Thursday, 7 July 2022

Exiles in a familiar land

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
10 July 2022

1 Peter 1.1-23

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, discombobulated, disconnected?
From the upheavals of the pandemic, to the war in Ukraine;
            from the shifting sands of our national politics,
            to the decline in church attendance in all the main denominations…
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 for your place in the world?
Well, I’m afraid that for now at least, those days are gone.
And 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 people 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 them.
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 Prime Minister resigned, or has he?
            And once again the ruling party engages its Darwinian system
            to choose me another leader that I haven’t voted for…
But even when we do get to vote, who should we be voting for, and on which issues?
            The question of party allegiance versus identity or single-issue politics
            continues to muddle the middle ground and drive people to the extremes.
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?
London Citizens captures this conundrum in their mission
            of turning the world as it is
            into the world as it should be.
And this desire to make the world is better place,
            to build justice in an unjust society,
            is something that we also find in the little book we call 1 Peter,
            from which our reading came this morning.
Graham Stanton, the late great New Testament scholar, described this book 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.
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 unjust times.
It was probably written towards the end of the first century, from Rome,
            to be circulated around a group of churches in Asia 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 this 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.
            In Rastafarian music, you will often 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.
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.
And 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 early Jesus-followers 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.
So 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.
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 twenty-first century London;
            we are called to be the people of God, exiled within our own world.
And what this means for us
            is that by naming ourselves the people of Christ
            we are emphatically not anyone else’s people.
            Our allegiance is to Christ and to Christ alone;
                        ‘we have no king but Jesus’,
                        as the 17th century religious radicals in England used to put it.
            And all of society’s attempts to enslave us
                        to the ideologies of nationalism, consumerism, or militarism
                        must therefore be resisted in the name of Christ.
The great insight of this opening line from 1 Peter
            is that we are 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 good news, scattered in the world
                        to take root, to grow, and to flourish,
                        bearing the fruit of the Spirit of Christ
                        in whatever context they find themselves,
            as through their faithful and hopeful witness
                        the world as it is
                        takes another step closer to the world as it should be.
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 instructed 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 a people called together from the world,
            but 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 of the theological framework
                        on which the rest of the letter will hang.
This verse is one of the great 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 God’s people, to have no other gods,
            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 a community gathered around nationality, military might,
            territorial belonging, conquest, or expansion;
neither are we sustained by walls, weapons, or warfare.
Rather, we are God’s people, called 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,
                        and as visible signs of God’s intent for grace and peace.
But how on earth are we do this?
            Well, says the author, we can 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 of Christ 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 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 political 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.
Book a conversation with me, or with Lucy,
            and let’s start bringing the world as it should be,
            into being in the world as it is.
Let’s take action together that the kingdom of God may come on earth,
            as it is in heaven.
So join with our work in addressing 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.
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.

No comments: