Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Acts 4:1-12
Sermon Theme: A Cornerstone by Any Other Name . . .
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentaries; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Sermon Suite Illustrations; original ideas; Anderson’s Cycle B Preaching Workbook)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s a story going around about a college student who stayed up all night preparing for his zoology test. He entered the classroom and saw ten stands each with a bird on it, each bird covered with a sack with only his legs showing.
The professor instructed the students to use the legs to identify each bird by name, habitat, genus, and species. The perplexed student, sitting on the first row, was consumed by despair. All legs looked alike. Enraged, he approached the desk of the professor and exclaimed, “What a stupid test! How could anyone identify birds by looking at their legs?”
He threw his unmarked test on the teacher’s desk and headed for the door. The professor was taken by surprise. He didn’t know the names of all of his students in the class, so he called after the student, “Young man, what’s your name?”
The enraged student pulled up his pant legs and said, “You guess, Professor, you guess!”
Birds are named. So are students. Salvation, also, has a name. The name is Jesus. The fact is Holy Scripture gives Jesus many names, — Bread of Life, the Living Water, Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Cornerstone, — just to mention some of them.
In the first Reading of our Lectionary for today, Jesus is called “the Cornerstone.” In our Second Reading, the Epistle, Jesus is referred to as God’s Son, and in our Gospel, Jesus calls Himself “the Good Shepherd.” I want to save talking about Jesus as the Good Shepherd until next Sunday, Friendship Sunday; so today, I want to talk about Him as the Cornerstone.
In our sermon text from the Book of Acts, there’s a big stir because Peter and John have healed a crippled man at the Temple in Jerusalem. The people were so moved by this that about 5,000 joined the movement (I’m not sure we can call it a “church” just yet).
It caused a different kind of stir in the Sanhedrin, the ruling legislature of the Jews. The high priestly clan – Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander – were the godfathers of the Temple, and they thought they had taken care of the Jesus question. They had coerced Pilate into executing the man responsible for arousing the passions of the people and jeopardizing the status quo.
Now, not only were Peter and John “guilty” of healing a crippled man, they were pushing the envelope further by claiming that Jesus wasn’t really dead. The Sadducees, also part of the Sanhedrin, were upset because they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and the rest of the lot, including the Pharisees, were upset because Peter and John were threats to the high and mighty leaders of the theocracy. After all, only they had the right to make religious proclamations, — how dare these lowly and ignorant fishermen dare make religious proclamations and heal folks in the name of God!
No doubt about it, Peter and John were in trouble. They were standing before the most powerful men in this theocratic Jewish nation. Jesus had warned them in Luke 21:12: “They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
Bold and unflinching, Peter confronts this powerful group. Instead of backing down, he goes one step further and says, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by Him this man is standing before you well.”
Peter is on a roll and he goes yet another step further and proclaims, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.”
As far as these religious leaders were concerned, for Peter to say that Jesus was the “cornerstone” of all faith was sheer heresy and utter blasphemy! That was a lot worse than His calling Himself the Good Shepherd.
In ancient culture, the cornerstone was the first stone to be laid down at the corner of a building. It was a large stone supporting two walls at right angles to each other, making it indispensable.
In Jesus’ day, the Temple in which the high priest presided over the spiritual life of the people was located on what is called the Temple Mount. This was a man-made field contained by retaining walls to create a level place upon which to build the Temple. Originally it was about three football fields by three football fields square, 861 feet. King Herod, the master builder who ruled from 37 to 4 B. C., virtually doubled its size. The cornerstones used by Herod’s skilled masons to secure these retaining walls (with all the other stones on top of them and all the earth behind them) weighed over 50 tons each.
That gives you some idea of the enormous significance of a cornerstone in the minds of the Jews. What Peter was proclaiming, and what the other disciples would come to preach, is that Jesus Christ is the “chief cornerstone” of the Christian faith and the church. This was prophesied in the Old Testament and then fulfilled in the New Testament. Since Jesus is the promised Messiah, He has become the “chief cornerstone” of God’s redemptive work in the new covenant through His death, burial, and resurrection.
This was not something the high priestly clan wanted to hear.
We cannot help but be astonished by Peter and his boldness, especially in light of his demeanor right before the crucifixion, when he was skulking in the darkness outside the residence of the high priest, and three times denying he even knew Jesus. During the crucifixion and right after the crucifixion, Peter is the rock in name only. He behaved more like a quivering bowl of Jello.
After the resurrection Peter is reborn and preaches Jesus as the main rock, the cornerstone, in the edifice of God’s kingdom. Christ, the rock discarded by the Jewish leaders, is the building block that gives the kingdom its shape and form, declares Peter. This new Peter, derived from the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the Holy Spirit, in no way resembles the old Peter.
These religious leaders of a theocracy are just as powerful now as they were before, and, no doubt, just as unscrupulous and just as intimidating as they were when Peter was cowered behind their backs before. Today, his experience would be similar to being interrogated in front of all the Congressmen, all the officers of the American Bar Association, and the leaders of the National Council of Churches. Peter’s defiance and his boldness to their faces is a remarkable turnaround, a magnificent example, and a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Peter was breaking new ground, proclaiming good news that had never been heard before. A Messiah for everyone! I need Him. You need Him. He wants me. He wants you. He brings salvation. You can’t get it yourself, — salvation, that is. It won’t come from Buddha, or Shiva, or Joseph Smith.
As Peter proclaims in the text, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” A cornerstone by any other name would not be THE cornerstone. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.