The Living Stones and the Spiritual House

Taken and adapted from, “The British Monthly,” December, 1901
Written by, J.H. Jowett

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“Ye also, as living stones,
are built up a spiritual house.”

–1 Peter 2: 5

 THERE is a wonderful ascending gradation in the earlier portions of this great chapter…

It begins in the darkness, amid “wickedness” and “guile” and “hypocrisies,” and it winds its way through the wealthy, refining processes of grace, until it issues in the “marvelous light” of perfected redemption. It begins with individuals, who are possessed by uncleanness, holding aloof from one another in the bondage of “guile” and “envies” and “evil speakings”; it ends in the creation of glorious families, sanctified communities, elect races, “showing forth the excellencies” of the redeeming Lord. We pass from the corrupt and isolated individual to a redeemed and perfected fellowship. We begin with an indiscriminate heap of unclean and undressed stones; we find their consummation in a “spiritual house,” standing consistent and majestic in the light of the glory of God. We begin with scattered units; we end with co-operative communions.

The subject of the passage is therefore clearly defined. It is concerned with the making of true society, the creation of spiritual fellowship, the realization of the family, the welding of antagonistic units into a pure and lovely communion.

 The Preparation of the Individual

Where must we begin in the creation of this communion? The building of the house, says the Apostle, must begin in the preparation of the stones. If the family is to be glorified, the individual must be purified. A choir is no richer than its individual voices, and if we wish to enrich the harmony we must refine the constituent notes. The basis of all social reformation is individual redemption.

And so I am not surprised that the Apostle, who is contemplating the creation of beatified brotherhoods, should primarily concern himself with the preparation of the individual. But how are the stones to be cleaned and shaped and dressed for the house? How is the individual to be prepared? By what spiritual processes is he to be fitted for larger fellowships and family communion? I think the Apostle gives us a threefold answer.

I. An Experience of Grace.

“If ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” That is the basal clause of the entire chapter. Everything begins here. It is no use our dreaming of perfected human relationships until the individual has deliberately tasted the things that are Divine.

A chastened palate in the individual is a primary element in the consolidation of the race. There must be a personal experimenting with God. There must be a willingness to try the spiritual hygiene enjoined in the Gospel of Christ. We must “taste and see” what the grace is like that is so freely offered to us of God. We must taste it, and find out for ourselves its healthy and refreshing flavor. What is implied in the Apostle’s figure? In the merely physical realm, when we taste a thing, what are the implications of the act? When we take a thing up critically for the purpose of discerning its flavor, there are at any rate two elements contained in the method of our approach. There is an application of a sense, and there is the exercise of the judgment. We bring an alertness of palate that we may register sensitive perceptions, and we bring an alertness of mind that we may exercise a discriminating judgment.

Well, these two elements are only symbolic of the equipment that is required if we would “taste and see how gracious the Lord is.” We need to present to the Lord a sensitive sense and a vigilant mind. There is no word which is read so drowsily as the Word of God. There is no business so sluggishly executed as the business of prayer.

If men would discern the secret flavors of the Gospel, they must come to it wide awake, and sensitively search for the conditions by which its hidden wealth may be disclosed. “Son of man, eat what you find… Then did I eat it, and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.” He had tasted and seen. “Eat what you find!” Well, the only way in which we can eat a message is to obey it. 

Obedience is spiritual consumption; and in the act of consumption we discern the wondrous flavors of grace. We are therefore to approach the Gospel of our Lord. We are to patiently and sensitively realize its conditions.

We are to put ourselves in the attitude of obedience, and, retaining a bright and wakeful mind, we shall begin to discern the glories of our redemption. We shall taste the flavor of reconciliation, the fine grace of forgiveness, and the exquisite quality of peace. This is the primary step in the creation of the family; the individual is to taste and appreciate the things of God.

II  A Purging of Evil.

–All delights imply repulsions. All likes necessitate dislikes. A strong taste for God implies a strong distaste for the ungodly. The more refined my taste, the more exacting becomes my standard. The more I appreciate God, the more shall I depreciate the godless.

I do not wonder, therefore, that in the chapter before us the “tasting” of grace is accompanied by a “putting away” of sin. If I welcome the one, I shall “therefore” repel the other. The finer my taste, the more scrupulous will be my repulsions. Mark the ascending refinement in this black catalogue of expulsions: “wickedness, guile, hypocrisies, envies, evil speakings!” The list ranges from thick, soddened, compact wickedness up to unkindly speech; and I am so to grow in my Divine appreciation that I just as strongly repel the gilded forms of sin as I do those that savor of the exposed and noisome sewer. The taste of grace implies the “putting away” of sin; and therefore the second step in the creation of the family is the cleansing of the individual. Is the cleansing essential? Let us lay this down as a primary axiom in the science of life– there can be no vital communion between the unclean. Why, we cannot do a bit of successful soldering unless the surfaces we wish to solder are vigorously scraped of all their filth. I suppose that, in the domain of surgery, one of the greatest discoveries of the last fifty years has been the discovery of dirt, and the influence which it has exercised as the minister of severance and alienation. It has been found to be the secret cause of inflammation, the hidden agent in retarded healing, the subtle worker in embittered wounds; and now surgical science insists that all its operations be performed in the most scrupulous cleanliness, and its intensified vigilance has been rewarded by pure and speedy healings and communions. It is not otherwise in the larger science of life.

Every bit of uncleanness in the individual is a barrier to family communion. All dirt is the servant of alienation. It is essential, if we would have strong and intimate fellowships, that every member be sweet and clean. “Wherefore put away all wickedness and all guile and hypocrisies and envies and evil speakings,” and by purified surfaces let us prepare ourselves for spiritual communion.

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Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage: John Henry Jowett (1863–1923) was an influential British Protestant preacher at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and wrote many books on topics related to Christian living. When Jowett preached in the sermon class at Airedale College, Dr. Fairbairn said to his students: “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.”
That man grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with the churches, until he became one of the princes of the pulpit.
Jowett was born in Halifax in 1863. He taught school for a while and then resolved to study law. On the day before his articles were to be signed (to begin his legal work), he met his Sunday School teacher in the street and told him what he was going to do. Mr. Dewhirst said: “I had always hoped that you would go into the ministry.”
Jowett decided to enter the Congregational ministry. After his training in Edinburgh and Oxford, he was called in 1889 to St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This was a church with a seating capacity of more than a thousand and from the first Jowett preached to large crowds. His fame soon spread and, on the death of Dr. Dale in 1895, he became his successor at Carr’s Lane, Birmingham.
He wisely did not attempt to match Dale’s stride. The difference between the two men was well expressed thus: “Dale’s congregation could pass an examination in the doctrines and Jowett’s in the Scriptures.”
Jowett confessed that he had been in danger of mere prettiness in preaching but carrying on Dale’s work had proved his deliverance. Dr. Lynn Harold Hough compared Dale to a great Cathedral and Jowett to the marvellously embroidered communion cloth on its altar. “I was interested in the rare art which hid from sight the fact that it was art at all.”
He was invited to become minister of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. He declined the call twice but when it was repeated the third time in 1911 he felt it his duty to accept it.
The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.
He remained in New York until April 1918 when he felt it his duty to return to England. He was called to Westminster Chapel, London, to succeed G. Campbell Morgan. Preaching to 2,500 people twice a Sunday and a weekday service proved too much for his health, which had never been robust. He resigned in 1922 and died in December 1923, at the age of sixty.
In a letter to a friend Jowett wrote: “If the pulpit is to be occupied by men with a message worth hearing, we must have time to prepare it.”
No one can read his sermons and notice the variety of illustrative matter from literature and life without feeling that he was preparing all the time. His mind was like a notebook, instinctively recording what he saw in books and life, and bending it not only to the use of the artist in words, but to those of an apostle of the truth, an evangelist of love.
As one of Jowett’s friends in the ministry said of him, “With the greatest ease he could turn his bright lamp upon the hidden things of Scripture, wrest the truth from ancient Oriental figures and symbols and make it simpler, beautiful and seductive to Western modern minds.”
What was the secret of his power? Was it his fine presence, his consummate art, his flawless diction, his pellucid style? No doubt these helped but Jowett touched the heart as perhaps no other preacher did because of his constant proclamation of the Gospel in all its urgency and winsomeness–‘the wooing note” as he called it.
Redeeming grace was the center of his message, the great theme to which he returned again and again. He said: “I have but one passion and I have lived for it–the absorbingly arduous yet glorious work of proclaiming the grace and work of our Lord.”
His Yale lectures on “The Preacher: His Life and Work,” reveal to us his method in the study and in the pulpit. Bible study occupied his best hour, the early morning hours. He began at 6 a.m. He told his New York congregation that if working people can rise at six in order to earn their daily bread, much more should a minister be at his desk at the same hour, because he is concerned with the bread of life.