As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans 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. 1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)
It’s the second week of February. I was tempted to write an essay in honor of Black History Month, to discuss African Americans’ struggle and resilience in the face of racism, our contributions to our communities, and to this country writ large over the past several hundred years. But year after year, the core issues seem intractable—whether policing and the criminal legal system, access to decent housing, living-wage jobs, quality education or health care—among the many domains of deep racial disparities in the United States.
To stave off despair, I choose to zoom out beyond socio-political analysis to see that these issues are a byproduct of our broken society. My Christian identity, informed by sociological training and commitment to social justice, reminds me that I’m first and foremost a citizen of heaven, God’s daughter, who has the light of Christ in her heart and whose greatest call is to extend Christ’s healing power in my life into the world. Before I had consciousness of myself, God named me His ambassador and decided that I be embodied with a walnut brown level of melanin in female form for such a time as this. My social identities are part of how God chooses to work out individual and collective salvation. Thus, my identities also point beyond me, to my source and sustainer whose life, death, and resurrection are our ultimate hope.
This January, I was a table leader for the Foundations Course at Renaissance, my church in Harlem. The final week we discussed God’s means of ushering His light and love into the world, specifically, His church. I was struck by the concept of God’s holy institution consisting of people who are “living stones,” as 1 Peter 2 states (see above). After all, stones are inanimate. In what ways are they active? And how does this empower us to understand the role of the church now? First, it helps to appreciate that during the Biblical period, fitting stones together to be components of an edifice was an arduous process of flattening, grinding, shaving, and polishing earthen materials over a prolonged period of trial and error—much like solving a jigsaw puzzle, only you’re creating the puzzle pieces as you put the puzzle together. Today, we create stones for buildings with heavy machinery in a matter of minutes.
But wait, there’s fun too! Stones also play off of one another.
Protracted trial and error, puzzling through to bring people from myriad walks of life into unity (not uniformity) to worship God Almighty, and learning to live for Divine glory alone, is the essential mission of the church. Living for Divine glory involves shared commitment to leaning into life’s most vexing tensions—perfect love and full truth, perfect justice and full mercy, individual actualization and intimate community. Navigating these paradoxes with agility leads us ever closer to shalom, where nothing is missing and nothing is broken—the Divine intent of Creation that God deemed “good” before The Fall. Presently, we live in the wake of Christ’s redemption of humankind, which will culminate in complete restoration upon His return. As His disciples, we commit to puzzling together until the Consummation because we know God already has the victory over evil and suffering. We simply seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom on how to attain as much abundance as possible in the between time—what theologians call “the already and the not yet.”
Indeed, individual Christians and church communities are Holy Spirit conduits. And this call requires humility. We set down self-interest and myopic social boundaries to draw the circle wider to include those most marginalized. We call our brothers and sisters in, not out. As we say “yes” to God’s invitation, the Divine works in and through each stone and each church. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate and our way of knowing God’s intentions, works in us—on our hearts, which are influenced by our social statuses, such as gender, race, and class, as well as our quirks, wounds, weaknesses, and sins. The Holy Spirit works through us—our individuated selves, as we are being made whole by the Trinity’s unconditional love to become ever larger portals for God’s pursuit of human wholeness.
A critical component of the Holy Spirit’s initiative is bringing us into intimate contact with each other, relational equivalents of flattening, grinding, shaving, and polishing. Ouch! Flattening is akin to humbling us, reminding us of our limitations and interdependence with God and one another. Grinding and shaving remove from us narratives we internalize that are contrary to who God says we are—His daughters and sons, over whom He rejoices with singing, irrespective of our wealth, social statuses, and achievements. And God’s polishing reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, resplendent permutations of Divine purpose and delight.
But wait, there’s fun too! Stones also play off of one another. Play has several meanings: mutual support, complementing others’ weaknesses, and allowing for the gleeful unexpected to unfold…with laughs and dancing along the way. The process of creating stones is an endless game, perfection never comes, but serendipity does. And willingness to work together toward human thriving over the long haul allows the sum of the parts not just to hold, but to multiply the capacity and joy of each person. How do we engender a willingness to stay the course? What spaces in our societies cultivate the skills and perspectives necessary to remain steadfast and encouraged? Again, I contend the church is uniquely positioned, especially churches, like GraceCity Church in Baltimore and Renaissance, where people across racial, class, and gender statuses worship and collaborate.
The Gathering, those of us who contribute to this blog, are people who profess Christ as our Lord and Savior and who volunteer, not just to walk shoulder to shoulder at GraceCity, but to meet outside of church to enjoy each other’s company, with the hope that along the way we mature spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. As we play and otherwise interact, our myriad social statuses across lines of gender, race, class, and sexuality at times means we bump up against each other. Sometimes we get bruised. Importantly, the healing also happens in community. We are then better fitted together as genuine community.
A recent line of conversation centered on how to identify ourselves socially, such that we name the ways our embodiment leads to different material and social inheritances, as well as contemporary opportunities and responsibilities, while honoring that we’re all unique individuals who shouldn’t be reduced to our social statuses. This is a useful exercise for grappling with how people of varying levels of economic, political, and other social power learn to press toward a social vision welcoming the full breadth of Divine imagination for thriving human relationships (see R.C. Bingham’s sermon on this topic).
The best way to honor Black people in February and year-round, is to be an emboldened (perhaps emboldered 😊?!) living stone embedded in a community of believers. As we say “amen” to being fitted together across social differences, we become ever more robust carriers of the light and love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. May the church offer a beautifully compelling witness of shalom. Thankfully, it isn’t completely up to us. For the Holy Spirit works in us to will and do His good purposes. God has raised you and me for such a time as this! Lord, praise you that we’re your handiwork! In the words of Maverick City, “Build Your Church!”