The Book of Acts continues Luke’s Gospel by telling the story of the Spirit of the Risen Christ let loose in the church and in the world. Throughout this second volume of Luke’s writings, he tells us story after story of the church’s experience with the Spirit and of these Christians’ faithful witness to the gospel: the good news of God’s saving work of grace and redemption that has been made available for all.
Consider Luke’s story of Peter. Since we are reading both Luke’s gospel and Acts at the same time in our Living in The Story effort, we know quite a bit about Peter. Very soon we will read Luke’s story of Peter’s great shame: his denial of Jesus, his betrayal of love, his fear and cowardice and abandonment of everything he had come to believe in. But when Luke describes Peter here in Acts, we see Peter’s uncompromising boldness for the gospel; we see what a miraculous work has been accomplished in his life by the power of Pentecost Spirit.
After the healing of a lame man in Acts 4, Peter proclaims: “This man has been healed, has been saved 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.’” Luke’s Peter quotes Psalm 118:
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
O give thanks to the LORD, for the Lord is good!
God’s steadfast love endures forever!
Besides these stories of Peter that Luke has given us, there is another witness of Peter in our New Testament: the two letters of Peter we read recently. Probably it was not Peter the fisherman-turned-apostle who wrote these letters with his own hand; more likely a disciple, continuing Peter’s teaching, wrote them in his name. But the thing that is significant for us today is Peter’s same use of the same quotation of the same Psalm.
It stands in scripture…(First Peter says adding in a quote from Isaiah)…See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner; he is a stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall…’” (1 Peter 4:6-8).
And we have to ask: what does it mean to us that the Christ is the cornerstone?
Dr. M. Eugene Boring points out that:
In its original context, the rejected stone of Psalm 118 was Israel, rejected by the nations but accepted by God. 1 Peter understands the rejected-but-vindicated stone to be both Christ and Christians.
This New Testament re-interpretation of the theology of Israel is true of Luke as well; it is the New Testament re-reading the Old; it is the new way of seeing and perceiving God’s work in the world through the lens of the Christ event. Dr. Boring goes on to say:
1 Peter pictures Christ as a building stone placed in the path of humanity in general, so that one is either incorporated into the holy temple of God with Christ as the cornerstone, or one does not recognize it and stumbles over it. Since the Christ-event is the definitive event of the world and of personal history, there can be no neutral stance toward it.
Now, God-through-the-Christ is doing a bigger, bolder work than just the people of Israel. Now, in the spirit of Pentecost, all humanity is being called into relationship with the Christ of God – the One whom God has sent into the world; the One who embodies the presence and essence and being of the invisible God. All creation is seen to be inter-related to this Christ who is foundation and cornerstone. But it is only by the mind of Christ that we are able to see and perceive how all things are connected and intersected in heaven and earth, from beginning to end.
It makes me very sad to see how many mistaken theologies and inadequate understanding are still active within the Christian tradition. Small notions of a small God continue to contribute to the church’s fragmentation instead of pointing us towards wholeness.
Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, a gentle, wise man who also has thought deeply about these things. In his teaching video, The Cosmic Christ, he stirs our hearts with grand and hopeful imagination.
Father Richard points out that, within the New Testament itself, there are countless assertions that the work of the Christ is to bring everything to healing and wholeness and salvation.
The Ephesians writer marvels: “God has made known to us the mystery of his will: his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things (things in heaven and things in earth) in him, in the Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
The Colossians writer gives witness: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…All things have been created through him and for him… He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together…” (Colossians 1:15-17).
Not just the things we might agree with or approve of. ALL THINGS hold together in Christ. Christ holds ALL THINGS together. Here is the underpinning of the earth. Here is the cornerstone of all that is: God-in-Christ.
And so how should we read this altar call in Peter’s sermon in Acts 4 when he asserts that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved?” Is Jesus the Christ for some but not for others? Is Jesus the Christ “salvation” only for those who claim and confess him?
Gene Boring and Fred Craddock considered this concluding affirmation in Peter’s Acts sermon and commented how some will use this as a proof text to claim that only baptized Christians will be finally saved. Boring and Craddock note that:
For Luke and the New Testament generally, as there is only one God, there is only one way of salvation provided by God: the grace of God manifested in Jesus Christ…
On the basis of this text, Christians ought to say neither that only Christians shall ultimately be saved nor that people can be saved through a variety of saviors. Christians should confess their faith that the God revealed in Christ is the only Savior, without claiming that only those who respond in faith will be saved.
Mark Davis, in his Left Behind and Loving It blog, commented how unfortunate it is that this verse from Acts has been misused to divide and exclude people:
“[When we] hear it rightly,” Davis says, “it is a way of saying that when Jesus, the rejected stone, was resurrected to become the chief cornerstone, his path of rejection-to-restoration has promise to all who are broken and in need of being made whole.”
When we read these words from Acts through the frame of the Christ of the cosmos, the Christ who holds all things together, then we can proclaim along with Peter our faith that it is this Christ whom God has provided for the saving and healing of all creation – whether anyone knows, understands and realizes that reality or not. Got-in-Christ IS at work in the cosmos bringing everything to wholeness and shalom – whether anyone names and claims that truth or not.
But the Psalmist and the Prophets and Luke and Peter all grieve the disturbing rejection of this cornerstone: this foundation of creation, this foundation for living. I grieve as well.
There are and always have been those who choose to live for and from and to themselves. There have always been those who love things and use people; who spend their time and energy seeking pleasure and power, prestige and privilege. Loving God and loving neighbor is foolishness to them. Self-sacrifice and service are weakness. They are a people turned in upon themselves in such convulsion that God only knows if they will ever find their way to healing and wholeness. This rejection of God, this stumbling over the Christ, this resistance to the Spirit, this turning away from life surely breaks the heart of God, the God of life.
But there is something else that breaks my heart as well. I am afraid that too many modern day people stumble over a stone that is not the true Christ but rather is a false Christ. Often times the Christ proclaimed by the Church is a small Christ, a Christ for me and for my little group; a Christ who condemns you and your little group. This is false.
And because this false Christ has been preached and proclaimed, countless seekers have been tripped up and have rejected—not the Christ of God—but rather the Christ of our own small imaginations.
John Holbert, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, says that: “Any time the name of Jesus is used to divide and not unite, to generate hatred and not love, to separate person from person rather than join them together, the name of Jesus has been besmirched, misused, profaned.”
Peter is described in Acts as bold, “speaking the truth without regard to prevailing social, political and religious opinions,” Boring and Craddock say.
Do you know how hard that is? Of course you do.
In a cultural climate such as ours—full of separation, alienation and condemnation—living in Shalom is hard. It is risky.
To trust boldly the truth that the Lord is still doing marvelous things in our eyes.
To speak boldly the truth that Christ is bringing all things together.
To live boldly in the truth that is grounded in God’s unity, wholeness and welcome.
This is dying to ourselves.
This is dying into God and rising into Life.
Eugene Boring, First Peter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999) 96-98.
Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 378.