Rodger and I enjoyed going to a place back in Pennsylvania called McConnell’s Mills. There is an old grain mill there that people can tour but the great attraction is the grounds that surrounded that Mill. On long, winding and excruciating many steep steps, the grounds above the Mill held a beautiful picnic area where many people gathered on nice days. Down by the Mill was a large creek with a spillway which helped power the Mill back when it was operational. It had a huge wheel that turned by the force of tons of water that then powered the equipment inside. These days the huge wheel still goes round and round even though there is no equipment to run. There is a relatively flat, long path for walking by the creek both directions from the Mill. One could go steeper off the path if one wanted to hike up to some of the huge rocks and, Rodger and I did that occasionally. Those rocks were solid and immovable. However, down on the path was a different story. There were all sizes and shapes of stones and pebbles that could cause one to stumble. Now, you have to understand that my family says my middle name is “grace,” (it is really Ann,) quite sarcastically, because if there was something to stumble over I would find it and trip over it. Not graceful at all! To this day, when I trip or fall and try to catch myself looking totally awkward I often state, “Just call me Grace!” I’m even worse now, at times, because of fibromyalgia that plays havoc with my balance and any little bit of coordination I use to have.
Now, I would like you to think of the cornerstone of this building. Without cornerstones, buildings would have a difficult time standing. I like to think of the cornerstone of our church building as Jesus Christ, metaphorically speaking, because it is a comforting and supportive thought to think that Christ the cornerstone is holding up this congregation through good times and difficult times. Yes, Christ is our sure foundation.
Our epistle lesson of I Peter, chapter 2 explains Christ as the cornerstone of the building that God creates, as we as living stone upon living stone are built up in our Lord. As I have explained, the letter too explains that Jesus is the cornerstone of our building, the Body of Christ. Everything we do and say, then, ought to be done with that in mind. This is to happen not merely in this place on Sunday mornings or during a committee meeting or some other event during the week but at all times we are to recognize Jesus as our cornerstone and the foundation of our faith.
Christ is not static; instead, Christ is alive. He is alive through God’s Word and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The author of 1 Peter contrasts the new life in Christ, our Savior with the old life before Christ, and he does it in part through discussing behavior. The original Greek is closer to saying: As you rid yourselves of all malice, all deviousness, and all insincerity, envy and slander, then you begin to live your new life in Christ Jesus, the sure foundation. The ridding yourselves of these destructive behaviors is an ongoing process. The New Living Bible, a paraphrase not a translation, states verse 1 this way: “So be rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy and all unkind speech.” Slander, malice, insincerity, envy, deviousness, jealousy, deceit, hypocrisy and unkind speech all stem from anger, to varying degrees. These behaviors are not scorned in our society. Some of them are held up as a way to get ahead in business and life. However, these behaviors are certainly not embraced as acceptable traits in God’s Word and by the Cornerstone of our faith, Jesus the Christ.
Quite obviously, we can stumble over the behaviors I have mentioned. Because these traits come a little too easily for people, we easily fall into incorporating them into our lives. We can see how we can stumble over Jesus, the stone, in the middle of the walking path. Our holy, good God wants us to succeed; so, why then cause us to stumble over the one who brings us salvation? Why does Romans, chapter 9, explain God planting a stone in the midst of the path people walk on because they need to get somewhere? Why would our gracious God do this?
Jesus was a problem, a stumbling stone, for the religious and political leaders of the Jewish faith. Even though he enacted countless miracles and healings and was an incredible teacher as well, they could not, actually they would not follow him or believe him to be their Messiah. Jesus was not a Messiah the way they envisioned their Savior would be. He was not a king who would take down the ruling empire and oppressors of the Roman Empire. He had a whole different approach to his “rule.” We could even say that Jesus was an affront to the way they lived their faith and so they wanted to destroy him. Certainly, they stumbled over Jesus the stone in their path because they were determined to work out their salvation on the basis of following the Law of Moses, itself a stumbling block to salvation, in our Christian thought. And so it is for us, not because we try to follow the Law of Moses perfectly—we know we can’t—but because of the aforementioned traits including malice, unkind speech, and deceit. They make us stumble over Jesus’ teachings and way.
Many of the ancient Jewish people were not able to save themselves because no one could keep the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, or the countless others created by the Pharisees. Yet, they had on blinders because of the kind of Savior Jesus actually had been. Still, some of the Jews did follow Jesus. Perhaps some of their reasoning for that had to do with knowing they couldn’t keep the Law as necessary and still desired salvation. Their yearning to be saved, their hope for a Savior, led them to accept Jesus as Messiah, at least by the time of his death. They stood upon the stone, the cornerstone that was their sure and true foundation. That has turned into hundreds of billions of lives saved down through the centuries.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus proclaims: “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the (Realm) of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits (for Christ’s rule).” Next Jesus states this difficult verse, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Again, why wouldn’t our good God who is merciful, kind and compassionate, reach out and keep people from breaking into pieces or being crushed by the message of Jesus? That’s so very harsh for a loving Redeemer who wants to save creation, isn’t it? Seems to me when we take these kinds of teachings in context with the love of God in Jesus Christ taught in many verses throughout the New Testament, we simply have to acknowledge that God wants to save but, we humans are a willful lot. A vital part of who God in Christ is, is the longing to save humanity and all of creation. Christians also know that we are left with the need to strive to improve and be more consistent followers of the Cornerstone of our faith. Leaving behind the need to judge others according to this passage instead, we strive for better behavior and a closer walk with Jesus for our own lives. This is not only for each of our individual lives but also the lives of our faith family of this congregation as we are accountable to each other and support each other’s growth so that we don’t stumble as frequently as we could. Today, the typical Christian view of stumbling is one that ignores our personal responsibility for ‘the other,’ other people in our lives or effected by the way we live our lives, or the things we say and do, or fail to do. The undesirable behaviors are roadblocks to caring for others.
Thinking back to that list of harmful traits, of which the author of 1 Peter implores us to rid ourselves, what is behind jealousy, malice, unkind speech, hypocrisy, deceit and the like? Most frequently anger is behind them. Anger absolutely forgets to care for the ‘other.’ There is so much anger in our society and in the entire world. People get indignant very easily, feel their rights are trampled on when they don’t get their way, and consider it just fine to hate whole groups of people. Anger ultimately most hurts the perpetrator of anger. In anger, we cause others to stumble. The Greek word “orge” refers to a long-festering anger. This is the sort of anger we have when we completely stop talking to someone or decide to hate whole groups of people because a relatively small percentage of them are terrorists. This is the kind of anger we use to allow one person’s sin, such as a person of a different skin color or language, to color our view of all people of that skin color or language. Anger leads to rage and malice, or as the King James Version calls it, wrath, behaviors of which we are to rid ourselves. Rage is the kind of anger that happens when you completely let go of control of yourself. Self-control basically flies out the window in an escalation that leads to intent to harm the other. Malice is choosing to think of the other as enemy. And too, if you have malice toward another it easily becomes to slander against that other person. You may actually feel justified in doing so. It is one thing to state disagreement with someone, it is a whole other bad behavior to show them rage, malice and slander.
Alexander the Great was known for his bad temper. Once, in a moment of anger, he grabbed a spear from a nearby guard and hurled it at the long-time friend of his childhood. Clitus was his companion, rescuer, and the general of his Army. Alexander himself drew out that spear that caused the fatal blow of someone he loved. Afterwards, for a long time, he laid beside his friend writhing in anguish for what he caused and couldn’t undo. Anger so very often leads us to rash actions and behavior.
Anger itself is not a sin. There is such a thing in scripture as righteous, not to be confused with self-righteous, anger. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, he states, ‘ok, be angry if it is right to do so but only if it doesn’t cause you to sin. Far too often, anger leads to sin. It is way too easy to follow through on one’s anger with wrongful behavior, words, and actions. So how do we get rid of uncontrollable, self-righteous, and harmful to the other anger? Well, society says to count to ten, or one hundred, if necessary. While that can be helpful, we Christians must also pray in repentance and then we keep walking on the correct path on which Jesus leads us. We also ought not to depend on our own strength. Proverbs, chapter 3, “In all your ways acknowledge God, and the Lord will make your paths straight.” In New Testament teachings we discover that Christ’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, grants us the strength we need, if only we would embrace that freely offered gift. Remember, we are not alone in our struggle. God is with us.
When I was a child and a young teen, I was a sleepwalker. Thankfully I grew out of that practice! It was quite a blessing that I never fell down our steep stairs that lead to the living room. But my sisters or my parents would find me rooting around under the shelves in my bedroom or wandering around one of their rooms, totally unaware I was doing that. They would guide me back to bed without waking me up. One time, at our Lake summerhouse, my Dad was downstairs watching the news when he heard somebody making noise upstairs. He came up to investigate and found me in our walk-in storage closet at the top of the stairs feeling my way around. I was looking for the toilet! I came out of my bedroom and turned left just like I did at our suburb of Pittsburgh home in Glenshaw. The bathroom was the doorway to the left at home. At our lake home, the bathroom was a quick right turn and as I was sleepwalking that did not compute! I was lost. What my father heard was me being lost. He, of course, came to my rescue and led me to the bathroom where I then woke up.
When we are lost, Jesus comes to our rescue. Even though we may, at times, stumble over the ‘Jesus stone’ in our path, when we ask Jesus, our cornerstone and sure foundation, for assistance in leading us onward on his righteous path, he is there in Spirit to guide us. Even during those times we sleepwalk in life and lose our way, if we turn back around, pray in repentance, and once again notice Jesus right there with us guiding us, we wake up and follow once again. Then we also know how to make amends for our wrongful behavior, words and/or actions.
People of God, as living stones based in the one true foundation I implore you to keep from stumbling over that proverbial stone which so often is in our path as we stray. Let go of your anger and cease to cause others harm or to stumble for God is good and will teach us all how to be good in that same way. Alleluia! Amen.