28.10.18, Trinity 22, 09:30 service
Simon and Jude, Apostles
If you look around the outside of St Michael’s, you’ll see at each corner a series of staggered stones, laid on top of each other, a bit like a stack of Jenga blocks – though I wouldn’t want to try and pull one out! These are blocks of masonry called quoins which have a kind of double function: they provide strength in keying together the walls at the corners; but they are also something of a feature, giving an impression of permanence and presence to the building, contrasting with the flints that are such a typical architectural feature of this part of the world.
And it’s this aspect of strength and stability that I want us to think about today. In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet is reflecting on some of the behaviour of Jerusalem’s leaders. Those leaders, who he calls scoffers, are all caught up in a sort of practical atheism – they feel the world should be run by human common sense alone. After all, why should God be involved? And so, in contrast to what we know will be human fallibility, God’s reaction, through Isaiah, is to offer the stability that they will undoubtedly need – even if they don’t yet know it. Isaiah’s prophecy is “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.”
So we’ve got that image of the stone, and the enduring sense of stability in that stone is carried through I think in three ways: 1) it’s foundational – it’s not going to move, there’s a solidity about it; 2) it’s tested – that’s to say, it’s reliable, we can depend on it; and 3) it’s a cornerstone – that sense of binding us together, a firm sense of interlocking, people coming from all over. This is the sort of cornerstone that those leaders of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time needed if they were going to lead with rightful authority and God’s wisdom.
This is bricks and mortar stuff, and we know that it’s important: we need shelter, buildings to live in and go about our daily lives in – which includes church buildings like this one to worship and praise God. But, of course, the New Testament view of things extends the notion of holiness in places to people as well – holy people caught up in worship and praise of God. God’s love in Jesus means that we as Christians are not restricted to a Temple in Mount Zion. Our church is made up of people, ordinary people like you and me. We are, if you like, the Jenga blocks.
And I think this is what we see in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul is reminding them that being a citizen and member of the household of God means being an active part of God’s church. He describes a foundation of apostles and prophets – right from the earliest times and the first Christians – and it is from this extraordinarily rich and significant base that the Ephesians can follow on. But it’s a heritage for us, too. And so it’s in this context that we celebrate Saints Simon and Jude today – which is why the church is in red.
Simon is known as the ‘Zealot’, probably because he belonged to a national resistance movement opposing the Roman occupation forces. But we don’t know whether he left that group to follow Jesus – or whether already as a follower of Jesus he joined the group as a kind of evangelist in response to God’s call to proclaim the kingdom.
Jude suffers in history thanks to the similarity of his name to that of Judas Iscariot, and so was rarely invoked in prayer. So apparently, praying through him became something of a last resort when all else failed. Consequently, he’s the patron saint of lost causes. Well, that’s received wisdom: take it or leave it. What’s more interesting to me is that they are lesser known. Quite because we know less about them yet they still have their festival, reminds me that we are all important in God’s eyes: like the saints of the past – like Simon and Jude – we can be with the saints of today: we are all part of the same church, each an individual building block.
But I want to go back to what binds us as Christians together: that image of cornerstones and quoins. The difficulty for me is that if we adopt it wholesale, it’s a bit too permanent, there’s not quite enough flex. We need firm foundations, but not at the expense of inflexibility. That’s why, as Paul describes to us, our true cornerstone for us as Christians, is Jesus. It’s not that we don’t have a firm foundation any longer – quite the opposite: Jesus is that and more – but that uniquely the sort of cornerstone and foundation we have in Jesus is one that permits movement and flex. It can evolve and adapt. Jesus can cope with difference, and so through him, we can, too. In New Testament times, previously divisive categories such as Gentile, Jew or Greek are done away with, as Paul drives home in his Letter to the Galatians, for example; that same message of all-embracing welcome is offered to us all today in the rich diversity of today’s world. But it’s only made possible with the cornerstone of Christ that nothing can overcome.
It struck me that there might also be another – much more contemporary – image of the cornerstone that is Jesus. And so I offer you a further example. When I was little, I loved Lego, and especially Lego Technic. I loved constructing things where you could actually move a steering wheel and make a set of wheels move, or motorise a helicopter’s rotor blades, or whatever it was. Without being too geeky, my favourite individual item was the universal joint, which I found absolutely fascinating. The nub of the thing is that it enables the rotary motion of a shaft to be transferred through an infinite range of angles. And of course, you can find such mechanisms in all sorts of real-life mechanical applications.
So I went up to the Lego shop in town and had a rummage around, and constructed a little model! Think of this purple wheel as the household of God. It’s not that we have to turn it in one direction in order to make it work – or in the language of church, be bland and monochrome. Rather, we can generate the motion from any direction and across any plane – or in our church context, we must welcome the contribution of all, whether they come from over here or here, or any point in between. But equally important is ourselves. Some days we may be here, full of the joys of the world; other days we may be coming from quite different directions. But as we see in this model, the universal joint can handle it. Jesus our cornerstone can handle it.
However we come to him; whatever the world throws at us, he can cope with. It helps us, I think, read our Gospel passage. It’s a tricky thing for us to hear how the disciples are told in no uncertain terms by Jesus that the world hates them. The word ‘hate’ is not one to be used lightly. But the point is, I think, that grounding their lives in the cornerstone of his love will help them navigate the ups and downs of what life will present them with. For it is in Jesus that the gritty reality of our lives can be joined together and – to recall Paul’s words from our Ephesians reading – we grow into a holy temple in the Lord.