5th Sunday of Easter (May 18 • 2014)
‘Christ, the Cornerstone’
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
1 Peter 2:2-10
Acts 6:8-15; 54-60
In Sierra Leone, West Africa, rocks by the rivers are used for different purposes. For example, they are used for doing laundry. Young people usually rush to the river to be the first to use the rocks that can remove dirt the quickest. They first soak their clothes in the water and then lay their clothes on the rocks as they rub the clothes with bars of soap. They then pound their clothes on the rock to remove the dirt. After they rinse the clothes, they would then let the clothes to dry in the hot tropical sun.
Rocks are also used as a resting place for weary travellers who walk from village to village. These travellers would sit on the rocks, drink the water from the river, rest and soak their sore feet, before continue their long journey. It is not a surprise that, in Sierra Leone, someone who is reliable; someone who can be trusted in any circumstances is called a ‘waterside stone’.
The psalmist of our reading today from Psalm 31 also called God as his rock and refuge. In times of trouble, his hope was in God only. He used images from a battlefield to describe God’s protection of his life. In ancient Israel, a rock or a fortress was a formidable defence in battle. “God,” said the psalmist, “was like a rock or a fortress in a fierce battle; a place where soldiers could be protected from their enemies.”
Psalm 31 is indeed a prayer by a person who was treated unjustly and, as such, put a complete trust in God. The psalm is a prayer of someone who was in distress. In the Jewish mind, to be in distress was similar to be “bound” and “restricted”. So the psalmist talked about a dire situation where there was no possibility of escaping. As such, the psalm was the prayer of a person like Stephen, in our reading from the book of Acts, who also faced an unjust and violent situation where there was no way of escaping.
According to the Old Testament, someone who was convicted of blasphemy must be stoned to death (Exodus 24:10-23). Cruel as it is, in other countries, stoning is still considered today as a form of capital punishment. Stephen too suffered from this horrific punishment at the hands of his fellow Jews. His proclamation of Jesus as Lord was considered as a blasphemy thus, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, he must be punished severely.
But in the face of such atrocity, Stephen, just like the psalmist, held on to God, his Rock. There was a stark contrast in the story. While those who stoned him seemed to be engulfed in an uncontrollable rage, Stephen faced his execution with calmness and serenity. In the face of such anger and violence, Stephen found peace knowing that God never abandoned him. He was able to accept his fate because of his trust in Christ.
God did not prevent his death however. Stephen was not protected from the stones. His life was not spared. Yet, Stephen died with dignity. He died with his faith and integrity intact. As such, Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian church (at least, the first Christian martyr whose death was recorded).
Indeed, having God as our rock does not mean that we will be forever protected from dangers. But to trust God with our life means that we will have a strong foundation to face any challenges that life throws at us. Martyrs, like Stephen, were not those who never faced dangers in their lie. Martyrs were those were ready to pay the ultimate price with their faith intact and strong.
The stones that took Stephen’s life had indeed been transformed into ‘living stones’: generations of faithful Christians who would never arise without Stephens’ sacrifice; generations of faithful Christians who followed his example in the midst of persecution.
The saying is thus true: the church is built upon its martyrs; upon those who have given their life for their faith; upon those people whose life and death reflect the life and death of Jesus, their cornerstone. The church is built upon the martyrs because these martyrs were built upon the ultimate cornerstone, Christ. Without Christ as its cornerstone, the church will simply collapse.
(A photo of a human tower is shown on the screen)
Here, each person is supported by the other people below him. But the most important part of the structure is the base. If something happens to the person at the top, the structure itself will stay intact. But if something happens to those at the base, the whole structure will collapse.
The church is like that human tower. Each person in the tower is like each stone in a building. We all depend on one another to keep the structure intact. But most of all, we all depend on the foundation. Christ is the foundation of the church. If Christ is not the foundation of the church, then the church will fail. Without Christ as its foundation, the church will lose its purpose, its identity, and, especially, its integrity.
Indeed, the ‘living stones’ in our reading from 1 Peter were no ordinary stones. They were stones used in a building project. To be able to be used, these stones must be shaped so that they could fit the pattern of the building. These stones must conform to the shape and position of the cornerstone.
Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. Thus his life and his sacrifice on the cross must become the model for all who dare to follow him.
Seeing from this perspective, Stephen’s death was not meaningless; his death conformed to Jesus’ own death on the cross. Stephen even uttered words that were similar to the words that Jesus said on his dying hours on the cross. First, he surrendered his spirit to his Heavenly Father, just like Jesus gave his spirit to his Father (Luke 23:46). Then, he offered words of forgiveness towards those who killed him, just like Jesus asked for his Father’s forgiveness towards those who plotted with the authority to crucify him (Luke 23:34). Like Jesus, Stephen was taken to a place outside of the city to be executed. “Yet, in the face of death-dealing stones he clings to Jesus, the Living Stone, who has already passed through death and has taught him the way.”
Yes, the early Christians changed the image of stone as a tool of capital punishment to the image of stone as the foundation of life. In the midst of persecution; in the midst of regular threats of violent death, the early Christians dared to proclaim that Jesus was the cornerstone of their life.
Indeed, the church has to become like living stones that bring not death, like the stones that killed Stephen, but life. And to do that, the church has to have Jesus: his life, love, and teachings; his death and resurrection, as its foundation. To do that, we must be ready, like Stephen, to conform our life and death to the pattern of Jesus’ own life and death on the cross.
 Renner, Zaina, A Waterside Stone, on http://devotional.upperroom.org (devotion for January 15 2016)
 Creach, Jerome, Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16, on http://www.workingpreacher.org /preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2027 (accessed on May 16, 2014)
 Scott Bader-Saye, Sticks and Stones, on http://www.religiononline.org/showarticle. asp?title=2243 (accessed May 12, 2014)