Living Faithfully in a Post-Christian Culture: Part 3

Peter provides a critical self-definition for the Christian living against the tide of a dominant non-Christian worldview: exile or sojourner.  We see it in the very first verse of this letter.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  (1 Peter 1:1 ESV)

That word “exiles” in Greek is parepidemos and it means sojourner, pilgrim, stranger – someone who is passing through or one who lives in a place temporarily.  Recent scholarship reveals that “sojourner” was not just a metaphor for some of those to whom Peter wrote.  Many of Peter’s readers were literally resident aliens in Pontus, Galatia, etc. and as such lacked the full benefits of citizenship in those places. They were socially marginalized.  However, Peter takes their literal social setting of being “green card workers” and applies it as a metaphor for what it means to be a Christian in their culture.  The reason I can state this with confidence is twofold.

First, Peter intentionally speaks to these gentile converts as if they were a part of Israel, because by being born again in Christ they have in fact been made the people of God.  These aren’t just exiles — they are elect exiles.  And in that word “elect” Peter connects them to the Diaspora: i.e., Jews who were scattered as exiles throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and Middle East.   By virtue of being made a part of God’s elect Israel those who have been born again to a living hope are in fact an exile people.  He makes that point explicit in 1 Peter 2:9 –

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

Each of those phrases (chosen race, royal priesthood, etc.) is a direct reference to an Old Testament description of God’s elect people of Israel.

The second reason that we can be sure that Peter is using “exile” as a metaphor for what it means to be a Christian is that the church as early as the first half of the second century saw Peter’s use of the word exile or sojourner to be a reference to what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God living in this present world.

So for Peter’s readers to be an exile was a literal description of their social reality that also served as a metaphor that illuminated what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in their pre-Christian culture.  And I would say for us “exile” is a metaphor for following Jesus that will help us deal with the social reality of becoming literally marginalized in a post-Christian culture.

What do I mean by this?  In a culture where over half of the population is coming to the conclusion that if we want to follow Jesus in every area of our lives we may not be allowed to fully participate in the marketplace, or in the academy, or in the political system we may find that the spiritual truth that we are exiles in this world will help us not just cope, but live joyful and victorious lives as a socially marginalized group of people.

And as we live radically, intentionally, faithfully, joyfully and victoriously for Jesus Christ in the face of marginalization then God will use us as a force of redemption and transformation in the very culture that may come to relegate us to resident alien status. This was in fact one of the main points of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s book Resident Aliens:

From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live.  Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.  The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.  The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.” (Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 94.)

This book, published twenty five years ago this year, helped prepare the church to think in ways that would enable us to be faithful in a post-Christian culture.  For instance, seeing the church as colony of God’s kingdom in an alien culture helps us to be deliberate in maintaining the culture of heaven while passing through this world:

A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced.

We believe that the designations of the church as a “colony” and Christians as “resident aliens” are not too strong for the modern American church – indeed, we believe it is the nature of the church, at any time and in any situation, to be a colony.  Perhaps it sounds a bit overly dramatic to describe the actual church you know as colonies in the middle of an alien culture.  But we believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith.

The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another. In baptism our citizenship is transferred from one dominion to another, and we become, in whatever culture we find ourselves, resident aliens…” (Preface to Resident Aliens)

We have some dear friends who have lived in Europe for the last 8 years and have just moved back to Florida.  For their younger children, Europe in general and Belgium in particular have been the only home they have ever known.  But they do not identify themselves as Europeans.  While they appreciated and enjoyed and been shaped by much of European culture and history they are still Americans.  Their children who have never lived in America are still Americans.

They listen to country music, they watch American football, they pulled for America in the world cup, they like American food and they have longed for their homeland.

The memory and love for a land in which they have never lived has been kept alive for their younger children through the stories of places, and family, and friends who live in their ultimate homeland. They were sojourners.

When you are a sojourner you never feel settled.  You never feel totally at home.  You always feel homesick and torn even when you love the people around your in your host country.  You never truly fit in the host culture and occasionally the people who are citizens of that country remind you that you don’t fit in!

And what’s more, you know that if you ever did truly fit in, it would be an act of disloyalty to the country where your true citizenship lies.

With that in mind, think about these questions:  In your daily life, do you sing the songs of your homeland?  Do you tell the stories of your true homeland over and over again?  Do you love those stories so much that they make you ache with homesickness for a country you’ve where you’ve never lived?

Around the world the Church does this every time it gathers for worship on the Lord’s Day.

We sing the songs of our homeland every Sunday.

We tell the stories of our homeland every Sunday.

We eat the food of our homeland every Sunday.

And through all of this we ask God to make us homesick for our homeland every Sunday.

May God grant us the grace to never feel like we truly fit in here in this world.  May we always feel homesick and torn in this world.  May our alien status be so clear to those whose home is this world that they look at us and say: you’re not really one of us, you don’t belong here.

And may our love for our true homeland be so evident and life-giving that those around us may be drawn to desire to change citizenship status and become resident aliens with us.