Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Exiles in a familiar land

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
23 April 2017 11.00
1 Peter 1.1-12
Do you ever have the sensation that the world you live in
            is slipping away from you,
slithering and sliding about beneath you,
            such that you feel destabilised, disconnected,
                        discombobulated even?

Do you ever find yourself wondering what happened to the old certainties,
            longing nostalgically for those different days
                        when you knew on what basis
                        you stood where you stand, and what it meant?

Well, for now at least, those days are gone.

If we’re honest, they’ve been disappearing for a while,
            as the train of Western culture has pulled out from the station of Modernity,
leaving some of us stranded on the platform
            and not sure what’s happening next,
looking with confusion, envy, or derision,
            at those comfortably riding the train away from us.

The fact is that long-established political convictions are being re-cast,
            and treasured religious orthodoxies are being questioned
            both from within the church, as well as from without.

It can all seem very disorientating.

And then there’s politics:
            ‘Events, dear boy, events’, as Harold Macmillian may have put it.

Just this week, the fixed term parliament act was suspended,
            and once again the nation goes to the polls.

But who we are voting for, and on which issues,
            is possibly less clear as we enter this forthcoming election
            than in any other of recent decades.

The world has turned on its axis,
            and we are no longer where we once were.

And no amount of voting, hoping, or campaigning is going to turn it back...

So what does it mean to be a follower of Christ
            in this changing and uncertain world?

What does it mean to seek the path of faithful discipleship
            when the paths have all moved
            and the signs have all been taken down?

How are we to relate our faith to a society
            that seems sometimes so far removed from the society we want to live in
            that we can feel like aliens and exiles in our own land?

These are the questions addressed by the little book we call 1 Peter,
            which the lectionary is inviting us to engage with over the next few weeks
            as we journey from Easter to Pentecost in the Christian year.

If you’ve not encountered 1 Peter in depth before,
            I think you’re in for a treat, albeit a challenging one.

Graham Stanton, the late great New Testament scholar, described it as,
‘One of the finest literary and theological writings in the New Testament.’

Actually, I have a story about Graham Stanton.
            Originally from New Zealand, he taught New Testament
                        at both King’s College London and Cambridge University.

The College in Cambridge where he was a fellow was Fitzwilliam College.
            And my old friend Simon Perry,
                        known to many of us here at Bloomsbury as, ‘the other Simon’,
                        or ‘1 Simon’ as we might perhaps call him,
            was chaplain at Fitz before he came to be minister here at Bloomsbury;
                        and he invited me once, many years ago, to preach in his chapel at Cambridge.

I have always been grateful to him for not pointing out to me, until afterwards,
            that the smiling man on the front row was the great Graham Stanton himself.

Anyway, back to 1 Peter, and our series for the next few weeks.

It’s one of those books that is easy to overlook,
            or to just concentrate on a couple of the more famous passages;
which is a shame, because it has much to say to us
            about what it means to live lives of faithful discipleship
            in the midst of uncertain and hostile times.

It was probably written towards the end of the first century, from Rome,
            to be circulated around a group of churches in Asian Minor.

It lists Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia
            as the areas it is written to,
and the ordering of these probably gives us a clue
            as to the route the messenger would have taken around the major cities,
            leaving a copy of the letter with the small congregation in each before moving on.

Its first verse gives its author as, ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ’,
            and traditional church teaching has suggested that this should be taken at face value,
                        and that what we have here are the written words of Simon Peter himself.
However, there are good reasons for thinking
            that the letter might more credibly be an example
            of what is known as pseudonymnity,
                        (with a silent P, of course, as in swimming pool).

There was an established practice in the ancient world,
            of writing a letter as if it came from an already dead person of note or importance.

This wasn’t the same thing as deceit or forgery of course,
            because if the person was already known to be dead,
                        then no-one suddenly getting a new letter in their name
                        would think it was actually from them,
                                    writing from beyond the grave or something.

Rather, it’s best to think of it as a literary exercise
            in ‘what the person might have said to us if they were still alive today’.

We have plenty of examples of this in the New Testament,
            including, of course, 2 Peter, but also some of Paul’s letters
                        (esp. 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus).
It’s probably best to think of 1 Peter in this category;
            it’s written in the tradition of Simon Peter, but probably not by him.

Anyway, we do know that it’s written from Rome
            because it signs off with a greeting from the church in Babylon (5.13),
and we know that in the early church
            Babylon was often used as a cypher, or code, for Rome.

Interestingly, the tradition of naming the empire as ‘Babylon’ is still with us to this day.
            I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to any Rastafarian music? (I know Duncan has).
Well if you do, you will find them using the term Babylon
            to refer to those human governments and systems in our own time
            which they believe are in rebellion against the rule of God.

In the first century, something similar was taking place,
            as the story of the Jewish exile in Babylon,
                        from several hundred years earlier,
            was used to describe the relationship between the people of God
                        and the ruling empire of Rome.

In many ways, this theology of exile
            lies behind a lot of what we will meet in this letter over the next few weeks,
so it’s worth spending a few moments understanding what is going on with it.

For the Jewish nation, the Babylonian exile had been a defining moment.
            Jerusalem had fallen to the invading army from Babylon,
            and a significant swathe of the population had been taken into exile.

It was whilst they were in Babylon,
            separated from their promised land,
            knowing their temple was destroyed and their king murdered,
that they developed a form of Judaism that could survive
            even when dislocated from the land of Israel itself.

In other words, they learned how to be the faithful people of God in exile.

It is this insight which the writer of 1 Peter takes,
            and applies to those people in the congregations to whom he is writing.

For these Christians of the first century,
            life was experienced as one of dislocation.
Their decision to follow the path of Christ had led to them being removed,
            forcibly on occasions, from their old lives,
            and thrust into a new way of being.

Because early Christians refused to worship the Emperor,
            they found that they were no longer able to access the market places,
                        because everyone was expected to make an offering to the Emperor cult
                        as part of their transactions.

They faced economic isolation, and financial disadvantage,
            because of their desire to faithfully follow Christ.

But it was more than just economics;
            by worshipping Christ, rather than the pantheon
                        of Graeco-Roman gods of the empire,
            they found themselves at odds with their families,
                        ostracized from the friends,
                        cut off from their social support networks.

In many ways, the situation facing Christian converts in Asia Minor in the first century
            has resonances with the situation facing Christian converts
            in many countries around the world today.

Just this week, for reasons relating to our church member
            who is making an asylum claim on religious grounds,
            and who has been detained for the last two weeks,
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the situation
            facing Christian converts from Islam in Bangladesh,
and as part of this I’ve been in contact with an expert in international mission,
            who wrote an amazing letter of support for our friend.

Let me tell you a little of what he says the situation is like in Bangladesh,
            and you will see how closely it matches the situation
            faced by the recipients of 1 Peter.

He says:

You will be aware that after many years of Bangladesh being a strongly Islamic yet tolerant country, the situation has changed rapidly in recent years. Over the last ten years we have been aware of an increase in hostility from Muslim groups towards Christians and those who would espouse a worldview other than a strict interpretation of Islam.

Most Muslim converts have to live as secret believers for fear of their lives. To declare their faith publicly, which many do, is to risk losing one’s family and friends and, of course, one’s life. Whilst the constitution theoretically safeguards the right to practice the religion of one’s choice, successive governments have realised they cannot ignore the pressure that comes from Islamic militants within their own borders.

In truth there is now considerable evidence of many coming to faith in Christ from a Muslim background in Bangladesh, but the numbers are under-reported for the reasons stated above. It is simply not admissible for someone to be sent back to Bangladesh, knowing that their only chance of safety is to deny the religious experience they have come to embrace. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right.

Those who wish to start following Christ in Bangladesh
            will experience life as exiles within their own culture;
which was precisely the situation facing the first century Christians in Asia Minor.

So 1 Peter begins:
            ‘To the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia’.

They are exiles in their own land,
            cut off from their own culture.

And the writer of the letter invites them to understand this experience
            in the light of the experience of the people of God down the centuries.

The theological point here is that the people of God
            are always called into exile.
From ancient Babylon, to first century Asia Minor,
            to modern Bangladesh, to, yes, even London;
            we are called to be the people of God, exiled within our own world.

And what this means for us is that we are emphatically not anyone else’s people.
            Our allegiance is to Christ and to Christ alone;
                        we have no king but Jesus,
            and all other attempts to enslave us
                        to ideologies of nationalism, consumerism, or militarism
                        must be resisted in the name of Christ.

The great insight of this opening line from 1 Peter
            is that we are all called into exile,
and that there will be consequences that we have to face
            for our obedience to this call.

However, having addressed the letter to the ‘exiles’,
            this word is then immediately qualified.
They are not just exiles, they are ‘the exiles of the dispersion’,
            or ‘the exiles of the diaspora’ to put it slightly differently.

And this, too, is a word which calls to mind a Jewish religious concept
            that the author wants his readers to appropriate to their own situation.
The Jewish ‘diaspora’ or ‘dispersion’ were those Jews who, in the first century,
            lived in places other than the land of Israel itself.

The lessons learned, and the faith formed in exile in Babylon
            had created a sense of identity for the Jewish people of God
                        that sustained them even when they were distant
                        from their temple and their promised land.

It still does to this day, which is why Judaism is one of the few tribal religions
            to have survived the repeated scattering of its people around the world.

The word that 1 Peter uses here, ‘diaspora’ or ‘dispersion’
            has a sense of sowing about it
                        – a sense of scattering seed on the land.
And he is inviting those
            who experience their life as followers of Christ to be one of exile,
to see themselves not as just exiles,
            but as the seeds of the gospel, scattered in the world
                        to take root, and grow, and flourish,
                        and bear the fruit of the Spirit of Christ
                        in whatever context they find themselves.

In an echo of the advice given by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon,
            those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia
            are to, ‘seek the welfare of the city where [they have been sent] into exile’,
                        they are to ‘pray to the LORD on its behalf,
                        for in its welfare [they] will find [their] welfare.’ (Jeremiah 29.7).

They are to become resident aliens, rooted in the world,
            but not owned by the world.

There is no mandate here for isolationist Christianity,
            for the kind of community which shuts itself off from the world
                        to preserve its holiness.
Rather, this is a vision of the church called from the world,
            and then sent back to the world, for the transformation of the world.

The writer then reiterates this point more strongly in the second verse of the letter,
            making absolutely sure that the theological framework
                        on which the rest of the letter will hang is firmly established.
This verse is one of the great early Trinitarian formulations of the Christian faith,
            and its force echoes down to us today from that early context.

He says, firstly, that the exiles of the dispersion
            are chosen and destined by God the Father.
The people of God exist because God has called them into existence.

And we, like Israel of old, like the Christians of the first century,
            are called into being by the call of God;
called to be his people, to have no other gods before him,
            and to give our allegiance to none other.

This means that we belong to a people
            who are constituted unlike all other peoples in the history of humanity.
We are not gathered around nationality, military might,
            territorial belonging, conquest, or expansion,
and we are not sustained by walls, weapons, or warfare.

We are God’s people, called by him from among the nations,
            to live as aliens and exiles in the midst of a hostile world.
We are defined neither by left nor right,
            not by colour of skin nor colours of flag.

We are sustained by grace and peace,
            called to be a people of grace, and a community of peace.
We are called to resist narratives of violent struggle or exclusionist politics.
            We are called to be a different and distinct people,
                        in the world but not of it,
            to be a people who embody the biblical politics of peace,
                        and to dwell non-violently among the nations
                                    as aliens and exiles in their midst,
                                    as visible signs of God’s grace and peace.

But how on earth are we do this?
            Well, says the author, we do this because we are sanctified by the Spirit.

Our hearts are purified by the Spirit of Christ at work within us,
            forming us from the inside out to be God’s people.

It is the Spirit who sustains us through our suffering,
            the Spirit who protects our inner being through the fires of persecution,
            the Spirit who reveals to us the truth of the salvation
                        that comes to us from beyond our current experience.

Sometimes it can seem as if everywhere we turn,
            we are being promised or sold dreams of salvation.
From political solutions, to bespoke religions, to economic miracles
            – we are surrounded by people promising the earth.

But we are enabled to resist the lure of such lies
            because we are sanctified by the Spirit of Christ,
            who dwells in our hearts and assures us of our salvation.

And it is in the strength of the Spirit that we are called to obedience to Christ,
            and it is the wind of the Spirit that scatters us in the world as resident aliens,
                        as exiles of the dispersion.

We are called to an appropriate sense of separation from society,
            to live by a different script, to embody an alternative narrative.
But our call is not to form holy enclaves,
            or to distance ourselves from society.
Rather, our call is to obedience to Christ,
            who came from heaven to the earth.
So we too are called to the earth,
            we are sown among the nations to take root and bear fruit,
            and to live and work for the transformation of society,
            for the good of the city and culture to which we have been sent.

And so as election fever takes root in our media,
            as cynicism and disconnectedness threaten to stifle and choke
                        the fledgling shoots of hope,
            we are called to be rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3.17, Col 1.23).

We are called to be witnesses to the truth
            that there is another way.

We are called to become involved in the processes of our world,
            to challenge and change them
            into the likeness of the kingdom of Christ
                        where our citizenship is already secure.

So, let’s not be afraid to talk politics.

And if party politics isn’t your thing,
            then join me in becoming involved in the transformation of society
                        through our church’s membership of London Citizens.
As an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about,
            next week I’m attending, as one of your ministers,
                        the shareholder meeting of Taylor Wimpey,
and I shall be trying to speak with the CEO
            to gain a commitment from them to build at least 35% of all new houses
            as genuinely affordable, to help tackle the housing crisis of our city.

Or become involved the situation facing refugees;
            or become an advocate for addressing climate change,
                        which is directly affecting so many people around the globe;
            or take up the banner of our commitment to be a Kairos congregation,
                        and become more involved in the situation facing Palestinians.

You only have to look at the issues we wrote on our placards on Palm Sunday
            to see the depth of commitment we have to our hurting and damaged world.

Surely a church such as ours should be leading the way
            in addressing these kind of issues – and in many ways we are.

But we can only do so if we all hear the call on our lives…

We are called to be the people of God,
            scattered in the world for the good of the world,
sanctified by the Spirit of Christ,
            to live lives of radical obedience to the prince of peace.

This is our calling, and it is our task.

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