Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A, 22 May 2011)

While I was enjoying a weekend off, Rev Dr David Pitman preached the following sermon. Thanks, David!

STONES – AND THE ROCK OF AGES

Readings
 Acts 7: 54-60
John 14: 1-14

You may remember reading in the paper some time ago a story about the world’s first inflatable church! It’s made of poly-vinyl and can be transported anywhere on the back of a truck and inflated on the spot. Inside there are inflatable pews, and a blow-up organ and altar. The church even has false stain-glassed windows.

The inflatable church is the invention of a British entrepreneur who reminds us that God’s people once worshipped in a tent that could be put up, taken down, and moved to another place as required. He has a point! Nonetheless, this variation on the bouncy castle children love to play in, runs the risk of being not much more than a lot of hot air!

You and I know that there are no instant churches. At the heart of every church is a community of people who love and serve Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit…..

who build their lives on the strong foundation of faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Today, within the context of the sermon, we will remember three individual disciples of Jesus who did just that:

The German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Stephen, the first Christian martyr

and David Sheppard, once Bishop of Liverpool

This year marks the 66th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed. Bonhoeffer was betrayed, imprisoned in 1943 in the Flossenbuerg Concentration Camp in Bavaria, and eventually hanged on the 9th April 1945, only a few weeks before the end of the war.

Whether, as a Christian, Bonhoeffer should have involved himself in the plot to kill Hitler has been the subject of much debate. Bonhoeffer himself believed that the death of the Nazi Dictator was for the greater good of humanity and could, therefore, be justified. He was, at any rate, prepared to give his life for the cause, and finished up doing just that! The letters and papers he wrote while in prison were later collected and published and have been influential right up to this present time.

His personal faith and courage were a powerful witness to those around him. The testimony of the prison Doctor at Flossenbuerg has often been remembered:

Through the half-open door in one of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.

The Book of Acts gives us a startlingly similar picture of Stephen as he knelt in prayer and was stoned to death by an angry and vindictive crowd. The scene and the circumstances are abhorrent to us today, but we have to remember that death by stoning was a form of execution vindicated in the laws of the Old Testament, though not actually practised for a very long time now. However, in the laws that undergirded the life of the nation Israel, death by stoning was prescribed for those convicted of blasphemy, murder, idolatry, adultery, and even for recalcitrant sons who would not obey their parents.

We will return to the story of Stephen in a moment, but let us reflect for a little while on some of the ways in which stones, or rocks, are referred to in the Bible.

Firstly, there are many literal references to actual stones, of various shapes and sizes, used for a great variety of purposes. Apart from the stones used to inflict punishment, we can find numerous other references…..and here are a few:

  • There are frequent mentions in the Old Testament to the occasion, during the exodus journey through the wilderness, when the people were desperately thirsty and Moses struck a rock with his staff and water they needed gushed out in abundance
  • Memorial pillars made of stone were erected to commemorate special events in the life of the nation as well as in the lives of individuals
  • And the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed on the day of his crucifixion was sealed with a large and heavy stone

However, in addition to these ways in which the Hebrews made use of real stones and rocks, there are other references that are clearly symbolic or metaphorical. For example, in the Book of Ezekiel we are given a striking image in which God declares through the prophet that he will replace the stony, rebellious hearts of the people with new hearts of warm flesh that will rejoice in lives of obedience and worship. (Ezekiel 36:26)

And this brings us to consider the way in which the Bible uses the symbol of the rock in reference both to God and to Jesus.

God the Rock

The idea of God the Rock is encapsulated in the words of  II Samuel, chapter 22, where in a passage addressing the issue of God as our refuge and strength, we read this strong, confident declaration:

For who is God, but the Lord?

And who is a rock, except our GOD?

The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock,

and exalted be my God,

the rock of my salvation. (II Samuel 22: 32,47)

The prophet Isaiah also links reference to the salvation of God with the image of God as the Rock (capital “R”) in whom we find refuge. (Isaiah 17:10) 

The psalmist expresses this truth as personal experience when he writes:

I waited patiently for the Lord;

He inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

 out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

 making my steps secure.  (Psalm 40:1-2)

Christ the Rock

The idea of Christ as the Rock is expressed in two different ways in the New Testament. The best way to see these references in relation to each other is in I Peter 2: 6-7, where the author offers two quotations from the Old Testament.

The first is from Isaiah 28:16 and is a reference to the stone that forms an essential and vital part of the foundation of a building – the cornerstone. The second is from Psalm 118:22, and describes the carefully chosen and perfectly made stone that completes a building – the headstone.

In this way Peter conveys the message that Jesus is both the foundation on which the church is built, AND the head of the church, the one who completes it and brings it to perfection.

There is a special moment in the story of Jesus where, in response to the question he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Hearing this affirmation of faith, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter (Gk Petros) and on this rock (Gk Petra) I will build my church.” This statement has been the subject of fierce debate ever since. Was Jesus referring to Peter himself, or to his affirmation of faith? Given the overwhelming emphasis in the New Testament that the church is built on Jesus himself, the latter conclusion seems to be by far the best! The church is not built on any one individual. The rock on which the Christian Church is built is Jesus.

The Church’s one foundation

is Jesus Christ her Lord (TiS 457)

Jesus told a parable about the wisdom of building our lives on the strong foundation of hearing and obeying his words.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!‘                    (Matthew 7: 24-27)

In the physical environment, building on poor foundations is a very foolish thing to do. The “Leaning Tower of Pisa” in Italy is a well-known example. The tower is, in fact, the bell tower of the local cathedral. Construction began in 1173 and continued, with some long delays, for almost 200 years. The tendency of the tower to lean to one side was evident from the early stages of construction. Marshy ground and inadequate foundations were the primary causes. Consequently, much time and money have been devoted to ensuring that the tower does not actually fall over. However, because it attracts so many tourists, it’s doubtful if anyone actually wants to make the tower vertical.

Those of you with a knowledge of cricket would have noted, at the time, the death of the Right Reverend Lord David Sheppard, former Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in England and, in retirement, a member of the House of Lords. When I was a teenager the story of David Sheppard had a big influence on me. For nearly 20 years he was able to combine his vocation as a minister with his other career as a cricketer. His achievements in both fields were remarkable. As a cricketer he played 22 tests for England. But it was as a minister of the Gospel and Bishop of Liverpool that he made his finest contribution.

He had a strong ecumenical spirit and was a courageous, public advocate for the poor and those on the margins of society. Such was the quality of his leadership and the impact of his ministry there were many who believed that he should have been appointed to be Archbishop of Canterbury. In the House of Lords he continued to campaign very strongly on behalf of all those he saw as disadvantaged in society. David Sheppard grounded his life and work in the spirit and teaching of Jesus. He built his life on the strong foundation of Jesus Christ.

This brings us back to the story of Stephen. His attackers used stones to kill him, but his faith and hope were based on Jesus the Rock. Because his life was grounded in Jesus he faced his death with courage, forgiving his persecutors and bearing witness to the good news of God’s love to the very end.

Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, David Sheppard and Stephen, we too can put our trust in the “Rock of Ages” and discover in relationship with him the courage, strength and hope that we need to make our lives also a testimony to his love and grace.

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