Exiles in Place

23-Apr-17

I Peter 1:1,2

May grace and peace be yours in abundance! That’s a pretty nice greeting, don’t you think? May grace and peace be yours in abundance! I think that it is a grand greeting, much nicer, and far more meaningful than “How’s it going?” which is the standard greeting these days. When we greet one another with “How’s it going?” we really don’t expect much of an answer beyond “Oh I don’t know, not too bad,” or “Pretty good, how about you?” And that’s because, really, when it comes down to it, we really don’t want an answer. We really don’t want to engage with people on a level of intimacy that goes much beyond superficial platitudes. We’ve lost the art of living in community with one another. We’re too involved with ourselves and our own daily routines to share the intimacies and intricacies of our souls with just about anyone. And so we have become comfortable with make-believe relationships that survive at the level of the meaningless platitude.

Not so, though, among the brand new Christians living in the first century. The Gospel had seriously disrupted their lives, and it was absolutely imperative that folks who had given their lives to Jesus Christ learn to live in close, intimate relationship with one another. The Christian faith began in the city of Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus. And it had a grand beginning. When Jesus’ disciples finally got over their fear of being rounded up and crucified themselves, the Holy Spirit came to them on the day of Pentecost, and just about 3,000 people responded to just one sermon that the Apostle Peter preached. And things went swimmingly for a while. More and more people responded to the message of the Gospel, and the church grew in leaps and bounds. Things couldn’t have been better. But before long, all of that changed, and the church began to experience some pretty serious opposition. The opposition came first from the Jewish leadership, who of course had never really appreciated Jesus, and who found it very difficult to appreciate the growing numbers of his followers, whom they sincerely believed were heretics with a misguided faith in a messiah who was no messiah at all.

But the opposition from the Jewish quarter quickly paled into insignificance when the Roman government caught wind of what the Christians were up to. It turns out that Christians weren’t very patriotic toward the Roman government, and if there was one thing that the Romans demanded, it was patriotism and loyalty. And the Romans had the machinery in place to enforce that patriotism and loyalty.

You see, the early Christians had this pesky habit of proclaiming that they did, in fact, have a king, but that his name was Jesus, and that they were, in fact, citizens, but not of the Roman government; they were citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And as we might imagine, this was very vexing not only to the emperor of Rome himself, but also to every government official who served the emperor. It is not a good thing to have large numbers of the populace who claim no loyalty to the emperor or to his government. That’s subversiveness that could lead to a revolution, and revolution is certainly not to be tolerated.

And so the rapidly growing Christian church in Jerusalem came under severe persecution from the Roman government. The goal was to kill as many Christians as possible. And at the time, the Romans did not fail in what they set out to do. And so vast numbers of Christians discovered that their only option was to run away. They left their homes in Jerusalem and escaped into areas of the Roman Empire that they believed were safer. They became political refugees, and they settled in places like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. And in these provinces they formed little communities of faith where they could live out the challenges of being Christian in a world that was not.

And so by the time that Peter writes his epistle, he addresses his readers as the exiles of the Dispersion. In easy terms that simply means refugees who’ve been scattered or dispersed all over the place, no longer living in their original homes. Peter is writing to people who have been displaced because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

And while we cannot fully appreciate the horror of having to pull up stakes and running away, leaving our homes and everything that is meaningful to us because of our faith and for the sake of our lives, it might help us to better appreciate the fact that there are millions of political refugees all over this world who have had to do just that. We have seen them on our televisions streaming away from their homelands with only the few possessions that they can carry. Can we have compassion, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the terror of their plight?

As Peter writes, though, he intends to bring some dignity to this business of being an exile or a refugee. Yes, these people have run away. And the presenting reason that they have run away is persecution from the Roman government. But they haven’t exactly run away into areas that are welcoming to Christians or that are Christian friendly. I don’t guess that there are many places in this world that are what we’d call Christian friendly. Things are going to be a little bit better for the Christians living in these provinces with the funny sounding names, but it isn’t likely that these places had signs up that said, “We welcome Christian refugees. Please settle in our provinces.” And so Peter makes the very strong implication that his readers aren’t refugees because they’ve been chased away by the Roman government, but rather that they are refugees because they’ve been chosen by God. God has chosen them and called them out of the world and welcomed them into his glorious kingdom. Because they are citizens of God’s kingdom now, Peter’s readers are not going to feel comfortable, or feel like they are at home, no matter where it is that they happen to be living, no matter where it is in this world. I think that brings some dignity to this business of being an exile and a refugee, because it is God who has made us to be this way, and not some outside human power or influence. Peter’s readers may have been chased away by the Roman government, but it is God who has called them away from this world and into his kingdom. This is God’s work, not human work.

And if Peter were here this morning, he would tell all of us that we are exiles and refugees right here in downtown Thomaston. Not because we’ve run away from something, but because we’ve been chosen by God and called out of this world. And that calls to mind for me at least, that famous line from Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof”, who was himself becoming an exile and a refugee. “I know, I know. We are the chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”

There are many religions in this world that compete with Christianity. But chief among them, and by far the most destructive to the cause of Jesus Christ, is the Church of Holy Self Absorption. This church has millions and millions of members all over the world. We live in a culture that is wholly self-absorbed. There is only one person in the Church of Holy Self Absorption who matters, and that is the individual. It is a survivor mentality, but no one who practices this religion seems to realize this.

This attitude ought not to be reflected or mirrored in the Christian church. But because the Church of Holy Self Absorption is so powerful, it has crept even into the Christian Church. Unfortunately, the Christian Church often exhibits the character traits of this world rather than the character traits of the Kingdom of Heaven. People who belong to the Church of Holy Self Absorption think only of themselves, and when they don’t get their own way, they become angry or upset.

And so Peter begins to speak of sanctification and obedience. Sanctification is the work of God, but it is also a human responsibility. It is the process of becoming holy in a world that is not. Becoming holy must become the goal of every exile and refugee who names the name of Christ, because out of sanctification comes intimacy; Intimacy with God, and intimacy with one another. In a world where the Church of Holy Self Absorption reigns, intimacy with one another becomes essential for all exiles and refugees. We’ve got to create a community of love and respect and compassion, because these things do not exist in our world, even though everyone in the world craves them. It ought to be said of us that those Christians over there in Thomaston really care for one another, and I want to be a part of them.

Peter closes with something that sounds a little strange. He speaks of being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. And we’ve got to go to the Old Testament to try to figure out what Peter might have had in mind. There are three instances in Peter’s Bible where people were sprinkled with blood. When a leper was cleansed, or healed, he or she was sprinkled with the blood of a bird. That works for me. A leper was an exile. Being healed returned that person to the covenant community. We’re exiles in this world, but Jesus’ blood has brought us into covenant community with one another and into his kingdom.

Another time in Peter’s Bible when people were sprinkled with blood was when the covenant between God and his people was established. And obedience was a key component of that covenant. As part of the ceremony, Moses sprinkled half of the blood of the oxen on the altar and half of it on the people. And the people responded by saying, “All that the Lord has said, we will do.” And that also works very nicely. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus said to his disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are members and participants in a new covenant, and a key component of this new covenant is obedience to Jesus Christ.

And finally, there is one other time in Peter’s Bible when people were sprinkled with blood. And that was when Aaron and all of his priests were set aside for special service to God. In their ordination service, they were sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. And that works wonderfully. As exiles and refugees, we too have been set aside for special service to God.

In the Church of Holy Self Absorption, people come to be served and coddled and pampered, and rise up in indignation when they are not.

Not so in the church of Jesus Christ. We are here to serve God. We’ve been set aside, ordained and destined by God for sanctification and obedience, and service. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who has made all of this possible. So, in all these ways, we have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.

And that’s why, when refugees and exiles greet one another, we do so with the very intimate “May grace and peace be yours in abundance.” It is God’s grace displayed in Jesus that makes peace a reality, no matter where we live, and no matter the circumstances under which we live. We know that we have a true home, prepared for us. And here in this place, with one another, is a glorious foretaste of that home to come.

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