We understand who we are by the groups we belong to. The core of our identity is shaped in childhood by the family we’re part of. One of the key developmental tasks of adolescence is defining who we are in a world that offers us many options. Joining clubs, teams, or cliques is all part of sorting out and shaping our identity. Am I a jock or a geek, do I identify with the band or the stoners, how widely can I distribute myself among different groups that reflect a part of who I am? Those are important questions we deal with as teenagers, and that’s why parents plead and pray that their teens become part of networks that are positive and healthy. It’s why they want to know who you’ve been hanging out with after school.
And of course it doesn’t stop once we become adults. Just think how you define yourself by the groups you belong to and how you live your life guided by the claims they put on you. Your family, your country, the Steeler Nation – they all have a claim on you.
In his letter to those early Christians Peter reminds them that they belong to a group that is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” By the time this letter was written, Jesus’ followers were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They lived in different countries and belonged to different ethnic groups. Some were wealthy and powerful and highly educated. Some were poor and illiterate. They belonged to trade guilds and political groups. Some were slaves and belonged to other human beings. But what they had in common was far more significant than all their differences. They belonged to the group God had chosen to continue the work of Jesus, the work of bringing the whole creation back to God by proclaiming God’s marvelous works. Whatever other groups they belonged to, the one that defined them above all others was this holy nation chosen by God.
Now, these days we’ve developed some skepticism about group identity. We’ve seen too many examples of how it can be manipulated by powerful leaders for selfish ends. We’ve heard too many stories of group-think causing people to give up their freedom or do horrible things in a crowd that they’d never do on their own. Some of you grew up in religious communities that squeezed the spiritual life right out of you, and you’re skeptical of any kind of religion that that has a formal organization. It can be tempting to think of our relationship with God as something purely personal that can thrive outside of a group of other Christians. Many people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” They mean they’re constructing their own faith outside of any formal community that practices rituals or teaches creeds.
Peter is reminding us that we can’t be followers of Christ without being part of a community that’s larger than ourselves. He describes those who believe in Jesus as stones, the building blocks of a spiritual house. And yet, to make it clear that we’re not faceless, mindless rocks, he calls us living stones. That’s a strange metaphor, a contradiction in terms. I’ve never seen a stone that’s alive. But that reflects the mystery and wonder of what he’s trying to convey. We belong to a group that gives us our identity as Christians. At the same time, we don’t lose ourselves mindlessly in this group. It’s by belonging to the group that we find who we truly are because we’re valued and loved for our own unique character.
David Brooks wrote a column last week that reported on disturbing study of working-class men. Researchers interviewed people who have been left behind by the gig economy and feel isolated and alienated. In those parts of the country where the economic malaise is strongest and the opioid crisis is acute, the bonds of community seem to be fraying the most. People claim to be religious, but they are loosely attached to their churches. “Their conception of faith is so individualized that there is nobody else they could practice it with. They pray but have contempt for organized religion and do not tie themselves down to a specific community. ‘I treat church just like I treat my girlfriends,” one man said. “’I’ll stick around for a while, then I’ll go on to the next one.’” Peter’s description of the community of faith is so much more than a placed we stop by occasionally on our way to constructing our own personal faith.
Like the stones that make up a building, each one relies on the other. Each one gives strength to the others even as it receives strength and support. When one can’t bear the weight on its own, the others bear the load for it.
Have you ever come to church on a Sunday and felt spiritually dry, as if there were no life in your spirit and everything was flat? And then as the people around you sing the hymns and bow their heads in prayer, as you join the line to come forward to receive communion or as you hear the choir sing the anthem, you feel that you’re lifted up on their songs and prayers. You leave feeling closer to God because you’ve been lifted up by the worship of others.
Once I visited someone in the hospital from another state. She was in town for major surgery. She told me how she could feel the prayers of her church half way across the country giving her strength and courage. I have a friend who is trying to discern what God wants her to do with the next phase of her life. She’s asked people in various parts of the country to keep her in their prayers, and she says that she can feel those prayers. She’s facing her uncertain future with a confidence that’s grounded in something stronger than her own anxieties and worries.
After Mother Teresa died, many were surprised to learn that she suffered from some real crises of faith. There were long periods of time when she did not feel God’s presence as she ministered to the poor in the streets of Calcutta. Many people have those dark nights of the soul, yet they keep on serving God because they know that they are carried on by the faith of others. They’re part of God’s people who have received mercy, and when they can’t believe, they rely on the other living stones to carry them in faith. They know that their lives are secure on the cornerstone of faith, Jesus, and he is far more reliable than our fleeting awareness of him.
Today we have Carleen Farabaugh from the York Benevolent Association with us. Most of the good work that a church does we do in partnership with other organizations. There is a network of people of good will spread throughout our community who work to improve the lives of our neighbors. We believe that God’s Spirit works through all those communities of good will, that it’s in our community connections that we experience the love of God that lifts us beyond ourselves and draws us into Christ’s mission of sharing God’s love.
For a number of years I volunteered with the World Communion of Reformed Churches. That’s the organization of 180 Presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Most of those 80 million Presbyterians live in the third world. I attended their annual executive committee meetings because I was helping them get a funds development effort started in North America. The 30 people in attendance were from 6 continents. We would begin each meeting checking in with each other and giving a brief update on the state of the church in his or her country. The first meeting I attended, in Geneva, Switzerland, made a powerful impression on me. The first to speak was a professor from Columbia, South America. Speaking through an interpreter, he told how his country was being debilitated by narco traffickers, but the churches there are able to stand up to the drug lords and rogue militias because of the support they get from Presbyterians from the US who would go to Columbia for two weeks at a time to as accompaniers. They would go to villages out in the country and live among the members of the church. Their presence as foreigners protected the peasants from the violence of the narco traffickers. It was dangerous for the North Americans, but it gives the Columbians strength knowing that they’re not along, and the church is thriving with that kind of support.
A pastor from Rwanda told how leaders of his church are working alongside leaders from the church in the neighboring Congo to help mediate peace in the civil war that is raging in Congo. There was a report from China about the churches that are overflowing on Sunday mornings in that country where Christianity was once forbidden. A Christian educator from Lebanon shared her church’s concerns about the upheaval sweeping the Middle East. While we in the US were rejoicing that dictators were being toppled, she said that the Christians in those lands are worried that those who replaced the ruling despots may not be as tolerant of Christians. The dwindling number of churches were doing all they could to care for the victims of war. Toward the end of the circle, a pastor from Germany reported on his situation that is similar to one we know. The church in western Europe, even more than in the United States, is shrinking in numbers. Its influence is waning. Like us, he’s concerned about the future. He said that he needs to hear the stories of the church in Africa and Asia and South America because they remind him that his struggling church isn’t the entire story of the Christian faith today.
The individual, personal relationship that each of has with the Lord is a precious thing. Jesus loves each and every one of us and knows the number of hairs on our head. And because he loves us so, he joins us to the whole household of faith. He gives each of us a part in the glorious work he started on Easter, the work of proclaiming the new creation where each one has received mercy and is precious to God. Our lives matter to Jesus, and because we matter, he joins us with all those who love him to form a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s chosen people.
We’re not in this
by ourselves. The folks around us aren’t perfect. We get annoyed and frustrated
with them sometimes. But Jesus, the cornerstone, holds us up, and when we need
it, the Holy Spirit touches us through those imperfect Christians who show us
our place in that royal priesthood of living stones, made perfect in our
weakness by him.
 David Brooks, “The Rise of the Haphazard Self,” The New York Times, May 13, 2019.