable Jesus spoke in Mark 4 where he said “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain…” (Mark 4:26-28) The word of God produces life. All by itself. We can share the seed of God’s word with someone and trust that God will water and bring life through that seed as he wills. We cannot make it happen. We can just sleep, rest, knowing that God is God. And as we read the word, or hear the word preached, that powerful seed is sown in our own hearts. And we rest, and sleep, and God changes us by his word. We don’t know how. But that’s kingdom work!
So, go ahead and drink it up. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
I was thinking this week about what Peter wrote to the scattered believers in the first century: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It reminded me of a time more than 15 years ago when I decided to run a longer distance than I had ever done before. It was nowhere near a marathon. But it felt like a marathon. I was OK the first half, and for most of the way back. But with about 2 miles to go, I wanted to quit so badly I could almost taste it. My lungs were fine and my legs weren’t that tired, but I was immersed in a colossal battle in my mind, nonetheless. It was early in the morning, before folks were out working in their yards. If someone had been outside as I ran past, he might have wondered why this guy was shuffling along, saying, “Help me, Jesus…Oh Lord, please, help me.” When I wasn’t praying for help, I was trying to encourage myself with things like, “Come on, Mark, don’t quit. You can make it. Don’t quit.” I thought about my friend Jeff, who competed then in Iron Man Triathlons, and who said at a Men’s Breakfast a few weeks earlier, “You can do a lot more than you think you can.” So, I kept running. I began to tell myself that I could run a half mile more before quitting. Then after that half mile, I would tell myself that I had at least one more half mile in me, and that I could do more than I thought I could.
But what I was really thinking about to the point that it became an obsession the last 2 miles, was the finish line, and the water bottle that awaited me there. I had placed a bottle of water and a towel at the top of my driveway. The scene replayed in my mind over and over. I saw myself finishing the run and grabbing the water bottle. I tried to decide how much I would pour on my head and how much I would pour in my mouth. I wondered how good it would feel to not be running any more. I wondered if I would ever stop running. I wondered if I was still going in the right direction.
I think I was delirious.
When I finished the race and gulped that coveted prize of 16 ounces of the best tasting water I had ever put in my mouth, it was a sweet reward.
How much sweeter and how much more satisfying is the love of Christ.
The Apostle Paul said that he prayed for us that we “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” The word he used for comprehend means to lay hold on something with all of your might, as though your life depended on it. Like a drowning man would grab a rope that is thrown overboard to him. As much as my body craved that liquid refreshment when I was feeling dehydrated from a long run, my soul thirsts much more for a love that will never end. The Bible teaches that such a love is there for the taking. Not only that, but the love of Christ has breadth: it reaches to the whole world. There is no tongue or tribe or nation that is not included in his love. The love of Christ is as long as eternity. The love of Christ is deep enough to overcome the darkest sin. The love of Christ is so high that you and I will never get over it.
That’s a prize worth running after.
I was fifteen years old, wishing I was sixteen, and wanting to drive so badly I could taste it. And I was looking for any excuse to get behind the wheel. “Nana, can I move your car into the backyard and wash it for you?” I asked my grandmother, who was watering the flowers in her front yard. She recognized the desperate act of a teenager who was willing to do actual WORK in order to drive. “Sure can, sweetheart,” she said. “The keys are in it.”
My grandmother drove a cherry-red 1969 Mercury Comet convertible, and it was sweet. I often sat behind the wheel, my left arm hanging out over the door, and imagined that I was tooling down the highway on my way to Myrtle Beach. I imagined my hair blowing in the breeze, the guys admiring and the girls staring as I cruised along looking oh so cool. But this was not a dream. I was actually going to drive that car! I eased it out of the garage and turned the wheels slightly left, heading into the pine-tree studded backyard of my grandparents’ house. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I was driving. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought. And that’s when it happened. I pulled a 15 and hit the wrong pedal. There was a pine tree in my immediate future and instead of slowly squeezing the brake, I slammed the accelerator. The car responded immediately, all cylinders firing at once, and it felt like it left the ground and leaped into a fine upstanding specimen of the North Carolina state tree. It remained upstanding as the front end of that Mercury Comet convertible folded into it. Everything in the front and back seats of the car slid into the floorboards and I went into shock.
Until I heard laughter. I looked to my left, and there stood Nana, garden hose in hand, laughing her head off. She laughed so hard, she started to cry. The water from the hose was going everywhere as she jerked around and doubled over and finally, I tried to laugh as I asked her what was so funny. “The look on your FACE!” Nana guffawed. “And the sight of all that JUNK sliding off the seats!” Nana laughed and wiped the tear. Finally, when she was able to get her breath again, she said, “Thank you, Mark, for helping me clean out my car.”
I learned some valuable lessons that day, not the least of which was the difference between the brake and the gas pedal, and the difference a mistake of only six inches can make. But I also learned more than I had ever understood about grace. I begged Nana to let me pay for the damage to her car but she wouldn’t have any of it. “I asked you to clean it, Mark!” Nana said, “And you went above and beyond the call of duty.” Then she started laughing again. Nana wasn’t rich, at least not materially, but she was about the wealthiest woman I knew when it came to things that really matter.
Ray Ortlund said in a sermon recently that his father gave him a Bible in 1966, on Ray’s 16th birthday. “I was a knucklehead then, and my father knew it,” Ray said. “But he also knew that God’s grace is for knuckleheads.” That was certainly my story at 15 and for a number of years after that. God had a grade-A knucklehead on his hands, and though I had given my heart to Jesus that summer, I really didn’t know what I was doing. Ortlund said in the same sermon, “Christianity is for those who stink at Christianity.”
There will be pine trees in the life of your children and grandchildren as well. So, tell them about ways you have received grace and help them learn from your past mistakes. Teach them how to give grace to others and receive grace from others. Remind them that the grace we have in Jesus Christ is so amazing that even the angels in heaven long to look into it.
Still, you might want to let them wash your car in the driveway.