by Dr. John Yates
Readings: Ex 20:1-4, Ex 20:7-9, Ex 20:12-20 Ps 19 Phil 3:4-14 Matt 21:33-46
The story goes that early in the 1700’s the dean of St Paul’s London walked into the church on Easter Day and decided there were so few attendees there was no point in going ahead with the service. The Spirit however was already at work planning the great Methodist revival that would break out a few years later. With the diocese of Perth in visible decline what is the Spirit planning today? Since every weakening of Christianity is grounded in a falling away from the supremacy of Jesus he is working to restore the person of Christ to his rightful place as the centre of all things (Col 1:15).
Jesus promise, “I will build my church and the gates of death will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18) is as true today as ever. Whilst the media focuses on the horrors of Islamic State tent churches are popping up in the refugee camps across the region and more Muslims are becoming Christians ever before. Having visited the Middle East in recent years most conversion stories go something like this; “I had a dream in which a man in white appeared and he said “Follow me.”?
The answer as to how Jesus will manifest himself to us is given in a text from today’s Gospel reading, ““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”” (Matt 21:42). The action of God in the dying and rising of Jesus is amazing beyond measure, and testifies to the one form of spirituality that can rebuild the Church today. But first some remarks about other forms of spirituality.
Building on the Law
I recall my disappointment after listening to a sermon on the Ten Commandments from today’s Old Testament reading. Since the preacher did not mention Jesus at any time his sermon could not be called “Christ-ian”. Two crucial texts about Jesus and the Law come to mind, the first from John’s Gospel and the second from Romans, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), “Christ is the end of the law, that all who believe might be righteous.” (Rom 10:4).
However wonderful God’s gift of his Law was in its own time, as the second part of Psalm 19 extols, any attempt to build a Christian spirituality on the rock of Law is a contradiction. The Exodus passage on the giving of the commandments ends with the LORD in thick darkness and the people in fear thankful for the distance between them and God (Exo 20:18-21; Deut 4:13; Deut 10:4).
From my childhood I remember how the Ten Commandments were part of the foundation of Australian society. The morality of that civilisation no longer exists, today people no longer want to be told the “do’s and don’ts” of life. As society shifted away from conservative middle class morality a Church established on the Law of God rather than the amazement of intimacy with the Son of God inevitably began to crumble (cf. Matt 19:20).
Building on Nature
Having abandoned the Law of God many Australians swung their spirituality to nature. Having returned on Friday from the Nannup forests the memory of the beauty of nature is still fresh. Looking up at the crystal clear night sky highlighted the testimony of the psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps 19:1).
A mystical nature-based spirituality appeals to reflective men and women who have seen through the superficialities of consumerism. Yet the message of the prophets reminds us that the Maker of nature must never be confused with what he has made (Acts 7:42-43 cf. Baalism was a nature religion). To worship and serve the creature rather than the creator is the essence of sin (Rom 1:21-23).
The right relationship between nature and God is put concisely for us in John’s words about Jesus; “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3). In God’s design, nature, just as much as Law, has as its ultimate purpose to lead us to Christ (Col 1:15). If all things ultimately point to Jesus why was he rejected by the religious authorities of his day?
Building on Christ Alone
““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”” (Matt 21:42). The Jerusalem temple was an architectural wonder and the biggest economic hub in the eastern Roman Empire. The impressive structure of temple, priesthood and sacrifice had upon it a divine imprimatur that seemed unchangeable.
The “builders” of the day, the chief priests and elders, knew exactly how to do “church”, and understood their religious system was fundamentally incompatible with the one presented by the itinerant miracle working Galilean who was so attractive to the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners (John 9:34 etc.).
[Those friends of mine working in bars and brothels around Perth find that Jesus is just as amazing to out castes today.] No building can have two foundations, and the cross was the “builders” proof that Jesus was not Messiah. These men however knew neither the scriptures not the power of God (Matt 22:29).
One of the background passages for “the stone” imagery in Jesus’ parable is Daniel 2. The Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar has a dream in which he saw a great statue, then “a stone …cut out by no human hand” appeared and “broke the statue into pieces….the stone…became a great mountain that filled the whole earth.” (vv.31 ff.) The uncut stone is God’s kingdom and the statue it destroys is all man-made rivals to the rule of God. By the time of the coming of Jesus the temple system had become hopelessly corrupted it could only be broken to pieces (Matt 21:44).
There is an essential dynamic here we must understand. The kingdom of God, God’s own power, builds the Church and not the other way around (Matt 16:16-19). Christ did not teach us to pray, “Thy Church come…”.
I had a clear dream about these things some years ago. In this dream there was a huge uncut precious stone, amethyst. Then a group of people came along took hold of the stone and by their own hands cut and polished it into many finely honed gems of manageable proportions. The message of the dream was plain; when the Church cuts the kingdom of God down to size it loses the power of God’s presence to overthrow the idolatrous structures of this age. When we cut King Jesus down to a manageable size the impotency of the people of God soon becomes manifest.
““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”” (Matt 21:42). If rejection speaks of crucifixion, becoming the cornerstone speaks of resurrection. It was the rejection of Jesus as spiritually and religiously useless by the builders of his time that enabled the Father to pour out upon him resurrection power. It is the rejection of the stone that leads to his triumph; such is the message of the gospel.
When Paul testifies, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:6) he is reliving in his personal experience the rejection of Jesus. His repeated rejections by men and rescues by God enabled him to be the foundational church planter of all time (Acts 9:15-16; Rom 15:18-19). When Paul speaks of “knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” (Phil 3:10 he is describing the only true form of Christian spirituality.
These truths remain unchanged over the centuries. A prominent bust of John Wesley sits in Christ Church Oxford, commemorating his expulsion from preaching in the university. Rejection by the church builders of the day led Wesley to do something previously unthinkable for a Church of England minister, preach Christ in the open air. The resurrection power which attended his messages has never been forgotten.
In the early 80’s I was assisting in a parish in Brisbane whilst studying for my PhD. My main duties involved pastoring a daughter church where I grew increasingly popular. The local leaders put a proposal to the rector that they set me up in a house in their suburb so I could concentrate more effectively on ministry. Soon after I received a note in my letter box from the rector. It stated that my appointment in the daughter church was terminated and that my family must stop worshiping within the parish.
No reasons were given. I remember going into the forest and praying; “I have nowhere to minister, I have nowhere to take my family to church, but if I have you I have everything”. Amazingly, Jesus became closer than ever before. This is something of what it means to be rejected by the builders in order to gain Christ.
Application and Conclusion
Traditional forms of Anglicanism may be dying, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). Times of weakness are in God’s plan times of revelation. The mystery of the kingdom of God is to know that we come to the Church through Jesus and not the other way around.
He builds through us; we do not build for him. Our identification must be with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners and not with the chief priests and elders. Jesus has unlimited power to restore his Church today, but only as we pursue a deeper identification with the one rejected as useless by the builders of his time raised from the dead in God’s resurrection power. You will not find this power in either Law or nature but only in Jesus’ personal presence.
Some time before he was speared to death by the natives with whom he was sharing the gospel Jim Eliot said this, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” If we are willing to lose everything in order to gain Christ he will most definitely become amazing in our eyes.