Christ the Cornerstone – Sermon on Acts 4:5-12 Easter 4B

April 22, 2018

Here’s where we are in our Easter season readings from the book of Acts. It’s the day after Peter and John healed a man who had been crippled since birth. This man, who had never walked a day in his life, has danced and leaped around Solomon’s Porch, praising God. People came running to see what was happening, and Peter – filled with the Holy Spirit – has preached his second sermon.

The first was at Pentecost, where 3000 people believed and were baptized in the Name of Jesus. This time, even more are moved to repentance and they join the believers. This church is growing and it hasn’t even started calling itself a church yet! But it is making the priests and temple rulers nervous.

The temple officials send Peter and John to jail for the night. They think maybe a night on a cold stone floor will cool down these hotheads. It will also give them time to gather the high priest and other leaders to figure out what to do with these followers of Jesus who keep claiming … the impossible.

But the temple officials haven’t considered how the power of the Holy Spirit can change simple, uneducated fishermen into eloquent witnesses to the resurrection. They still haven’t figured out that this movement isn’t the result of any human effort or design. It’s the work of God, through his Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ – Acts 4:5-12

How does something so good cause so much trouble? You would think that bringing health to someone who has been sick his entire life would be cause for rejoicing. The crippled beggar certainly saw it that way. He immediately got up, took a few steps, and started leaping and praising God. He had made eye contact with Peter and John, hoping for a few coins. Instead, he had experienced a life-changing event.

He was whole and well for the first time in his life. He had a new identity, and a totally new perspective. He’d never seen the world from a standing position; his point of view had always been from down on the ground. Now he could walk and dance and leap for joy. Who else but God could have made this possible? Who else but this Jesus that Peter and John were talking about could heal him?

His joy was infectious, spreading to others nearby who had seen the miracle with their own eyes. And their joy and amazement quickly attracted more people … and more people … until there was a crowd running to find out what all the commotion was about. And this is where the trouble starts.

If the healed man had just minded his own business, instead of dancing and whooping all over the place, things would have been fine.

  • People may or may not have noticed that he wasn’t there the next day, where he’d always been, sitting by the Beautiful Gate asking for a handout.
  • People may or may not have seen him getting a job and working for a living instead of begging.
  • People may or may not have connected his new status to God’s work in his life.

But this man has been transformed, and not just his ankles. He has been changed forever by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, and he simply won’t be quiet about it.

So a crowd gathers, and the temple rulers have good reason to be concerned. They “know that Romans do not ignore crowds of five thousand agitated Jews.” Peter and John have not only threatened the peace of Jerusalem with their healing and preaching, they have endangered “the Pax Romana, the peace guaranteed by Rome.”[1]

Why should a work of charity create such a stir, and get Peter and John thrown into jail overnight? What’s the problem, exactly?

In a word: Power.

Notice how the question has moved rapidly from “what’s going on here?” to “where did you get the power to do this?” or “who authorized you to say and do these things?”

This amazing healing might have started out as an occasion to rejoice in God’s mercy, but the priests and rulers don’t see it that way. They see this event as a direct attack on their authority, and a challenge to their positions of power.[2]

It doesn’t help that these leaders have already started to worry about the rapid growth of this new faith community. In just a few weeks, it has grown from the original 12 disciples to about 120 believers, then to 3,000 on the day of Pentecost, and now 5,000 more have “heard the word and believed” (4:4).

That’s a significant growth spurt, and the temple leaders might well have seen it as a threat. Rapid growth usually means instability, and that’s scary to leaders whose power depends on maintaining the status quo. Now, a bunch of ‘uneducated and ordinary men’ (v.13) have been filled “with divine power to instruct people in positions of power about the true source of power.”[i]

And this points up another problem the temple rulers had with power. Part of their job was “to protect people from the full, unmediated glare of God’s glory” (Long, 434). The power of God was so evident in Peter and John that is was frightening to those who had never experienced it in such a raw form. By Old Testament standards, they should have been afraid for their very lives, having seen God’s power so fully displayed.

If power is the problem, Peter has a solution, and it’s one every child in Sunday School knows: the answer is always … Jesus.

At Pentecost and again in Solomon’s Porch, Peter has confessed the crucified Christ as the source of healing and salvation. Now, he reframes the high priest’s question to focus on a “good deed” – not an act of insurrection – as evidence of the power that comes only from God, and only through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Peter points a finger at the rulers as the ones responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, and he is fully aware that three more point back at himself. When he speaks of the stone that “you, the builders” have rejected, he knows that his own denial of Jesus puts him in the same category as these priests.

And keep in mind that this event takes place just a few short weeks after Jesus has stood on this very same pavement, before these very same religious rulers, and Peter is quoting the very same verse from Psalm 118 that Jesus used. This is no accident.

It was Tuesday of Holy Week when Jesus referred to this statement about the cornerstone, that comes from both Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had just driven out the moneychangers the day before, and was teaching in the temple courts. Using parables, he challenged the religious systems of the day, summing up the parable of the wicked tenants with the quote from Psalm 118 that describes a rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

This quotation from Psalm 118 would have been well known to the people who heard Jesus that day. Psalm 118 closes the set of psalms traditionally sung as the Passover lamb was being slaughtered. And Psalm 118 also begins the group of songs to be sung at the beginning of the meal on the first night of Passover. When Jesus mentioned “the stone that the builders rejected,” his listeners would have heard it in the context of Passover, even though they did not know he was referring to himself as the rejected stone.

What would cause a stonemason to reject a particular stone as a cornerstone? What attributes does a stone need to have in order to become the cornerstone? What is a cornerstone anyway?

I may have mentioned before that two of my stepdad’s cousins were stonemasons. The stone building they built on the farm where they grew up is a work of art. Each stone is fitted perfectly into its own space, like pieces in a puzzle. And on the northwest corner of the building, at the very base of the foundation, lies the cornerstone. The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All the other foundation stones are set in reference to this stone, which means that the cornerstone determines the position of the entire structure. For the building to be sound, all the foundation stones must line up with the cornerstone as their reference point.

The other stones may be of various shapes and sizes, but because of its function as a reference point, the cornerstone needs to be of fairly good size, and relatively square. It needs to be a solid chunk of good quality rock, without defects. The whole building is going to rest on this stone, or be lined up with it, so most stones will be rejected for one reason or another.

Here’s something else you may find interesting. In Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for “stone” sounds almost like the word for “son,” so this wordplay would have been clear to the high priest and the Jewish rulers. Jesus had identified the builder who rejects the stone with the Temple rulers, and that shocking comparison would have still been in their memory as these same rulers heard Peter preach about God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

While Jesus might have implied the connection within the context of a parable, Peter is quite clear in his accusation. He adds two words to the familiar scripture. Instead of “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” Peter makes it personal: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (v.11)

The parable Jesus told and the sermon Peter preaches both ask the same question: How will we respond to the grace God offers in Christ Jesus? Will we align ourselves with the cornerstone, or will we reject the Son of God?

Staying in line with Jesus keeps us in line with God and his purposes for us. God has laid the cornerstone in Jesus, but the foundation and the building of the kingdom of God must be made up of other stones, what Peter will later call “living stone.” In 1 Peter 2:4-6 we read,

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture [and here Peter is referencing Isaiah 28]: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

We are those living stones, when we are arranged in perfect alignment with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. But how do we do that, exactly?
How do we stay in line with Christ?

Of course, we could always fall back on the answers of reading the Bible regularly, and praying without ceasing. We could talk about maintaining fellowship with one another. Those answers are all good, and those activities are certainly part of staying aligned with Christ.

But even more, I think, it requires intentionality on our part. We must desire to be in God’s will. We must make a conscious effort to line up with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ, and give Christ the primary, central place our lives.

The cornerstone doesn’t work as an ornament. It isn’t an add-on or an interesting architectural detail. It’s the very foundation. If Christ is to be our cornerstone, he has to be the central focus of our faith and our lives.

God sent his own Son, who has been rejected by many. God will always seek those who are willing to live in right relationship with him. That relationship depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we will align ourselves with Christ, the cornerstone, we will be in right relation to God the Father.

And if we don’t align ourselves with Christ, we stand in opposition to him. Just as the high priest and his family chose to reject the Son of God, we can choose to build our lives around Christ, or we can choose to reject him. The choice is ours.

Jesus died for the whole world, to save the whole world – no other human power, not temple, law, or government, can be depended upon for salvation. Jesus is the authority under which the entire world is brought into alignment with God’s will.

But there is something interesting about the power we find in Christ the Cornerstone. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “As important as this particular cornerstone is, it is curiously passive. After the builders rejected it, it did not leap into places under its own power. Someone else placed it there. What does this say about the power vested in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth? Is it the muscular power of someone who can make things happen, or the power of one willing to lie wherever God places him, trusting God to use him well?” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2, 433)

“Peter trusts that he does not stand in the dock alone. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. While the verb is passive, Peter is passive in the same way that a cornerstone is passive. This rock is willing to be where God places him, trusting that God will use him well” (Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2, 435).

The question each of us must answer is this: will you reject the stone or will you build your life on the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ? Are you willing to be where God places you, trusting that God will use you well? Have you aligned yourself with Christ, and made him the center of your life? Because, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 433.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 432

[i] Paul Walaskay, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 433.

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