Project Canterbury

Through Fire and Water
And Other Sermons, Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York
by the Rev. Arthur Ritchie

New York; the Guild of St. Ignatius, 1898.

The Head of the Corner.

"The same stone which the builders refused, is become the head-stone in tlie corner."--PS. cxviii., 22.

There is a tradition that when the Jews so long captive in Babylon, some five hundred years before our Lord, had returned to their own land, and had started to uprear the ruined temple of Jehovah, they discovered the massive cornerstone of the first temple, which Solomon had builded and made so fair. There is poetry in the thought that God had thus planned to mark effectually the continuity of His especial house; that the same corner-stone which Solomon had laid should be built again into the second temple by the workmen under Joshua the son of Josedech, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, in the days of Zechariah the prophet. In the book of Ezra the rebuilding of the temple is graphically described. So eager were the devout Jews to perform again the worship of the Lord that they would not wait until the altar of burnt offering could be restored to its proper place in the court, but they set it up apparently outside the enclosure of the house of God, temporarily, and there caused the daily sacrifice to be offered, while the workmen toiled upon the holy walls. . The priests were the inspiring overseers of the building, if not the architects of it. We are told that "Then stood Jeshua with his sons and his brethren, Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah together, to set forward the workmen in the house of God." And the tradition to which I have referred declares that the builders were for rejecting the old corner-stone, which Solomon had laid, perhaps thinking it too large and unwieldly for their purpose, or perhaps from some notion that they could cut out a better one--we do not know; but that the priests overruled their intention, and insisted that the old corner-stone should be used in the new-building. Therefore the psalmist sang concerning nil this, seeing the massive block set securely in its place at the angle of the foundation; "The same stone which the builders refused, is become the head-stone in the corner." The priests and all the devout men of Israel could not but rejoice that day, feeling that this tried cornerstone was a type and symbol of their own nation chosen of God to be the foundation and strength of the whole world. Judah had been despised and laughed to scorn by her foes. Haughty Babylon had carried her away captive, and had vaunted herself the first of kingdoms, chief over them all. Yet the Jews remembered Jeremiah's words concerning their boastful enemy. "They shall not take of thee a stone for a corner, nor a stone for foundations; but thou shalt be desolate for ever, saith the Lord." But of His own people God had said: "Behold I lay in Zion for a foundation, a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation." Believing ones could not doubt that the glory of Israel was at hand and that the setting up of the headstone of the corner in the temple was a prophecy of it. The more spiritual among them were sure that the precious corner-stone of Isaiah's preaching was none other than the Messiah. We know that they were not wrong in their interpretation, because our Lord in the Gospel distinctly takes the psalmist's words as spoken of Himself alone. For we read in St. Matthew how after lie had told the parable of the wicked husbandmen in the vineyard to the chief priests and elders of the people, He added "Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes?"

I. It is indeed most plain from many passages in the Bible that our Lord is the head of the corner, the chosen stone, elect and precious, and that whosoever shall fall upon Him shall be broken, while upon whomsoever He shall fall, that unhappy one shall be ground to powder. Daniel says of the Church, which is His body, "Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, that smote the image," the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar, and after that "it became a great mountain and filled the whole earth."

Isaiah says of Him, He shall be "for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel." And St. Peter in the New Testament writes of our Lord, "To Whom coming as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood,to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded." It is plain enough that our Lord is the true head of the corner. The builders who would have rejected Solomon's corner-stone, that it should not be made use of in the second temple, were rebuked and overruled by the chief priests of their day. Yet the chief priests of a later day became themselves the builders who set at nought the spiritual corner-stone, even our Lord Christ. He is called the cornerstone not only because that is the chief and most worthy stone in all the building, but because it is the stone which ties together the two walls built at right angles to one another.

1. Our Lord is to be thought of as the cornerstone of the true Church because He first joined Jew and Gentile into one spiritual body, breaking down forever the "middle wall of partition," as the Apostle calls it, which separated them,

2. In a yet more glorious sense He is the corner-stone joining together in His one Person the human nature and the divine. These as two great walls were caused to run contrary the one to the other, as walls at right angles, man being alienated from God through human transgression. But He, coming down from heaven, willed to he the corner-stone which should reunite them, building into one perfect building the life of the Creator and that of the creature.

II. The psalmist however will not have us forget that this precious corner-stone is the same which the builders refused. They were brought face to face with that Holy One in Pilate's judgment hall, and they disowned Him. "We have no king but Caesar," was their cry. A mournful day it was for the spiritual temple which they represented when they rejected the head-stone of the corner, Who had come down from heaven just that lie might unite in an imperishable building those two wails, that of the ancient Church, and that of the new kingdom of His heavenly building.

i. Ever since that time the Jew has gone on building his wall out into the history of the world. It stands there unmistakable to-day. The people of Israel remain distinct among the nations of the earth; they do not amalgamate. Their wall is great and high; they are making it ever more imposing, more obvious in men's eyes. Yet it is only a wall, not a building, not a temple, for they cannot turn the corner save with that divine corner-stone which they have refused. To what purpose does the Hebrew preserve his individuality? There is no explanation of it. He goes among all people, but he never becomes merged in any people. He may be French or German or English or Russian, but first and foremost always he is a Jew. His wall stands, but there is no building, no corner-stone; only one wall, not the joined walls with which a temple may be enclosed.

2. More startling yet than the national history of the Israelite is the life course of humanity when not joined through Christ to the wall of God's building. The world's work, as apart from Christ's religion is like an immense and stately wall. The march of science, the progress of civilization, the triumphs of art and of discovery--these things are very glorious in men's eyes. It is as if one should go and look upon the great wall of China. How high it is? and how long? and what immense stones have been used in the uprearing of it! Men are very proud of their wall. It is colossal; so far as human eyes can see it is to go on indefinitely into the future, ever lengthening out, ever rising up higher towards the sky. We are learning new methods of building in these days, and there is practical!}' no difficulty in going up so far as you please into the air if you are careful of your engineering and select your materials wisely. There is no apparent end of the wisdom and power to which human research can attain. It is a great wall, and it may become greater than we even conceive of now. Yet it is not a house, it is not a temple; no man can dwell in it. One rests in the shadow of it for a few short years, and then he has to go away and his fellows know not where he has gone. He builds his own little part of it, and all his friends praise the splendid masonry, the deft laying of the beautiful stones. But presently he must drop his tools and begone. Whither? The world's progress is no more than the upraising of a superb wall of masonry. It cannot turn the corner; it cannot unite with that other vast wall of God's building which comes down from heaven at right angles to it. Sometimes the heavenly wall breaks through and dashes in pieces man's great structure; overwhelming catastrophes, celestial judgments, overtake the most mighty of human creations. Thus God shows His power, and takes away from the creature all excuse of ignorance concerning the divine will and the law of duty. Yet for the most part the heavenly wall does not interfere with the earthly one. Men are allowed to go on building and to fancy in their hearts that they are making a name for themselves, that they are accomplishing some worthy thing at least for their posterity. And yet it is also true that the heavenly wall is ever coming down very close against that which man builds, as if to allure him to pursue a better aim than the one he has followed so long.

III. There is only one way in which the two walls, that of human building and that which is from above, can be joined at the angle, and become for mankind the beginning of a glorious and enduring dwelling place. It is by the cornerstone which is Christ our Lord. The world is willing to build the holy Jesus into its wall, among its heroes and sages of all time, as a prophet of the race; only as human; it cannot admit His divinity. But without His divinity He cannot be the corner-stone. He does not belong to both walls, the human and the divine, if He is only man; therefore He can never unite them. That is the hopeless fallacy of modern types of religion. It is ever invading the teaching centres of the Catholic Church, this fallacy that the gracious Christ, shorn of His divinity, can be the head of the corner. He may beautify the human wall, but He can never turn it in its course and unite it securely to the wall which is from heaven.

IV. And this is just as true for individuals as it is for the race at large. Indeed for the individual it is intensely practical and most important because he can avail himself of the gracious corner-stone, whereas the world as a whole never seems able to do so. It will go on building till its useless wall comes crashing down in the earthquake of the last day.

i. Each individual builds his little wall, planning great things for it, and fancying it to be a very valuable structure from which he shall eventually reap large profit. We all dream our dreams; we all have our ambitions. Some pursue the way of life with definitely formed purpose, bending all things so far as they can towards that end. Others only fancy in imagination their careers and bide their time, as wise opportunists to seize fortune when it shall cross their path, as they are fully persuaded it will sooner or later. They are building their wall, only without any very clear plan, suffering it to grow as it may though eagerly desirous of having it become great and imposing. It is hard for most men to perceive that all such walls are but a delusion, that they cannot profit them. What if their building does make their later years upon earth very comfortable and easy, perhaps luxurious! What if it does in the very uprearing give them scope for the gratification of their desires, for seeing and enjoying life! There is no hope in such masonry for the future, and the future is inevitable, it grows every day more distinctly inevitable. They are not unaware, if they stop to think, that life is very short at the best, and that when they come to its end and go out into the unknown they must leave their wall behind them. They will find out as their days draw to a close that they have no permanent habitation for all their building here. How can a single wall be an habitation, except perchance for small birds and stone-burrowing creatures?

2. That a worthy dwelling place may be erected there must be the meeting of the wails, the one joined to the other. Nor can the human structure of our upraising be joined to the heavenly building which comes down right over against it until we turn aside from our present earthly course and quite reverse its direction. That is the reason why there can be no worthy religion without conversion. Baptism is a true conversion, a veritable new birth so far as God's part in it is concerned. We are made by our Baptism children of grace instead of vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. Nevertheless we must consciously appropriate and avail ourselves of our baptismal gift if it is to profit us eternally. Confirmation may be regarded as a form of conversion, wherein we are endowed with special grace to fight the good fight of faith as Christ's soldiers. We are given power in that sacrament to resist all the assaults of the Evil One, and to walk answerably to our baptismal profession. Yet all of this profits us not unless we personally make it our own by our free choice and desire, as well as our loyalty. Holy Communion is true divine nourishment, and Confession is celestial medicine for the soul. Nevertheless the partaking of the dear Lord's Body and Blood will only be to our condemnation unless we be deeply in earnest about it in heart and will. And the wholesome medicine of Confession will have no salutary effect upon souls which have not been consciously surrendered to the Lord Christ. You perceive what I mean by conversion. It is the conscious hearty personal appropriation of all those blessings which the sacramental life so richly furnishes. It is aptly used in connection with our text, because it means turning. There must be the turning off from the course of the wall-building of the natural life to seek enduring union with the heavenly wall which is of God's building.

3. A very popular mistake occurs at this point. There is the feeling that the turning off is the great thing; the choosing of the line of the heavenly wall instead of that of this earth. Yet we cannot afford to forget the corner-stone. The two walls, the celestial and the earthly, must be bound and tied into one, and that is the purpose of the corner-stone. Conversion without Christ is nothing. No one fancies it is anything, you may perhaps say. No Christian who believes in conversion at all supposes that Christ can be left out of the work. I am not sure of that. There are a good many who fancy a man is really converted because he is living an upright moral life, when before he was very careless. Now he does not drink, nor swear, nor smoke. He teaches in Sunday School and belongs to the Young Men's Ciiristian Association. He is ready to speak for Christ, and to help in good works. But suppose he never goes to the Lord's table to receive Holy Communion. I say he is not truly converted. I do not care how much any of you pray, and go to Church; I do not care how much you give, and how often you fast; if you do not come to receive Holy Communion regularly and faithfully, you are not truly converted. We cannot turn the corner in our life building and come into touch with God's building, without the corner-stone, which is our Lord Christ. Was it not said by Himself, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you"?

IV. Very solemn are the words which the Master speaks concerning that head of the corner: "Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." It is lamentably true that the majority of people have to stumble at our Lord as He reveals Himself before they can be converted. As the builders of old time refused Him, so does human nature reject even when it fancies it is choosing Him.

1. It is very hard for most of us to accept His service as He lays it upon us. For His service always means bearing the cross, and it seems that we cannot bear our crosses uncomplainingly. How few Christians there are who do not at least in their hearts lose faith and murmur because of the temporal adversities which are their lot. They are stumbling at that stumbling stone; they are falling upon the head of the corner, even Christ, for it is certain that He caused to come into their lives those temporal adversities at which they repine.

2. Happily there are many also who find the Master in their afflictions; who are caused to fall upon that rock only in order that their hard hearts may be broken, and the gracious fruits of contrition be developed in their lives. There is no school of penitence to be compared with the sharp blows of temporal adversity. True-hearted ones in their trouble find our Lord, and perceive that they should not have found Him had they not, through His mercy, been suffered first to fall upon that stone of stumbling and rock of offence.

V. Nor may anyone safely forget that things are not to go on forever as we find them now. The state of affairs in which we now live is but temporary. Our text should make us think of the divine corner-stone which human builders are daily refusing, as being lifted up little by little from the earth, as His glory is being more and more manifested in His elect. The enemies of Christ live out their time, and then pass on to their punishment, but His accepted ones go forth to swell the great host of the redeemed in the land of light. As their number grows, so is their Head, the Lord Christ, exalted increasingly in their triumph. Foolish men despise and mock God. They ridicule the notion of retribution for their deeds. Nevertheless the day is to come, when that Corner-Stone exalted to the height of its majesty, shall descend in judgment, and shall grind to powder everyone who has wilfully and wantonly rejected it in these days of probation.

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