Our maternal Lord

Dear mothers and children of mothers, today we celebrate the women whose motherly love has surrounded us through the years so we would thrive and flourish, and on this Sunday we are given one of the very rare passages in the Apostolic writings that speak of infants and milk.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in Hebrews, milk is mentioned as baby food for baby Christians who haven’t matured enough in their faith to digest the solid food of weightier teachings. Peter, though, is playing a different theme. He’s not talking about milk for newborn infants who’ll eventually become meat-and-potatoes Christians. Writing to believers who often struggle with how to live the new life of Easter, Peter points to babies as perfect examples because they are new to the miracle of life and they simply know what’s best for them when it comes to eating and thriving: You pick them up and cradle them in your arm and if they’re even just a little hungry, they’ll turn their little face toward you and with their mouths open they begin to feel their way to the source of all goodness and joy.

“Since you have tasted that the Lord is good,” Peter writes, since you have tasted the sweet forgiveness, rich mercy, and abundant grace that nourish the life of believers, long for that milk, that new-life and whole-life milk. It is the sustenance that is true to the new life in Christ that is yours. Be done with malice, guile, envy, slander, and whatever else they serve at the former-life bar; that stuff has zero nutritional value. It doesn’t nourish you, it consumes you and those around you. Look at a baby: that’s you in the arms of Christ. Desire the milk of mercy and drink it, drink the love that will not let you go, drink the life given for the life of the world.

Penelope Duckworth is an Episcopal priest, a writer and teacher, and she’s a mother. She wrote this poem, titled simply

Milk (For Clare)[1]

Pulled by your cry, it surged out.

Welling from the nipple’s pores, it was thin,

bluish, sprayed in tiny streams,

caused a slow, dull, homesick pain.

We laughed in astonishment as it kept coming

until your shining mouth let go

and you drowsed in sunlit bliss.

You, at seven months, nurse and pedal

rhythmically, your hands explore the air.

I fill to meet your whitest need,

The milk now, grown thick and creamy,

will hold you sleeping with its weight.

Dame Julian, in her mystic state,

perceived Lord Jesus as her mother

offering to nurse us all,

milk flowing from his giving breasts.

It is a glory, this feeding from the body:

Take and eat this simple meal.

This is my body given for you.

Take and be full, my daughter,

from the white vein of sharing.

Take nourishment in all its forms

as it comes generously down the years,

from this first food to banquet fare,

in memory of me.

I wonder if perhaps the Apostle got a little uncomfortable with the image of the newborn drowsed in sunlit bliss. He makes a rather abrupt turn. He steps away from the beautiful intimacy between mother and child and takes us to a construction site. Suddenly he writes about stones and buildings. Stones are hard, rigid, lifeless. Dead as a stone, we say. But that’s not what Peter has on his mind. Peter writes of a living stone, which sounds like a nonsensical oxymoron until we let it speak.

Come to him, the living stone. Christ is the stone that the builders rejected. Christ is the stone for which human beings had no use; they had their own vision of life, their own carefully planned projects, and he simply didn’t fit in. But in God’s sight, the one whom mortals rejected was, and is, and forever will be, chosen and precious. God is building a house in the world, and Christ, the Living One, is essential to the structure.

Peter wrote to diaspora churches, scattered all over the Roman Empire, without legal or social status, and often subject to harassment and persecution. His first readers were gentile Christians in Asia Minor whose faith made them strangers in their own towns and neighborhoods; they knew the pain of rejection; they lived like resident aliens who didn’t know where they belonged and who they were or would be. “Come to [Christ],” Peter wrote, “come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”[2]

The word “house” had rich meanings in the Scriptures. It signified not just shelter, but belonging, community, nation, and culture. Abraham was called by God out of his father’s house, that is, out of his nation and culture, to form a new house, a house founded on his faith in God. This new house, this new people of God found themselves swallowed up into “the house of bondage” in Egypt. Yet God brought them out in a mighty act of liberation and made a covenant with the Hebrew slaves at Sinai and they became “the house of Israel.” In Jerusalem, the temple was built and rebuilt as a dwelling place for God’s name, a house of prayer for God’s people marking the center of their world. We read in the gospels that one of the disciples said to Jesus as they were coming out of the temple, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus told him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”[3] It seemed as though all things were being swallowed up into the house of Caesar in those days. Yet it was in those days that God began to build a new house in the world, and in that house, Jesus who was betrayed, denied, abandoned, accused, condemned, mocked, abused and crucified, Jesus, the stone who was rejected by all – Jesus is the cornerstone.

In old buildings, cornerstones were laid as part of the foundation upon which all else rested. They were selected for their size and strength, and the entire structure was only as strong and reliable as those stones. We don’t think of cornerstones as essential structural elements anymore. We consider them ceremonial add-ons to commemorate the year a building was begun. But Jesus is not merely a commemorative ornament in the corner of the building, not in the house God is building. It may be better for us to use an alternate translation like keystone or capstone instead of cornerstone. The keystone sits at the high point of an arch and it is essential for its structural integrity: remove it, and the arch will collapse. In the house God is building, Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the keystone that holds everything together. God is building a house in the world, a living temple of living stones, a cathedral of flesh and blood, held together not by the few and forever changing things we can agree on, but by Christ’s embrace.

Peter affirms that in the crucified and risen Christ, God is building a new house, and all who come to him are living stones forming an integral part of the house, sharing a common life and offering their whole life to God. With Christ, all who come to him are a chosen race: as living stones they overcome the separations of racism and become the one humanity made in the image of God. With Christ, all who come to him are a royal priesthood: they make their lives an offering of praise and gratitude in response to the unceasing flow of God’s grace and mercy. With Christ, all who come to him are a holy nation: nationalism with all its excluding attitudes gives place to a community that is consecrated to God and God’s purpose to unite all nations in their diversity into one house. With Christ, all who come to him are God’s own people: chosen and precious, a living sign that God desires one human family sharing life in justice and peace. With Christ, all who come to him proclaim with their very lives the mighty acts of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.[4]

The emphasis here is not on all the things we do as believers, but on who we are and who we are becoming in the house God is building. The emphasis is on our need to come to Jesus, the living stone, in order to let ourselves be built into the living house of God.

Tomorrow night we will meet for a design workshop in fellowship hall. Our building committee and a team from Hastings Architecture have planned a great evening. We will eat together and begin to make some important design decisions. Those of us on the building committee are pretty excited; we think it will be fun, and we hope many of you will come and participate. Whatever we build, physically or organizationally, we want it to serve what God is building. More than anything, we want to let ourselves be built as living stones into the living house of God.

Peter’s picture includes no glimpse of a completed house, but only of a house under construction. The Apostle wants to encourage us to trust the master builder. When it is finished, the house of humanity will reflect Christ in every detail. In a similar way, the image of individual Christians never arrives at any stage later than that of infants who have just left the womb, nuzzling the breasts of a maternal Lord.[5] We trust this one who is the source of all life and goodness and joy.


[1] Penelope Duckworth, “Milk (for Clare),” Congregations 30, no. 3 (2004): 19

[2] 1 Peter 2:4

[3] Mark 13:1-2 parr.

[4] See Philip A. Potter, “Christ is God’s delegated and precious living stone,” International Review Of Mission 72, no. 288 (October 1983), 540f.

[5] Paul Minear, “The house of living stones: a study of 1 Peter 2:4-12,” The Ecumenical Review 34, no. 3 (July 1982), 246.


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