Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Fragile, living stones - a "Passion" series based upon 1 Peter 2:4-10
"the stone of condemnation"

Message preached March 28, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon John 8:1-11

Order of Worship

The following was transcribed from an “amble and ramble” style sermon.

           You walk along the beach, you look down and there you see a stone. You pick it up. What are you going to do with that stone? If you’re like my wife who, when we went to Alaska , came home with boxes of stones weighing down our little compact car, maybe you’ll collect it. Perhaps if you’re like me, and maybe this is a “guy” thing, you pick up that stone and what do you want to do? Throw it.  

            If it’s just the right shape you want to see how many times you can make it skip. Or maybe you just want to see how far you can get it to fly. Maybe you just want to see how it splashes, and the ripples that go out from that splash… You walk through the woods and find just the right kind of rock, and you see a tree and sight it up, and try to hit this target with that stone.  

            We’ve been using stones these last several weeks as tools to help us get at some things that aren’t easy to touch, not as tangible as stones. Things such as rejection,  or how God is our solid rock, our sanctuary, but also at the same time God is like a rock we can stumble over. We’ve used these stones in a metaphorical way to explore temptation, and fear. And perhaps some of you have been using your stones throughout the week, as something in your pocket or purse which, every time you reach in, makes you think. I understand that some of you have become quite attached to your stones. Let me warn you - next week we’re going to be doing something that you may not like if you’re very attached to it. I’m going to ask you to give it up.  

            Stones. You know, it wasn’t just “tongue in check” - the few times over the couple weeks - that we joked about not using your stone to throw at the preacher. Throwing stones. Was it any different this time, as you listened that familiar story? Did you hear it a bit differently, sitting there with a stone in your hand? Did that make any difference to you? It’d be interesting to explore that.

            For now, let’s explore this story from the Bible. It’s a troubling story. At least I find it to be that way. It’s become so familiar to me, but I still have so many questions about it. There is so much that’s left unsaid in it. We know that it didn’t begin there in front of Jesus. It started in a very private, intimate moment which suddenly shifted into being maximum exposure. A woman who was doing something she really shouldn’t have been doing was yanked out into the open.

            There are so many questions about this story as it has been given to us. One of the first ones I ask is – where is the guy who was caught with her. It takes two to tango, you know. Why isn’t he standing beside her in front of Jesus? I have other questions as well. Furthermore, I’m a pastor. I walk with persons and families through difficult times. This scene from scripture is a perfect example of a family in crisis. I’m not searching for excuses for adultery. There is no excuse for stepping over a boundary that shouldn’t be stepped over. But you wonder what was behind all this in the story. What led a woman to reach out beyond her marriage? What’s going on here?

            There’s often much more happening in a relationship than what meets the eye. But what we have received is the story of this woman literally yanked before the religious authorities. The big “rub” I find here (see warning below) comes in what these authorities did with this family in crisis. Instead of trying to do what was right, they used this situation and this woman to try to trap Jesus, perhaps continuing a cycle of people using her that needed to be stopped. There’s so much going on in this story, as she is made to stand before him with all her accusers standing around calling for her blood. It’s a difficult story.

            Stoning. Do you know what stoning really entailed? I don’t want to go into all the grisly details. Many of us went to see that movie about “The Passion of the Christ,” and were filled in on a lot of the grisly details of crucifixion (see note below). Stoning was just as gruesome back then. What it entailed, if it was done right (and “done right” is a strange way of putting it), was the accused stripped naked and made to stand on a wall that was at least twice this person’s height.

         According to the law of Moses, the following offenses were punishable by stoning: worshiping other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), or inciting others to do so (Deuteronomy 13:6-10), child sacrifice to a false god (Leviticus 20:2-5), prophesying in the name of another god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), divining spirits (Leviticus 20:27), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16), breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), homicide by an ox (Exodus 21:28-32), adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), even being a stubborn and rebellious child who doesn’t heed parents’ discipline (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

            Then one of the witnesses would push that person off the wall in such a way as to hit the ground below head first. If the accused survived the fall, she was turned over onto her back and a second witness would then come up, not with a little stone such as we now hold in out hands, but a big boulder with which to slam down upon her chest. If that blow likewise did not kill her, the rest of the gathered witnesses would then throw stones at her until the job was finished. It was a horrible way to die (for more on this, read about the stoning of Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church).

            It was not unusual back then. You look to the Law of Moses, and you see that this was a prescription for a number of different things. When you look to the gospels, you find that Jesus himself came close to being stoned in his own hometown. The words he said really bothered folks enough there that they took him out of town and were going to throw him off a cliff – the equivalent of a high wall – they were starting the stoning process. But he walked away (Luke 4:16-30).

            Back to the story of the woman caught in adultery. Here we have this crowd of witnesses. Now, let’s not stand too far outside this story that we fail to allow it to speak to us. It’s easy to read this episode and say, “tsk, tsk, shame, shame” to the crowd gathered around her. I want to give these folks the benefit of the doubt. They had some good intentions here. They perceived a problem that needed to be made right (see warning below).

            I imagine the mother-in-law really upset over the treatment of her son, and if there were children – “my lands, what about them?” Of course, we can also well imagine the husband in all this. And the others – well, there was a disruption in the community. Adultery is not just a simple matter involving two persons. It affects a wider number of people. A family is being pulled apart. This is a family in crisis. These folks had every reason to work on this, to try to make things right.

            We do some of the same things today. Oh, we don’t stone people with rocks. We find other ways of dealing with it. When we see a problem in a family we try to identify the source of that problem. Only, we often identify the problem with a person, such that the person becomes the problem. And if only we could just get rid of the “problem,” that is, get rid of the person who is the problem, then the problem is solved. Right?

            Of course, we know (don’t we?) that there’s a whole lot more that goes into a problem in a relationship than just one person. There are a lot of reasons why a family falls apart. There are a lot of reasons why a relationship breaks down. Those of you who have been there know what I’m talking about when it comes to divorce. If you don’t deal with a problem when you go through a divorce, the problem doesn’t go away. It continues. There are second or third marriages where the problem is still there. And for some, there are what we call “serial marriages,” which is the same marriage many times over, just with different partners. They get to the same point, but don’t move beyond it. They have, however, gotten rid of the perceived “problem,” the problem person. But the problem isn’t on the outside, it’s on the inside.

            You know this story. It functions to teach us some things. Jesus listened. He didn’t tell people to be quiet. He listened. It says he was scribbling in the dust. We have no idea what he was writing. It doesn’t say. People were enumerating all the bad things this woman had done, why she was the problem. [By the way, this woman is never called one of “those” women (i.e. a prostitute)]. Perhaps Jesus, as he listened was marking each condemnation in the sand. Or maybe he was writing down the commandments she had broken, as they were listed. Who knows?

            He waited until all had their chance to speak. Then he stood – you know the words. Now, it only dawned on me this morning, as I was reading this scripture yet another time, the significance of the location. Where did this episode take place? Jesus was teaching in the Temple when they brought this woman to him. The Temple was the place where you should deal with stuff like this. It was the place where God’s people would come, not just to do their “religious thing,” but to bring their sin – that which disrupted their relationship with God. The intent was to be a place where you could come and lay your sin before the Lord and have it dealt with – to make things right. Jesus would later deal with that very thing – here, in the Temple , and outside the gates. He died to make things right.

            What did Jesus say? Those who have no sin should be the first to throw a stone. Did his answer satisfy anybody? I don’t think it did. I don’t think people walked away feeling good about that solution to the problem. Do you think they did? They probably went away muttering under their breath. In his response they recognized the truth. In that sense it wasn’t necessarily a pleasing solution to everyone. This, by the way, should give us some clues to peacemaking. I think we sometimes have a false notion of peacemaking, that there is that “one solution” which – if only we could find it and try it – would make everyone happy. But is that really the case? If there were one solution we would have peace in the Middle East . The Palestinians and the Jewish people, who perceive each other to be the “problem,” wouldn’t be fighting with each other. But it’s complicated. It’s always complicated, because you’re dealing with people.

            Jesus, however, forced those folks to look inside. And in the process of looking inside, they dropped their stones. You know the story. You know what happened next. Jesus looked at the woman and asked, “where are all these people who had condemned you?” And she said, “they all left.”

            We often think that God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy comes after our repentance. But that’s not the case here, and the truth is: God is always a couple steps ahead of us. The truth here is that this woman was not before Jesus of her own will. There’s no evidence here that she did any repenting – i.e. turning from her sin. Jesus simply said to her, “I don’t condemn you either. Go and stop sinning. Find another way.”

            That’s the end of the story. But in this ending we are given a picture of God – a God (and this is important because I think some of us see God in this way) who doesn’t look like this [point at various individuals in the congregation, threatening to throw a stone at them]. Instead, the picture Jesus gives us of God looks [toss the stone behind the back and spread arms wide toward the congregation] like this. Amen? Amen!

         Warning - this scene (John 8:1-11) should trouble all of us. Like other scriptures, we need to allow it entrance into our lives, to let it speak to us on the inside. If we only see "those" women, or "those" people, or "those" Jews when we open the Bible and read stories such as this, we haven’t allowed God’s Word to really speak to us. Our Jewish friends, as I’m sure you’ve heard, have recently been nervous about the latest rendition of “The Passion of the Christ” because too often in the past certain Christians externalized the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, looking around for someone else to blame. The Jewish race has all-too-often been made responsible for killing Jesus. For many, the passion story became an excuse for Anti-Semitism. There is, however, no excuse for Anti-Semitism.

         As “The Passion of the Christ” revealed in graphic detail, Jesus’ later suffering was a gruesome means of death, like stoning. Now, the point we should not get from that movie is that our Lord bravely endured what nobody else could. No. Many people in those days were crucified. At certain times, the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with crosses, and not empty ones at that. Crucifixion was a means used by the Roman army of keeping law and order in a land full of hot-blooded fanatics. Jesus did not suffer any more than anyone else. As one author recently wrote:
         "‘Christ crucified’ is not the Hero, not the strongest man. On the contrary, he is the weakest man, the least of these. There is his strength. He is not the greatest sufferer, famed above all others. He is, finally, the anonymous sufferer, in radical solidarity with every sufferer, everywhere. There is his proper fame. As the Son of God, he suffers and dies with sinners, forgotten and alone, disappearing into the thousands of Jews and others crucified under a brutal, violent, imperial regime. So he continues, even today, wherever agonies are borne among the human family."
- Matthew Myer Boulton, "The problem with The Passion: A Braveheart Jesus," The Christian Century, 3/23/04.
online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see John.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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