July 1, 2012

A Word to Strangers

Have you ever been lost?  Does anyone have a quick story of being lost worth sharing?  Although I have been lost a few times in my life, there is one time that stands out the most clearly to me.  When I was in third grade my family went to Disney World for the first time.  It was a blast, of course, with one exception: I hated thrill rides.  I was not going to ride anything that smacked of roller coaster intensity.  Here’s the problem: the rest of my family loved them.  Well, after dividing and conquering in order to keep me happy a few times, it came time to ride Splash Mountain.  Given that it was June, the line was about a mile long.  So, rather than dealing with me being terrified, they let me sit on a bench outside the ride and wait for them to get back.  After sitting for a little while I had to go to the bathroom.  I was old enough to follow signs and found my way to the nearest restroom.  Upon heading back to the bench, however, I got disoriented.  Was it this bench I was waiting at, or was it this bench?  Or maybe it was that bench.  Uh-oh…

How many of you know that feeling?  That’s a terrible feeling.  There aren’t many more helpless feelings in all the world.  There have been other times and places in my life when I’ve felt that feeling.  I remember going to Japan on an exchange program trip when I was a junior in high school.  While there my host family took me to downtown Tokyo in order to see the sights.  As we walked around the city that felt like it went on forever it dawned on me that I was the only one who looked like me and didn’t understand anything any of the people around me were saying.  At other times I have been driving somewhere and came to the realization that I didn’t know where I was.  I get panicky in those moments and am not such a nice person to be around.  My wife could tell you stories.

You know, there is one other place and time worth mentioning in which people can feel alone and isolated.  For those folks who claim the name of Jesus as their Lord and Savior, we are strangers in this world.  We may still look like everyone around us physically, but we don’t believe the same things anymore, we don’t speak the same language, we don’t value the same things, and on the whole we are different.  Jesus in one place describes this condition as being in and not of the world.  We are strangers in a land that was once familiar, but isn’t our home anymore.  We have been displaced and are living far from home, longing to be there, but having to settle with waiting for the time being.

There have been times historically and geographically in which this sense of homesickness has been more pronounced for believers than at others.  We live in one of those times and places in which it is less pronounced.  In three days we will celebrate the birthday of our nation.  This is indeed something worth celebrating given that we live in the freest and most prosperous nation that has ever existed in the history of the world.  No other nation in the history of the world has even approached the level of wealth we have amassed in our brief 236 year history.  Even nations that are hundreds, even thousands of years older than us haven’t come close to touching what we have been able to do as a people.  We have invented more things, discovered more things, produced more things, and yes, even consumed more things than anybody else.  The world has changed because of our nation.  It has become a much different, much safer, and dare I say, much better place since we have ascended to the chief seat of power on the world stage.  The reason for this lies primarily in the other side of our historical uniqueness.  No other people in history has ever had a grasp of the nature and importance of freedom as ours has.  Other nations in the world that are free today on a level even somewhat akin to ours have become so because they’ve copied our approach.  They’ve had to.  There doesn’t and hasn’t ever existed a view of the world in which a statement like “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” (which, ironically enough was coined by an alien, robot cartoon character named Optimus Prime—that would be the leader of the Autobot Transformers for those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1980s) would make any rational sense.  The view of the world that shaped our nation is the only one ever in the history of the world that could have produced an idea like that.  Our founding fathers were geniuses of the first order in their deep understanding of the importance of establishing this new nation on the principles of virtue revealed in the Christian faith tradition.  Because of this there has never been a nation in this world in which believers in Jesus Christ have been able to feel more at home.  We should celebrate this gladly and with exuberation all the while remembering that our nation is not God and that our first allegiance is to Him alone.  We are citizens of the kingdom of God first and not the kingdom of the United States.

This being said, for believers in other parts of the world today, they feel their separation from our future homeland—the kingdom of God—in as acute a way as possible.  Believers in Iran, for example, are hunted down and killed.  Believers in North Korea are regularly rounded up and put in reeducation-through-labor camps.  In China, believers who refuse to register with the government are subjected to all manner of state-sanctioned abused.  Believers in some Western European countries and even our neighbor to the north are not as free as we are to speak and practice their beliefs without fear that they might anger or offend the wrong person.  Even for us, though, with some of the things we talked about a couple of weeks ago in mind regarding our nation’s turn from knowing and doing the things of God, it is becoming more and more clear that we are strangers in an increasingly strange land.  We are strangers in this world.

So what do we say to strangers like this…like us?  As a people who believe that the Bible contains the words of God for life, our answer should be to turn to the Bible in these instances.  But, the folks facing this alienation from their society are probably already followers of Jesus and are going to naturally want to turn there.  The better question is: where in the Bible should they turn?  Well, it just so happens that there is one book in the Bible to which people dealing with the fallout finding themselves strangers in this world have turned more than just about any other.  This is the book of 1 Peter.

First Peter was written by the apostle Peter.  The man who was the most impetuous and bullheaded of the disciples was transformed by the power of Holy Spirit and became one of and perhaps the most important leader of the early church.  Late in his life, not too long before he was martyred along with the apostle Paul by the infamous Roman Emperor Nero, he wrote a couple of letters to the believers in northern Asia Minor.  We know this from the first two verses of the letter: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ: To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”  Now, we don’t know why he wrote to this group of people except that they were perhaps people among whom he had ministered between being in Jerusalem in 44 AD and Rome in around 60 AD.  What we can examine, though, is the message he wanted to send them.

We are going to examine this message over the course of the next several weeks, but for now let’s look at what we can say from nothing more than these two verses.  Peter calls his audience “elect exiles of the dispersion.”  The first word there, elect, simply refers to the fact that they were believers.  Saving a lengthy debate on the extent and nature of God’s foreknowledge of who will and who won’t follow Him, the consistent Biblical position is that if you are a follower of Jesus, you were chosen for that role by God Himself.  The Creator of the universe chose you because He has specific plans for you to play a role in the advance of His kingdom in this world.  Furthermore, this isn’t a light choosing.  The entire person of God—Father, Son, and Spirit—were involved in the process of your becoming a follower of Jesus.  The knowledge that we are among the elect of God should be most encouraging to us because God isn’t capricious.  If He made such a choice then He had a very good reason for it.

The first word there, “elect,” while important, doesn’t tell us that much about Peter’s message.  The second and third words, on the other hand, tell us a great deal.  Peter calls them “exiles of the dispersion,” in my translation, the ESV.  A clearer translation would render the operative Greek words, “strangers scattered about northern Asia Minor.”  Well, if you call someone a stranger you mean they are a stranger relative to something or someone.  So what is the “something” here?  As we work our way through the letter we’ll come to see that they were strangers relative to the world around them.  But how can you be a stranger relative to the world around you?  Well, you could move some place and still be new to the area.  For the first couple of years that Lisa and I were in Denver we were strangers to the area.  When we moved to a new apartment after our first year we discovered an entirely new part of town that we hadn’t even known had existed.  We didn’t know very many people during those years and they were hard in a lot of ways.  And there are some scholars who hypothesize that Peter’s audience is made of up believers who were thrown out of Rome in the early 60s AD and were still getting settled in their new neighbor, so-to-speak.  Yet while the culture of the Roman Empire was certainly not homogenous, this doesn’t strike me as offering the best explanation of things.  Another way you can be a stranger, then, is to have lived in a certain place for a long time, but to be different from the people around you; to view the world through a different set of lenses.

I think this better captures what was probably going on with Peter’s audience.  They had been in Asia Minor for some time, but by becoming followers of Jesus, they had changed.  Their lives had changed dramatically.  Sometimes we don’t really understand this so well because our culture, though not Christian, is still very much Christianized.  Let me read you some words from an article describing the situation for new believers in this first century setting to give you a sense of what things were like for them.  “When missionaries arrived in those provinces, people listened to the gospel and believed.  As a result their lifestyle changed.  First and foremost, they stopped worshiping the various gods of their empire, city, trade guild, or family, and instead worshiped only ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:3).  This change in behavior meant that they were now viewed as unpatriotic (worship of the genius of the emperor was equivalent to flag worship in modern America), disloyal to their city (since they would not take part in civic ceremonies involving worship), unprofessional in their trade (since guild meetings usually took place in pagan temples), and haters of their families (family gatherings and ceremonies also took place in temples, and household worship was thought to hold the family together).  After all, no one was asking this Christians to believe in the gods (many of their neighbors did not really believe in them), but only to offer token worship as a sign of their familial or civic allegiance.  People who were so obstinate as to refuse this simple duty surely had to be ‘haters of humankind,’ as many in the Roman Empire considered them.”[1]

You can see, then, that even if there were no official, state-sanctioned persecutions of believers in the first century, there didn’t need to be.  Their former friends and family likely brought enough persecution on their own.  Can you imagine living in such a way that you are totally and completely different from the people around you—a people by whom you had formerly been identified as a friend and insider?  Can you imagine choosing a lifestyle that necessarily meant you were rejecting everything your culture knew and believed to be true?  Speaking the truth in love, we don’t have to work so hard to imagine it.  If you have made the choice to become a follower of Christ, you are different. You are an elect stranger.  In fact, given the trajectory of our culture, you are becoming more and more different every day.  On the large part, as believers, we don’t value the same things in the same ways that the world around us does.  If you want some evidence of this, watch one of the news programs that focus their attention on the celebrity culture (celebrity worship itself being one of the things we should not value as followers of Jesus) and pay attention to the kinds of behaviors they celebrate.  With very few exceptions the kinds of things being celebrated in those programs are things which we are called to reject entirely.  Indeed, we are strangers in this world.  And if we remain consistent in acting out our faith, if our culture remains consistent with the path it seems to be treading, we are going to become even stranger as time goes by.  So what do we do?  What do we do when we are strangers in this world?  Well, that’s exactly what Peter is writing to tell us.  That’s exactly what we are going to find out over the course of the next few weeks.  We are strangers in this world.  And as strangers, we can expect to be treated as such.  That usually won’t play out to our advantage, but as strangers chosen by Jesus Christ as His followers, we have a chance to make an impact on our foreign home unlike that of any of the locals.  As we journey our way through 1 Peter, we’ll find out how to do this.  We are strangers in this world.  Let’s learn to act like it.

[1]Peter Davids, “1 Peter,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, vol. 4, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 122-23.