As I rummaged around in past messages I prepared for the church, I came across this one from 2000 focusing on Francis of Assisi and building a church of “living stones.” My interest was heightened because I am reading a classic book about him: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. I thought you might like to be reminded of him, too. In these days of strained community, he is an inspiration.
Francis of Assisi and others who went before him in what is called the “monastic movement” became strange mentors to me as a follower of Jesus. Francis’ life and his legacy, in particular, reached across 700 years and lit a fire in me that hasn’t died out yet. I read a book about him once called The Last Christian and I can appreciate what the author was saying. He had a very passionate, New Testament, close to the earth, filled-with-the-Spirit kind of life.
In his early twenties Francis liberally used his privilege as a rich man’s son, and was quite the life of the party in Assisi. He was known for his poetry, songs, and for leading the scandalous line dance called the farandole. Call it unfortunate or blessed, he and his friends made up a generation of young warriors who were sent off by their fathers to pillage a neighboring walled city. The war, and Francis’ sickness (or was it a desertion?), left him a changed young man.
In the middle of his desperation, God somehow revealed himself. She didn’t reveal herself through the church — the institution which had blessed the war and received the spoils. It was through nature. Whenever you see a lawn ornament of Saint Francis (and I have one in my living room, if you’d like to), there is always a bird perched on him somewhere and often a bunny at his feet. That’s much cuter than necessary, since his most spectacular association with animals is with a man-eating wolf. But it is a reminder that he sort of got the message straight from God, through the sun, moon, stars, fire and water.
In my twenties I discovered a movie about St. Francis that brought him home to me even more. The 1970’s was a time when a lot of people were acting out how sick they were of their parents’ materialism and war, and a lot of them were again finding Jesus outside the established church. I was very influenced by the whole movement of the Spirit that was going on. Then I saw this movie that put it all together for me. Here was the Francis, about whom I’d read, in a movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli with a lot of hippie trappings called Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
But it wasn’t just the cool-at-the-time packaging of Francis that got to me, it was the timeless content. The word of Jesus breathed truth into the first century, into the 1200’s, and into 1975, and the Spirit of God is doing it today. I hope the following clip from the movie helps draw you into what God is doing in every age.
In this scene, Francis quotes from our scripture for today from 1 Peter. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” After Francis left his parents to live free as a beggar, he heard a message from God, “Rebuild my church.” He took this message quite literally and started rebuilding a run-down church building out in the country. As Zeffirelli tells it (and who knows exactly how something happened in the 12th century?) Francis’ old drinking buddies and friends began to come looking for him. They found him doing this project. In the clip we’re going to see, one of his future main men, Bernardo, comes to see him. Bernardo has just returned from the Crusades and is disillusioned. He has a choice to make – follow his desire to be real, or get roped into the politics and power-grabbing of the powers that be.
During their conversation, Francis apparently begins to see that the idea of rebuilding the church is not much about buildings at all, it is about people built into a spiritual house. It is about a new community based on Jesus and his ways, not just on his own personal convictions about rejecting the ways of the world. You can see the light dawn as Francis talks to Bernardo about a building stone he’d like to have. Bernardo gets the idea that the cornerstone he’s talking about just might be himself.
Obviously, it is a very European message coming from this movie. At the time of Francis there were already a world-full of acceptable versions and depths of Christianity around. I don’t think one size fits all. Sentiments from medieval Europe may not play too well in Asia or Texas or even in my neighborhood. But in every culture and every style of thinking, I believe Peter is saying the same thing. It is the same thing Francis heard, that Bernardo heard, that I hope you will dare to hear again tonight. It is the bookend phrases of our passage tonight. Very simple:
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…Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
The living stone rejected
Jesus rejected, Francis rejected, Bernardo getting on the wrong side of Emperor Otto of Brunswick, you chosen by God but rejected by people — this is normative. Followers of Jesus inevitably are called out of the world as it is, as it lives without Jesus as king, and they are built into what amounts to a countercultural community – not anti-cultural or supra-cultural community, just a group of strange people. People filled with eternity are foreigners in this passing away world. Whenever the body of Christ gets comfortable in the easy chair of any culture, it loses its heart. If it isn’t strange to the world it is strange to God.
It is so hard to be strange, that evangelists have often offered workarounds. In Mexico they made it easy for Aztecs to follow Jesus by amalgamating European saints to Aztec gods. In the U.S. they made the church as individualistic as the Declaration of Independence and as bottom-line-oriented as our brand of capitalism. Presenting Jesus in the robes of any culture, kills the whole thing, as far as I can see. I tie my heart together with the people all through the history of the church who have gathered together around Jesus to listen to him, no matter what habits they had from the culture they came from. They did not hate themselves or their ancestry; they just loved Jesus more. Jesus is transcultural – he’s alive in all cultures and subject to none. That’s what I hope you will go for, too.
Peter teaches like we are his family or comrades:
Brothers and sisters, my friends, we were chosen, made alive, and we are being built into the place where the Spirit of God lives. We are the people of God, now. We received his mercy. It makes us strange. So come out that world and don’t go back to be it. When you interact, love it like God does, and to call people into life with you.
This scripture has huge implications, but two main ones stick out.
We all need to keep letting our minds get changed about who we are.
This is the main thing a culture defines for you – who you are. Culture is just “how we do things, what kind of people we are.” So we say, “I am an American. We know we organize our country around the pursuit of profit and property. We die for individual freedom. Etc.
But the main thing Jesus defines for you is also – who am I? I am a child of God, a member of his family, a part of his household. I am a citizen of the kingdom. I am a valued part of the body of Christ. This mercy I have received demands a response. Etc.
Our pre-Jesus culture and the desires it built into us, needs to get subordinated to the king. There’s a big interior process that needs to keep maturing.
How we decide what to do needs to be transformed, too.
What we do gets launched from our identities as one of the people of God. We are not just our own. We were bought by Jesus and we were transferred to his kingdom and we were given an assignment in the family business. It isn’t all about you; it is also all about God and all of us. That’s going to make a big difference in how you spend your time and decide your schedule. When we decide what to do, we will consider the people of God in general, and the people of God specific – our Church and our church.
Some people see this as an imposition on their freedom, if they still see life as coming from themselves instead of from God and through his body. They make transactions with their time and resources between the church and themselves because the church is something and they are something else.
But once we were no people, but now we are the people of God; that truth demands attention. We have the constant challenge of seeing how we, in union with God, interact as a body and interface with the people we meet — especially those driven by society meeting the undriven.
I’m boiling down a huge discussion topic, maybe you should talk about it in your cells again. I just hope you get this. We are into something new, strange, other-worldly and laced with the Spirit of God. It feels real to me, and exciting, like I found a piece of meat I could really sink my teeth into (apologies to vegetarians). Peter is talking about life with substance, real people, being the real people of God with Jesus in their midst. I’m as hungry for that as Francis ever was.
I think the communion table is the perfect symbol at the center of this countercultural community that God keeps forming in every era and in every territory and tribe that will welcome him. Tonight we are very much a community gathered around Jesus. As we hand one another bread and then the cup we reaffirm that our desires have been freed from sin and the bondage of living without God in the world, and as we take the body and blood of Jesus from one another we are reaffirming that we are the people of God, one with the whole body throughout the world and throughout time, and one with one another, especially, face-to-face.