Hiking is a kind of art form. After all, people who do it well manage, among other things, to keep a watchful eye on both what’s on the ground on which they walk and what’s above that ground. Artful hikers understand that there is generally much that has the potential to both trip up and lift up hikers.
That’s a reason why don’t hike particularly artfully. I have trouble keeping a simultaneous eye on both the ground and what’s above it. I generally focus either so closely on the ground in an effort not to stumble over anything on it or on what’s above and around me in an attempt to see all its beauty. But such focus leaves me prone to focusing so closely on either the ground that I overlook the beauty around me or on the beauty that surrounds me that I overlook potential stumbling stones.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Peter talks a lot about stones using some form of the Greek words lithos and petra. Some of those stones, he grieves, cause people to stumble. Other stones about which the apostle writes are what he calls “precious” or beautiful.
Peter also twice refers to a “stone” as “living” (zonta). It is, however, an odd concept, when you think about it. Stones are, after all, inanimate. They have no visible life of their own. Yet the apostle refers not once but twice in just the space of two verses (4, 5) to certain stones as “living.” In doing so, he may be at least alluding to God’s power to make that which is dead come alive.
The first and primary “living stone” is Jesus Christ, although, interestingly, Peter never explicitly identifies him that way. In fact, he distinguishes the “living stone” that is God’s Son from the “living stones” that are God’s adopted sons (and daughters) by their noun form. (The NIV “helpfully” capitalizes verse 4’s “living Stone,” while leaving verse 5’s “living stones” uncapitalized).
In Isaiah 28:16 the prophet writes about Israel as “a stone in Zion … a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation.” She was the human foundation of God’s plans for God’s world and kingdom. But, sadly, Israel rejected not only that role, but also the Living Stone who was Jesus Christ (4).
Israel also, according to verse 8, disobeyed (apelthounte) “the message (to logo)” that was a summons to a relationship with God through a faithful reception of Jesus Christ as Messiah. In that way Christ the Living Stone, according to verse 8, literally became for Israel “a stone of stumbling (Lithos proskommatos) and a rock of offense (petra skandalou).”
It is an image that is as vivid as it is heartbreaking. Not once but twice the apostle calls Christ the Living Stone a stone on which people trip and fall. He is someone whom some people consider to be scandalous cause of offense.
What’s more, it isn’t just Israel that stumbled over Christ the Living Stone. While Christ graciously offers people himself as the cornerstone of their lives, countless people refuse that offer. Even people whom Christians know and love refuse to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. They reject him as their cornerstone, the source of their life, hope and purpose.
Yet even as God’s dearly beloved people lament the way that Christ the Living Stone has become a stumbling stone for some people, we rejoice in God’s amazing grace to us. We, according to verse 4, celebrate the way God has summoned and equipped us to faithfully “come” (proserchomenoi) to Christ.
Of course, because Jesus’ friends faithfully and obediently “come” to him, at least some of them experience what Peter refers to in verse 4 as rejection (apodedokimasmenon). The apostle’s letters’ readers hostile neighbors and culture think of them as having no value.
Yet Peter, in verse 4, refers to God’s dearly beloved people as “chosen” (eklekton) by God and precious (entimon) to him.” So while Jesus’ followers may be, like Jesus was, considered worthless by God’s enemies, they are both selected and valuable to God.
In fact, the apostle adds, God has made Jesus’ friends who are by nature no more spiritually alive than a stone into “living stones” (5). By God’s grace, the Spirit graciously injects new life into Jesus’ friends so that we become more and more like the Living Stone that is Jesus Christ.
Yet it’s a family resemblance we share not only with our adopted Big Brother, Jesus Christ, but also with our adopted brothers and sisters in Christ. We are living “stones.” Together, Christians are the precious building materials that God is using to build what Peter calls in verse 5 a “spiritual house” (oikos pneumatikos).
Whatever else that difficult phrase may mean, it suggests that God is graciously using God’s dearly beloved people to help build the “spiritual house” that is Christ’s Church. In that “house” Jesus’ followers offer ourselves in a kind of priestly, loving service to God and our neighbor (5).
Yet this assertion gives preachers an opportunity to reflect on how even a living stone can become a stumbling stone. Jesus became a stumbling stone because of people’s sinful disobedience. His friends, however, can become a stumbling stone to others by our own disobedience.
This is true both for individual living stones who are Jesus’ friends and the collection of living stones that is Christ’s Church. Christians’ words and actions can become something that repels people from rather than attracts people to Jesus the living cornerstone.
That cause of others’ spiritual stumbling stands in stark contrast to the purposes for which God chooses Jesus’ followers. We were once, after all, ou laos, “not a people” (10). Once upon a time God’s people were little more than a fragmented band of stragglers who were going in our own direction. Now, however, Peter celebrates in verse 10, we are “the people of God” (laos Theou). Every part of us now belongs not to ourselves, but to God.
Peter adds that Jesus’ friends who were once no people are now God’s people whom God has, according to verse 9, graciously “chosen” (eklekton). We are, he continues, “a royal priesthood (basileon hirateuma), a holy nation (ethnos hagion), a people belonging to God (laos eis peripoiesen).”
This is Old Testament language. However, it suggests that God now includes not just Jews but also gentiles in God’s sovereign plans and purposes. God’s own dearly beloved people now include members of every race, tribe and language.
Yet Peter insists that God adopted God’s diverse children for a very specific purpose: to “declare the praises of (exangeilete) him who called (kalesantos) you out of darkness (ek skotous) into his wonderful light (thaumaston phos).” Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases the apostle as saying that God has called us to “speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he has made for you.”
This suggests that God has not just turned God’s dearly beloved people into living stones that God is using to build Christ’s Church. We are also people whom God has enlivened in order that we may share by what we do and say the impact God has not only made on us, but also wants to make on God’s whole sin-darkened creation. God has raised Jesus’ friends from death to life, in other words, to, among other things, point people away from ourselves and toward the living God in Christ.
Preachers who are familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism may note and perhaps share how this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reflects two of what Reformed Christians profess to be the benefits of Christ’s resurrection. By his resurrection Christ makes his friends share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death. Peter alludes to that righteousness when he calls Christians those whom God views and treats not as God’s enemies, but as “precious,” “chosen,” and “a people belonging to God.”
Reformed Christians also profess that because God raised Jesus from the dead, by God’s power God also raises Jesus’ friends to a new life. Part of that new life is Christians’ declarations of the praises of God who called God’s dearly beloved people out of darkness and into God’s wonderful light.
In her commentary on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, New Testament scholar Jeannine K. Brown relates the story of Melba Pattillo Beals to demonstrate how one’s identity can transform people. Beals was a teenager who was living in Little Rock, Arkansas when its governor integrated its Central High School in 1957.
Segregationists did everything they could to keep segregation’s status quo. So when Melba helped integrate Central, her wise grandmother told her, “We are … God’s idea [and] you must strive to be the best of what God made you.” She linked Melba’s identity as God’s idea to her calling to live out that idea by responding to unjust suffering by being Christ-like.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 7, 2023
1 Peter 2:2-10 Commentary