I remember, as a kid, reading an old Peanuts comic strip from the 1950s. It showed Lucy being a good big sister and teaching Linus (who was much younger in those days) about the world.
Lucy showed Linus a pebble and said: “You see this pebble, Linus? Well, some pebbles grow up to be rocks, while others grow up to be stones. No one knows why. You just have to hope that this pebble will be good, and grow up to be a rock instead of a stone.”
As a kid I really liked the absurdity of this strip, but part of it struck me as really unfair. Who was Lucy to decide that stones were bad and rocks were good? Who decided she could play God? (alright, I have issues with Lucy, she is just too bossy).
But as I looked over the readings assigned in the lectionary for this past Sunday, it struck me that whoever had chosen them had a really sick sense of humour.
Look at all the rock and stone imagery we are given:
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16: God as Rock and Refuge, Rock and Fortress
Acts 7:55-60: Stoning of Stephen
1 Peter 2:2-10: Living Stones (Jesus and us); cornerstone (Jesus), and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall” (Jesus)
These readings run from one extreme to the other: from the murderous stones as Stephen is martyred to the righteous Rock of God as our protector.
I suddenly understood where Charles Shultz, whose Christian faith was very important in his life, got this idea for Lucy. In the Bible, Rocks are much more likely to be given a positive image than stones. So Rocks are good, and Stones are bad. Too bad it took me over 40 years to figure that out!
This is not just biblical: the idea has made it into popular culture over the centuries. A name like Rocky Balboa suggests someone strong, tough, unbeatable. Duane Johnson called himself The Rock when he was a professional wrestler for exactly the same reason.
If we use “stone” to describe someone it’s along the lines of a “stone cold killer”. (Stoner is another uncomplimentary one, it’s a drug term, but it still carries the idea that being stoned is a bad thing).
Several people at Knox pointed out one great example I had missed: “So Rock music is good, but the Rolling Stones are bad?” Well, they have certainly cultivated the “bad boy” image for decades.
Images are important in scripture. They get used over and over across the centuries of biblical writing, and they can develop and change.
The Psalm lesson is the oldest one in our selection, and it is pretty simple: God is a rock, a foundation, a fortress; something big and strong, that we can rely on.
Stoning in the Bible was a punishment ordered by the law of Moses. Usually it was reserved for those whose behaviour was considered so unholy that they had to be permanently removed from the community of faith so they could no longer pollute the community. People were executed by stoning because everyone in the community had to participate, and the blood of the execution was on the hands of everyone: you weren’t allowed to refuse to throw a stone. Symbolically it was a way for the holy people of God to declare that they wanted nothing to do with this unholiness. In terms of persuasion, it made sure that everyone saw what happened to people who committed these sins: it was a horrible death and would make you think twice about doing it yourself.
Blasphemy was obviously unholy, and Stephen’s words sounded blasphemous to many of the traditional religious people who heard them. The crowd probably felt perfectly righteous in stoning Stephen to death, but the readers of Acts can see how wrong this is. The injustice is obvious as this supposedly holy judgement process is used to create the first Christian martyr. Our impression of this injustice is underlined by Stephen’s dying vision of the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
[Interesting side note: This passage is only time we are shown Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Usually the image is of Jesus sitting: which ismuch more dignified and appropriate. The suggestion has been made that Jesus is standing here as a special honour to welcome Stephen into God’s presence.]
We know how Jesus dealt with the one instance of stoning he faced: “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus called into question the ability of the crowd to ever be truly just, to ever really proclaim that they are holy this way. He challenged the whole idea of stoning, and called into question whether it was ever really being God’s way of doing things.
Back to the stone and rock imagery. The contrast so far is the same as the one Lucy makes: stones are bad while rocks are good. In the stoning of Stephen we see stones at their worst: a thing intended to be a holy but terrible judgement, being corrupted by human hands into a most unholy injustice. It is hard to imagine a more severe contrast with the image of God as a rock, a fortress, our secure protector; while these stones are used by a mob to murder a young man who dies physically isolated, exposed and vulnerable, but spiritually embraced by God.
How much more of a contrast can be made between the holiness and reliability of God and the corruption and unreliability of people? God is the righteous rock and we are the unworthy stones.
But look what happens in our lesson from 1 Peter: he takes the corrupted image of the stone and transforms it completely.
The author calls Jesus a “living stone” and “the cornerstone”, and he calls the followers of Jesus “living stones” as well. It’s an image with a lot tied up in it. It shows us God as a builder, with us as the construction material. As living stones we are not to become a rigid structure, but “a living temple”, a place of worship created out of people, not stones.
It is an image of us being taken from our potential for violence, our potential for injustice, and being transformed into something good, something constructive, something secure and ultimately safe from harm. In this image we become living stones building the kind of fortress that is associated with the Rock of God of the Psalms.
[Another interesting note: the one time the word “rock” is used in this lesson it is treated as equal with “stone”. The transformation is complete.]
This is all deliberate. Remember how Peter got his name? He started out as Simon, but Jesus nick-named him Peter, which literally means “the Rock”. Basically Jesus was calling him Rocky and said that he would be the foundation for the church.
That was some kind of transformation, wasn’t it? Throughout the gospels Simon Peter is shown to be impulsive, erratic, a very poor planner: someone you’d hesitate to follow because of how often he screwed up. Yet over the years he became a leader admired by the whole church.
And here we are, in this letter bearing Peter’s name, being told with the same kind of word-play, the same rock and stone images, that God will do the same for us. God will take us as we are: imperfect, flawed, unreliable, mistaken, unjust; with all the problems of our lives, whatever they are . . . God will take all of that and change us, lead us to be better, transform us.
We will not be changed from stones into rocks, but into be stones that are alive, and able to build up God’s work.
Or, to drop the symbolic language:
We will not be changed from humans into angels, but into humans who do godly things: people who are loving, able to love even when we see the worst in someone; people who are creative, who can find ways to make good come out of bad; people who, like God, defend the weak and the helpless, who care for those who can’t care for themselves, who set captives free.
Of course we will always be human. There will always be more for us to discover and learn; there will always be ways for us to improve. But the message here is that God makes all of that happen in us. God makes us better every day
And like those “living stones”, God will never cast us aside. God never gives up on us.