Exiles in Place


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 love it. I think that it is a grand greeting, much nicer and far more meaningful than “How goes it?” Or “Sup”. How goes it, or ‘Sup’ seem to be standard greetings these days. When we greet one another with either of those greetings, we really don’t anticipate much of an answer beyond “Oh I don’t know, not too bad, I guess”, 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 don’t want to know, 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 followers of Jesus 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 their lives in a completely new way; in close, intimate relationship with one another. The church of Jesus Christ 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 2,000 people responded to just one sermon that the Apostle Peter preached. And it was great, and things went swimmingly for a while, and 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 started to change, and the church began to experience some 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 followers of Jesus were up to. It turns out that the followers of Jesus weren’t very patriotic to 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 their demand for patriotism and loyalty.

You see, the early believers had this pesky habit of proclaiming that they did, in fact, have a king, but that his name was Jesus, and not Caesar, and that they were in fact citizens, but not of the Roman government. They were, instead, 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 other government official. It is not a good thing to have large numbers of the populace who do not swear allegiance and who claim no loyalty to the emperor or to his lessor satraps. That represents a kind of subversiveness that could lead to a revolution, and it is certainly not to be tolerated.

And so the rapidly growing church in Jerusalem came under severe persecution from the Roman government. The goal was to kill as many of the followers of Jesus as was possible. And at the time, the Romans did not fail in what they set out to do. And so vast numbers of believers discovered that their only option was to run away. They left their homes in Jerusalem and escaped in to areas of the Roman empire that they believed were safer. They became political refugees, and they settled into places like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. And in these provinces they formed little communities of faith where they could live out the difficult challenges of being followers of Jesus in a world that had no respect or love for them. But as it turns out, the giant church in Jerusalem, which had been huge at the time, became so small and had so few people attending that it was barely able to meet its own expenses.

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 familiar 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 add 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 to avoid persecution from the Roman government.

But they haven’t exactly run away into areas that are welcoming to those who name the name of Jesus. I don’t guess that there are many places in this world that are what we would call “friendly” to the followers of Jesus. We can guess that things are going to be a bit better for the believers who have run away from Jerusalem and who have settled into these provinces with the funny sounding names, but it isn’t likely that these places had signs up that said, “We welcome all followers of Jesus. 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 threat and power of the Roman government, but rather that they are refugees because they’ve been chosen by God. That’s big. 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, and who said this in a prayer, “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 our faith. But chief among them, and by far the most destructive to the mission of Jesus Christ, is the church of holy self-absorption. We live in a culture that is wholly self-absorbed. There is only one person in this religion who matters, and that person is the individual. It is you and me. It is us. It is a survivor mentality, but no one in this religion seems to realize this.

This attitude ought never to be reflected or mirrored among any of us. But because the church of holy self-absorption is so powerful, it has crept into the lives of even the most faithful. Too often, believers exhibit the character traits of the world around us rather than the character traits of the kingdom of heaven.

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. It 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 stick together, 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 also 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 become angry when they are not served, or when they do not get their own way. 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 metaphorically, in all of these ways, we have indeed 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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