What were you in the middle of when Lockdown started? What is it that lies unfinished for you? A house move? A change of job? A holiday? This weekend I know many of us have been painfully aware of abandoned plans to mark VE day. Socially distanced street parties and listening to the Queen’s speech were lovely, but they were not the same as the real parties, parades and services that we had hoped for.
What lies unfinished or abandoned for you?
If you ever walk to St Peter and St Paul’s as part of your daily exercise – and I know many love the peace and solace of the grounds – you will see that a short stretch of our boundary wall has fallen down. It’s one of those projects that is on hold in the current Lockdown. That part of the wall has medieval foundations, or rather almost no foundations. It has been repaired many times over the centuries, but the last repair had been tested beyond limits by the movement of earth and the pressure of branches. So, after a partial collapse, the bricks were carefully taken down and stacked by a wonderful local builder called Stuart, leaving the ancient layer of greensand boulders which make up the bottom courses.
When we are back to normal – how many times do I find myself saying that – when we are back to normal – the wall will be rebuilt using the old bricks where we can and new bricks where we can’t, and the boundary wall that has stood for centuries will be ready for another 100 years or so.
I think many of us in recent weeks have had that sense of things being dismantled, of things being taken apart, so that we are no longer sure where we stand or whether life will be rebuilt. For those of us for whom this has been the case, Peter’s letter gives a wonderful sense of security and stability. As the hymn our choir recorded for today paraphrases, “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone.” Maybe that’s why, according to recent media reports and our own experience here, so many people have been turning to faith, tuning in to livestream services and joining in prayer in recent weeks. We are turning to something that feels sure, a strong foundation when everything else is in flux.
At present we are unable to worship in our ancient stone building. Just to let you know: Andrea and I are in absolute agreement that until Church is open for all of us, we too will continue to worship from our kitchens. We have always said that Church is not the building, it is the people. That’s not to say that our building is unimportant. Our building is a visible proclamation of the mighty acts of God. It is an attraction, a draw, a place to come for those who seek. Its form announces its function, it says ‘you are welcome’, from it large door, big enough to admit all comers, to the focal point of the altar where all are fed.
But the Church is fundamentally the people, not the building. Peter says: “like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house.” What does it mean for us to be stones in the house of God. I think there are three things.
Firstly, we are not alone, we are part of a greater whole. The faith in which we journey is not at its heart an individual thing, it is a communal thing. That’s one of the reasons it is so hard not to be able to gather on a Sunday morning. We are a people, God’s people, and whatever God does, however Christ transforms things, it is for us, together, communally, not for me individually and apart. A brick by itself is just a brick, but built together, fixed with mortar, joined with care, bricks become so much more; a shelter, haven, a home.
Secondly, if we are living stones, we matter. We are each different, each unique, and we each need one another. If you take just one brick out of a wall, the wall will stand, but it will not be them same, there will always be a gap. Each one of us is needed to build the Church, the spiritual house. You matter. You matter to God and so you matter to us.
The third of our three things is this. We are built on the foundation of Christ. A foundation firmer than even the greensand of our medieval Church wall. The cornerstone gives stability to a building. It gives direction; all the other stones are set in reference to that one. The cornerstone determines the position and structure of the whole. Christ is the cornerstone; the way, the truth and the life. He is the foundation on which we can build with confidence. Jesus wasn’t just someone to be remembered as an ethical teacher and healer, he is integral to our lives.
So, this spiritual house we build together, this community which we form is called to do the same things as our physical building. We are called to be a visible proclamation of the mighty acts of God. To be an attraction, a draw, a place to come for those who seek. To welcome, to heal, to feed the hungry.
And this spiritual house we build, is it some unyielding, unchanging monolith? Of course not! We are living stones. We are deeply rooted in Christ, but still things change. Times change. Earth moves under us, roots and branches exert pressure on all sides. Sometimes we suffer a partial collapse. There are hard times communally or individually, stones are lost. COVID-19 has at times felt as though it has threatened the spiritual house we have been built into. But it can’t and it won’t destroy us. Our cornerstone, our foundation, is still there, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. As we move together, apart, during these times, we are building a new spiritual house. Some of the bricks are the same, some are new. All are needed, all are vital. We build this spiritual home with the mortar of prayer. We are aligned by our fellowship, our care for one another. And always, always, we build on Christ, the sure foundation. That foundation will never fail.