Sermon delivered on Parish Dedication Sunday B, August 22, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.9-14; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2.1-10; St. John 10.22-29.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate again the founding of our parish ten years ago on May 1. We had our big celebration back in May and it remains a glorious memory for many of us. We celebrate our founding again today because it is our custom to transfer this festival to the Sunday in August closest to the feast day of our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, which falls on August 28, marking the anniversary of his death in AD 430. Having dispensed with why we are having two celebrations of our parish this year, we turn now to our readings for today. In our epistle lesson, St. Peter refers to Christ’s people as living stones. But what does that mean? This is what I want us to look at today.
We start with our NT lesson from Revelation because in it we find our future and our hope. Both are indispensable for us if we ever want to fully grasp and embrace the meaning of being living stones. Why? Because first and foremost we are a people of promise and hope and for a host of reasons the Church, at least in the West, has lost sight of that hope and therefore we have generally lost our boldness and power as God’s people. Of course I am speaking of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of God’s new creation. Let me be clear. Nowhere else in the religious or the secular worlds do we have anything like the hope and promise of the resurrection. Christ either is who he says he is—the embodiment of God who was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead to announce that God the Father had defeated death on our behalf—or he is not. If Christ really is God, we had better pay attention to him and accept the gift of healing, salvation, and life he offers us. If Christ isn’t God the Son, then we ought to treat him like the lunatic he is and go about our merry way trying to find some meaning and happiness on our own (good luck with that, BTW). But as the NT boldly proclaims, Christ was and is no lunatic. He is God Incarnate, the Word become flesh. Only in him do we have any hope of being finally and fully reconciled to God. Only in Christ do we have the promise of new bodily life after death, a life lived in the direct presence of God—heaven and earth joined together as Revelation proclaims—a life devoid of sickness, sorrow, disease, despair, loneliness, alienation, and madness to name just a few, an unimaginably beautiful and perfect life.
Without Christ in our lives we are dead people walking and have no hope or future, only the expectation of death and eternal judgment. And as all our lessons make chillingly clear, only God’s people in Christ dare to hope for this future. While final judgment is up to God, the NT gives little hope for a future for those who die without believing in Christ crucified and raised from the dead. We do not have this hope and future because of who we are. We are not unlike unbelievers; many Christians sadly act no better than some unbelievers. Some act worse. No, we have this promise of a hope and future, again defined as new bodily life where we live in God’s new world devoid of any form of evil, only by the grace of God, only by his calling as our lessons proclaim. In describing the New Jerusalem, St. John reminds us that it is not primarily a place as much as it is a new reality between God and his people. Why the Church has rejected her heritage is baffling to me. Perhaps the hope and promise are too spectacular and mind-boggling for our puny minds to comprehend. I don’t know and such speculation is frankly a waste of our time. What I do know is this, my beloved. If we are ever to recover our bold voice in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, if we are ever to truly be unafraid of all in this world that can harm us and the accelerating chaos swirling around us, we must once again fully embrace the promised hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—that we are resurrection people by the love, grace, and mercy of God the Father through Jesus Christ. We must believe that promise with everything we are and set our eyes firmly on Jesus, asking him to be present in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the ordinary means of grace that the Church has recognized and established: regular Bible reading and study individually and together, regular participation in worship and the holy Eucharist, sweet fellowship, and regular and humble service to Christ and his people and to the broader world. In short we must be living embodiments of Christ to his broken and hurting world, i.e., living stones. And we must do this primarily together because only together do we constitute living stones that comprise the New Jerusalem in St. John’s vision. When we are convinced that not even our mortal death can hurt us or separate us from God’s love, we will no longer be afraid to believe, speak, and act accordingly with all boldness. Neither will we be reticent to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead to a world that grows increasingly hostile to that message and those who proclaim it. When we really truly believe Christ is the God who loves us enough to die for us to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and reconcile us to himself, and when we really truly believe that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead in bodily form and promises that where he is so will we be with him, despite our unloveliness and brokenness, we will no longer be embarrassed or ashamed of being called his disciples or living faithfully according to his good will and purposes for us and for all human beings. If anything we will be embarrassed and ashamed that we were so stupid and reticent in living out and proclaiming our faith, costly as that can be. We will look with pity and sadness on those who ridicule and mock us because we know they have no future or hope. They, like us without Christ, are dead people walking and our hearts break over this reality.
But Father, you retort, we don’t feel much like living stones. We are losers and ragamuffins—not as big a loser and ragamuffin as you of course—but still losers and ragamuffins nevertheless with all our fears, hurts, failures, and broken dreams. We get angry and want to act and believe like the world encourages us to act and believe. How can you call us living stones? Well, yes you are losers and ragamuffins (I plead the fifth). None of that matters, though. Feelings in matters of the faith are notoriously fickle and we should should rarely factor them in when considering the reality of our standing before God. Moreover, to argue this way is to miss the point completely. The point, as St. John tells us in his vision of the new heavens and earth, is that we become living stones by God’s power, not our own. On our own we will fail. And even with God’s power we will sometimes fail and miss the mark. We are that badly broken and alienated from God. But God’s love and power and mercy are greater than our brokenness and weaknesses. Nothing is too hard for God, my beloved! After all, he created this universe out of nothing and has the power to raise the dead. Do you think he will renege on his promise to give us life through his Son? No he will not!! God the Father has raised Christ from the dead to proclaim the inauguration of his new world, a world we get a glimpse of in our NT lesson today. God loves us and is grieved by our slavery to Sin and the rebellion and alienation it has produced. And God loves his good creation and will not let it be permanently destroyed. The same power that spoke worlds into existence and raised Christ from the dead is available to us right now if we stop being afraid and fully embrace our resurrection hope. It is the power to be living stones full of God’s boldness, grace, mercy, love, goodness, righteousness, and justice with the power to embody those qualities and more to each other and to God’s world for the love and sake of his Son who has rescued us from Sin and Death.
There is no better time than on our parish dedication festival to fully embrace our resurrection hope and let it change us into living stones, the people of God, pleasing in our Lord’s sight. We can trust the promise precisely because we know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead as the early Church and NT proclaimed and as countless people over time and across cultures have experienced ever since. I therefore encourage and exhort you, my beloved, to embrace your inheritance and let the Holy Spirit affirm it in you. When you do, no matter had bad things are or get, no matter how much evil and chaos and anarchy seem to rule the day, you will remember that not even the gates of Hell can prevail against us as members of Christ’s body, the Church, because Christ has defeated the strong man—Satan! No matter how much our enemies threaten us or even persecute us, we will draw on our faith in Christ and rely on his power to help us persevere and ultimately prevail. In his power we will fight our fears and not be afraid, remembering the promises of God made known to us in the Word made flesh, in his holy Word, and in the Eucharist. For the love of God, again I encourage and exhort you to seek Christ with your whole being and strive to imitate him in all your thinking, speaking, and doing. When we do this we will surely find the power to be living stones who embody the presence and goodness and love and power of the One who loved us and gave himself for us so that we could live forever. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.