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On Being the Church: How to Build a Church

April 18, 2010
Sermon:   On Being the Church:  How to Build a Church
Text:  I Peter 2:4-12


We begin today a new series of sermons: On Being the Church.  The title of today’s message is “How to Build a Church.” I know that when someone announces a title like that, people ask, “Are we going to begin a building program?”  No, we are not.  In fact, just about a year ago, we launched The Extreme Makeover, a program to revamp all of the buildings in order to use them in a more efficient way.  We want to better utilize the resources God has provided for us.  The double-good news is that the first phase has been paid for and completed.  You will hear more about the second phase in the next few weeks. 

When I speak of building the church, I am not speaking of constructing a physical building.  I am talking about building a spiritual edifice, about the way in which God goes about putting a church together. 

Because Morningside has been in existence now for well over fifty years, you may ask, “Why should we hear this kind of message?”  A church does one of two things:  it either grows or it declines.  The notion that a church has a status quo is absurd.  If a church is maintaining, if it is not growing, then it is declining.  It is important for us, every now and then, to take a look at ourselves.  We must think about what God is doing here, how God is working, and how He is constantly building His church.  It is important to me that we begin at the beginning with the foundation.

Peter talks about building a church in his letter I Peter.  He refers to a “cornerstone” (I Peter 2:5) and to other stones, which he calls “living stones,” (I Peter 2:5) being brought together to build this spiritual house. 

I know a little bit about the work of a brick mason.  In fact, in the late 1700’s after the Revolutionary War, a Dutch brick mason, whose name I do not know, came through Spartanburg County.  He did a good bit of work, some of which remains today, including the historic site called the Price House.  That house has a remarkable style of architecture called Flemish bond.  We see in the Price House an absolutely meticulous and beautiful construction.  You do not find many examples of that very unusual brickwork in our part of the world, in the Upstate. 

Another example of the work of this unknown man can be seen at an old house called Smith’s Tavern.  Now privately owned, Smith’s Tavern is located near the intersection of Blackstock Road and Ott Shoals Road near Gable Middle School.  On the side of the chimney is the Dutch tapestry design, a pattern of brickwork that takes great skill and expertise.  This man’s craftsmanship has endured now for more than 200 years.

We see the wonderful craftsmanship of a second unknown brick mason in the early history of Spartanburg County.  The Ruff House, originally known as Foster’s Tavern, is located at the intersection of Highway 295 and Cedar Springs Road.  It also has remarkable brickwork.  The house is still standing, and the Ruff family has lived there for a number of years now.  This place, like Smith’s Tavern, was first called a tavern.  Those buildings were more like bed and breakfast inns than pubs, but I feel very confident some rowdy events happened in these two places. 

It is interesting to me that the brick used in the Ruff House were made from clay dug from a pit where my house stands now.  The clay was taken to the site of the construction, where it was hand-thrown into molds and baked in a kiln.  Each brick was made individually. 

The Ruff House is quite a historic building.  It is said that John C. Calhoun stayed there often on his travels through the Upstate.  I am even told that George Washington slept there.  Washington may have had a sleep disorder.  He is said to have slept in many places.  Another take on that is that some people say that is the reason he is called the “Father of the Country.”  I do not know.

I remember a time when a Wofford College math professor came to the lumberyard, walked up to the sales counter, and said to my grandfather, “I want to buy 5,897 brick.”

My grandfather told the professor, “That’s not the way we usually sell brick.  We usually sell them by the thousand.  But if you want 5897 brick, that is what I will sell you.  Could I ask what you are going to build?”

“I am turning my carport into a den, and I want to build a fireplace on one end.”

My grandfather said, “That’s a mighty big fireplace.  How’d you figure your brick?”

This professor told my grandfather that he had measured each brick and each mortar joint and figured all of the calculations to determine exactly how many brick were needed to build a fireplace.  

My grandfather took a big puff on his cigar and said, “Professor, I am not sure how you build chimneys where you come from, but here in our part of the country, folks usually leave a hole up through the middle of the chimney so the smoke can get out.”

The professor had figured the number of brick needed to build a solid chimney.  He sort of slapped his head, buckled his knees, and said, “Oh my!  I forgot about the hole!”

I offer that story just to say that brick masonry is not an easy profession.  Sometimes perspective makes all the difference. 

I heard a story about stonemasons that were working on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  A tourist, watching some of this construction, asked two of the stonemasons, “What are you doing?”

The first worker said, “I’m doing what I do eight hours every day.  I come here, mix this mortar, and lay these stones.  Then I go home, come back the next day, and do the same thing all over again.”

The other explained, “I’ll tell you what I’m doing.  I’m building a great cathedral to the glory of God.”

The perspective one has makes all the difference.

What is the task of the church?  Do we just meet, eat, and enjoy our time together?  I Peter tells us that we are grounded on a foundation that is a cornerstone, one that was once rejected.  We are speaking of Jesus.  He was rejected but has now been made the corner of the whole foundation.  The whole structure is built out of living stones on this solid foundation that is Jesus Christ.  It is so important that whatever we do as a church, we must remember that central realization.  Without Christ, we are nothing.  With Christ, we become the church he intends us to be.  It is so important for us to come back to this point over and over again; we must simply remind ourselves that Jesus is our foundation.  The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark’s Gospel includes a passage in which Jesus returns to his hometown.  Someone asks, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Mark 6:3). I think of Jesus there in the shop, maybe with splinters in his hands or a blue thumbnail where he hit his thumb.  Every carpenter I know has done that.  I find comfort in thinking of Jesus our Lord, the Son of God, as a carpenter.  I find comfort in imsgining him standing at a carpenter’s bench with a hammer in his hand because the lumberyard was such a part of my growing-up years. 

Passages in the New Testament seem to support the idea that Jesus was a carpenter.  So many times Jesus talks about a plow, and he says, “Take my yoke upon you because it fits well” (Matthew 11:29-30).  William Barkley speculates that Jesus used the yoke as a sign outside of Joseph’s carpenter shop, indicating the skill of the owners in making yokes that fit well.  The ancient patriarch Justin Martyr stated that Jesus was a craftsman of plows, that he made yoke for oxen.  No passage illustrates more keenly the idea that Jesus understood being a carpenter than the one in which he says, “Why do you bother with a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye when you have a 2×4 sticking out of your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3; Luke 6:41). That dramatic use of Aramaic hyperbole comes right out of a carpenter’s shop.

I have researched the Greek word tekton, which is translated “carpenter.”  By looking at more recent scholarship, I have learned that its broader meaning includes any kind of craftsman, any kind of builder.  It may be that a better translation of tekton is “stonemason” instead of “carpenter.” 

I have been to the area of Palestine, which is littered with stones.  I have seen the structure in Nazareth that is purported to be the carpenter shop of Joseph.  It is entirely made out of stone, with very little wood.  Almost all buildings in the area were constructed of stone.  Some say the next town over from Nazareth, a Roman town named Sepphoris, was the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus and wife of Joseph.  The Romans had all kinds of building projects there, many requiring stonemasons.  Ancient history tells us that they called in stonemasons from the neighboring towns, including Nazareth.

While Clare and I were traveling through Columbus, North Carolina, just this week, I saw one of the best signs advertising stonework I have ever seen.  A rather crude sign simply said:  “We do stonework.”  There by the side of the road was a chimney built out of stone.  The quality of work was clearly visible.

When working with brick like the ones in the walls here at Morningside, brick that are all the same size, a brick mason uses lines to lay one course after another.  Working with stones requires much more skill.  The stones have to be chosen carefully and fitted together or shaped, each placed in the right location in order for that stone building to be well-constructed.

Jesus must have understood that a stonemason’s work is not easy.  Have you ever thought of him as a stonemason or the son of a stonemason?  Jesus himself spoke in terms that suggest that perhaps he was a stonemason.  In a parable of the wise and foolish builders, he speaks about a house being built on a rock (Matthew 7:24-25).  It is so crucial to understand that solid foundation.  At another time, he said, “Tear this temple down, and I will build it up in three days” (John 2:19).  Of course, if he were a stonemason, his listeners would have assumed he was talking about Herod’s temple, completely built out of stones.  He talks about one stone not being left on another in Mark 13:2:  “Do you see all these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  He even uses a passage from the Old Testament:  “The stone the others have rejected has now been made the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).   

One passage in particular that is key to understanding this concept is located in Matthew 16:13-18.  You remember the occasion at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus is traveling with his disciples.  They begin discussing what people are saying about him.  Jesus asks, “Who do men say that I am?” 

“Some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah, some say another of the prophets.” 

Jesus asks the defining question, “But who do you say that I am?” 

Simon Peter affirms, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

Jesus’ response, “And you are Peter (Petra, which means ‘rock’).”  It is as if Jesus is calling Peter “Rocky.”  I imagine Jesus saying, “You are Petra. You are going to be a rock in this structure…”   Then I imagine Jesus pointing back to himself and adding, “…but it is upon this rock that I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  Jesus is, after all, the cornerstone.  He is the one foundation. 

Can you see Simon Peter taking that to heart and using that concept when he writes this letter?  Simon Peter is one of the “living stones,” but Jesus Christ himself is the cornerstone, the one on whom the church is built, the holy sanctuary.  That understanding clarifies for me the relationship between Jesus and the church.  We are all part of the structure.

My father and mother were asked to leave First Baptist Church of Spartanburg when I was two years old.  I do not think that my being two had anything to do with it, but maybe.  The director of missions for Spartanburg County had visited my grandfather and said, “Mr. Neely, the military wants to sell four chapels down at Camp Croft.”

My grandfather said, “You ought to buy them all.”

“We cannot afford to do that.”

“You buy two and let the Methodists buy two.”

That is what happened.  The two Baptist chapels became Morningside Baptist Church and Croft Baptist Church.  The chapel that became Morningside was moved to the corner of Converse and Caulder.  It is still there.  The one at Croft became the church my mother and father started.

I watched my mother and father work so hard at building that church.  They did it most of all by prayer, spending hours on their knees.  My father worked diligently, visiting people, leading the singing when needed, serving as a deacon, and even preaching a time or two when the congregation had no preacher.  My parents did not build that church because First Baptist told them to build it.  They were convinced that this was the work of God. 

God is building the church right now.  Do you know that the former Morningside building is now called Cornerstone Baptist Church?

God is working to build His church right here with all of us.  We are the “living stones.”  He is going to select us, choose us, every one of us and put us together to be the spiritual structure that He wants us to be.

I am looking forward to this series, On Being the Church.  We need this kind of revitalization to understand what God is doing in this place.

I am told that a church is built on a rock very near the seacoast in Nova Scotia.  When a visitor asked how it was built in that location, a member said, “Come, let me show you.”  The two went underneath the church where large bolts had been planted in that rock and an anchor chain went through the foundation.  Those bolts and anchor chain held that church to the rock. 

We need to be anchored in the rock that is Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps you remember that little verse, “Here’s the church.  Here’s the steeple.  Open the door and see all the people.” 

A Bible school teacher asked her children one Sunday morning to say that little verse.  She suddenly became shocked when she realized that she had forgotten about a visitor in the class, a little boy with only one arm.  She was upset that she had asked this child to do something he could not do.  Before the teacher could say anything, the girl sitting next to him took his hand in hers and said, “Come on Jimmy.  Let’s build a church together.”

Christ wants us to build a church together with him.

Sometimes in the privacy of my devotion time, I sing a little song, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

God needs every single one of us to build His church.  That begins when we make our commitment to accept Christ Jesus as our Savior.  If you have never done that, could I please invite you to make that decision today?

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010

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