“Lively Stones” – Professor Peter Alexander
May the words of my lips and the meditation of our hearts be now and ever acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.
Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-24,27-30 Psalm 84(sung as hymn) 1 Peter 2:4-10 Matthew 7:24-29
Today is our Dedication Day. St Jude’s Church, meaning this magnificent building, in which we see everywhere the signs of those who have gone before us in this parish, was dedicated on this day in 1865, which means that the Church is 149 years old today. Which means that next year there’ll be celebrations to write home about. And although the church was dedicated to St Jude, the day in 1865, as it is now, was St Peter’s & St Paul’s day. I’ve appropriately taken as my text the Dedication Day reading which John read for us, I Peter 2:4-5, in which St Peter tells all Christians that Jesus was chosen by God as a living stone to build up his church, and Peter goes on,
‘Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’
‘Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.’ This is a brief sermon about a peculiar idea, being like a living stone, something which few of us would find very appealing.
I have a soft spot for St Peter, partly because I was named for him and think of him as a father figure, partly because every now and then he is silly like us, so that one can’t help feeling sympathy for him. The silly things he says on the mount of Transfiguration, and the silly way he hops out of a boat in the middle of a storm and tries to walk on the water before giving a yell of panic as he sinks into the waves and has to be rescued by Jesus. And Peter is poorly educated, so that his writing is clumsy and appealing. Seldom does he use an image that reaches out and speaks to you.
But here St Peter, in that passage, is telling Christians that Christ was the foundation stone of the Church, he uses the metaphor of a living stone, and he urges us to be stones in the church structure too. This image had particular meaning for Peter, whom Jesus had named: Petros means stone or rock in Aramaic. What’s true for Jesus, the foundation stone, is true for the man named Peter the Rock, and is true for us. St Jude’s, he’s telling us, is not just this beautiful structure, not even primarily that: St Jude’s is us, the people who are the body of Christ in this place. We are both the workers, and the work.
The stones of which this church is made are so heavy that virtually none of us could lift even a small one. Yet even though sandstone is not the strongest stone, they are so strong under compression that one of them can sustain the weight of many others. If you follow the great gothic arch to its peak above my head here, look at the wall of stones that rests above that arch point. What holds all of that up is the arch, which carries the weight down on either side through these slim pillars. These pillars are holding up many hundreds of tons, and that’s not just true here: it’s true of the pillars throughout this open airy church. The stones are characterised by huge strength, by stability, by steadfastness, and by the way they lock in with each other to sustain the whole structure. That’s what Peter says is the ideal image of a Christian.
To be part of the structure of the church, like these heavy stones, is what’s being suggested for us. Peter was writing at a time when there probably was not a single stone church in the whole world, but he’s looking to the future. And the alternative to being part of the church is summed up for us by a modernist poet named Philip Larkin. Larkin was librarian at the university of Hull, and became famous partly for putting swear words into his poems. His best known poem is called ‘This Be The Verse’, and in it he blames his parents for the mess of his life:
They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Blaming your parents is always a safe thing to do, but Larkin also blames the church, in a poem called ‘Church Going’ which you’ll find a copy of in your white pew leaflet:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
The narrator in the Larkin poem is a kind of tourist, on a bicycle, stopping at churches to have a look, without knowing why he does it. An important figure in Modernist writing is the flaneur, a French word which means a kind of widow shopper, an idler without allegiances. The Larkin speaker is a flaneur. You’ll notice from the first line that he wants the church to be empty: only when he knows there’s nothing going on does he step inside. And the church is alien to him: when he notices ‘some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end’ he’s talking as if he were a Martian, with no understanding of what he’s seeing. For him the place is dead: he notices dead flowers, dust, little books, and silence. Notice how ambiguous his title is: ‘Church Going’ could mean ‘going to church’, but it could also mean ‘the church is going, it’s on the way out’. And now he’s in the church, what’s he going to do? Stanza 2:
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
An Irish sixpence is worth nothing in England, so he’s pretending to support the church while doing nothing of the sort. So then he begins to wonder why he stopped (stanza 3):
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for…
Slowly it comes to him that the church has a weight that can’t be ignored. Have a look at the last stanza:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
The important events of life, baptism, marriage and death, are given shape and significance by the spiritual values of the Church;
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
And he finally fixes on the fact that the church is not just a building, nor even living worshippers (the church militant), but it is also what theologians call the church triumphant: the building is powerful ‘if only that so many dead lie round’. There’s something beyond life here.
The kind of incomprehension you see at the start of Larkin’s poem, that ideological gulf between the church and the world, St Peter and Larkin, is getting wider. Because the church is not just different from the world: the church is an affront to the world. The church says to the world, there is a different and a better way to live. The world responds with rejection, incomprehension, even hostility.
We are not to follow the world, but to provide standards for it to follow. St Paul tells us, in Rom 12:2, ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed.’ While the church holds to the Gospel, it can never be finally defeated, and it holds up a light to the world. We fall, but we get up again.
As St Peter tells us, our struggle is to ensure that we are not just flaneurs visiting church, but part of the very spiritual structure. We are living stones trying to do the will of God, and our strength and solidity and steadfastness are achieved through daily prayer, even just five minutes before we start work in the morning, through reading our Bibles to make sure that we know what we believe, and through living for others. We’re not flaneurs: we’re believers for whom the church is a source of power; looking around this extraordinary building we see ourselves reflected in it, because we are part of it. That struggle, to build up the truth and be part of the structure, is worked out in each of our lives every day. It’s because Christians in Randwick have waged that struggle before us that we’re here today in this place. We give God thanks for it, on this our Dedication day. ‘Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.’
Let us take a moment to meditate on these things.
Lord, we praise your name that in building up your church you should give us the chance to follow you as living stones in that structure that stands firm for eternity. Amen.