When we arrived at the vicarage seventeen years we found a number of bricks in the garden. They have proven useful for all kinds of things and they are easy to pick up and move around as the need arises. But what we also found were many, many different stones of all shapes and sizes, some with bits of cement on them, some hidden in the ground, some with rough edges. It’s been quite a puzzle to know what to do with all of them, and they don’t easily fit together.
Over the past few weeks at St Aubyn’s we have been looking at the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and this story has got me thinking about these bricks and stones in my garden. The New Testament doesn’t have anything to say about physical building projects but in many places it talks about the way the Lord is using us to build His kingdom. For example, in 1 Peter 2:4-5 we read:
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to think of ourselves as living stones? When you are a newly minted vicar fresh in post you imagine you are helping to a build a church with nice, neat bricks, that easily fit together and join together to make a strong, stable structure. But the reality is that as human beings we are more like the stones in my garden. We have rough edges, we don’t neatly get along with each other, we may find it hard to find our place in the whole building.
That is why change and conflict are part of the normal church life. It has taken me years to realise this, but it is so important we understand this.
First of all, God wants to change us. He wants to knock off the rough edges, chip away at all the stuff that’s stuck to us over the years, he wants to make us more the people we are created to be. That can be a difficult and painful process. The Bible calls it discipline, and we don’t like it. We would prefer a comfortable faith, a faith that doesn’t cost us too much, a faith that is more our shape than God’s.
But God wants to change us because He is our loving Heavenly Father. He allows us to pass through tough situations, not because He enjoys us suffer, but because He wants us to learn more and more of His faithfulness, good and mercy. He does speak to us and convict us through His word, not simply that we feel bad, but through repentance we discover more and more of His grace. He does lead us into new challenges, so that we rely more and more on His Holy Spirit not on ourselves.
Because our faith is one that needs to grow and mature. That may sound very simple, but sadly I am aware there are so many believers who do not want to grow in their faith, or reach towards the maturity their Heavenly Father would have them enjoy. The simple message “God loves you so much He wants you to change” is one they simply cannot hear. However unless we allow God to change us, we will be so much less effective in building His kingdom. For the evidence that God really is alive and working in power is found in the lives of those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and are open to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them.
Secondly, there will be from time to time tensions amongst us. Have you ever seen a dry stone wall being built? There is a real skill in the builder choosing the right stone to fit against its neighbour. Sometimes a rough edge needs to be knocked off, or a different stone chosen in place. In the same way, because we are imperfect human beings, we will find we will sometimes be in conflict with our other fellow believers. We don’t seek conflict out, or embrace it willingly. But we recognise that in order for us to grow in grace sometimes we will have misunderstandings, disagreements, arguments. After all, think of how many people in the Bible had their conflicts. Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Paul and Barnabas, to name very, very few examples.
Now many people shy away from conflict and with good reason. Conflict can lead to all kinds of sinful behaviour which can ultimately destroy a church. But if we don’t actually address the cause of our conflict, if we simply try to be nice to another, the problem is, we are storing up issues which will only cause more trouble further on up the line. Simply avoiding the issue, or stopping going to church, is not a solution.
However if we can learn to be open and honest with one another, if we can truly learn to forgive and be forgiven, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s prayer, then the way we resolve our conflicts can be a powerful witness to the gospel. Ours is a gospel of reconciliation, as Paul pointed out to the troublesome and deeply divided church in Corinth (2 Cor 5:17-20):
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
So as we approach the end of Lent, let me ask two questions; how has this season of spiritual discipline allowed the Lord to change us? As we approach Holy Week and the events of Easter, what difference will Jesus’ sacrifice make to our relationships with one another? If we are living stones then we are called to grow. That growth may be painful, it may involve chipping off old habits, and knocking off rough corners, but it is essential if we truly are to build God’s kingdom in this place.