A couple of weeks ago, we heard a part of this morning’s Scripture reading, from the First Letter that Saint Peter wrote to his churches. So, if it sounded familiar, it should! This was the occasion when he told the Gentile believers that they, too, were “a chosen race”! Just like the Jewish people of the Bible, they were a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people!
“Once you were no people,” he wrote, “but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:9-10)
I’ve gone back to that passage this morning because I think it is important to understand the context of this letter written by the Apostle Peter. Let me draw your attention back to this morning's "Call to Worship" in which we read aloud the first five verses of First Peter, addressed to God's people "who live as exiles of the Dispersion" throughout the five Roman provinces of Asia…. to the "exiles dispersed" throughout the region we now-a-days call "Turkey." The Good News Bible version puts it more plainly: "to the refugees scattered..."
Peter is writing a letter to refugees? To exiles? Maybe something like ancient asylum-seekers? These were Christian & Jewish believers -- followers of Jesus -- who had been squeezed out from their native soil in Palestine. They knew first-hand the experience of what it meant to be "dispersed exiles."
Dare I suggest that the context might be like the tens of thousands of El Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Mexican & Native American, Central American, South American, and other oppressed immigrants, who have been seeking to cross our Southern border…? (I’m sure you’ve seen them in the nightly news.)
If so, they need no further instruction from an Up-North all-white preacher (like me) about the social reality of what it means to live as "alien refugees" in a hostile, foreign society! Their experience in today’s detention centers and migrant encampments would resonate perfectly with the context of the original audience of this First Letter of Peter!
Newer versions of the Bible have softened the context a bit by translating "par-oikoi" (the original Greek word) as “resident aliens” or "visiting strangers." Isn't that a cheery thing -- to be seen as a visiting stranger, instead of as alien immigrants, scattered refugees, and exiles of the Dispersion!
If we were to read more of Peter’s letter, we would meet among these “scattered alien refugees”, household slaves and free-men, husbands & wives, Gentiles & Jews… a mixed bag.
There are children, community leaders (elders), recent converts ... But most important to Peter is the status they have in common as "par-oikoi"-- "resident aliens"!
When I went back to seminary to work on my Doctorate, one of our guest lecturers was Dr. Jack Elliott, author of two books about the letters of Peter. I promptly bought both of his textbooks (*see below), and I will use part of today's sermon to share with you the core of his scholarly insight… as well as to draw out a few implications as they may relate to today's socio-political economy & sense of identity & mission of our church.
Jack Elliott pointed out in his lectures: "In ancient society,
strangers were regarded with a mixture of fear and contempt. With their peculiar language accents, their weird customs, and alien religious rites, strangers were constantly viewed as threats to established order & to native well-being."
I wonder if we've really changed all that much since then?
Dr. Elliott told stories from the Greek & Roman epics (such as the Odyssey), as well as stories from the Old Testament --telling of the wanderings of Abraham & the 40 years of home- lessness of the slaves in the Sinai desert, the period of Exile in Babylonian Captivity , and so forth -- to show how they "reflect the perilous plight of the stranger in a strange land" (which is the title of Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction story, where aliens & earthlings meet).
The Greek term "par-oikoi" had a technical meaning in the Roman world of Peter's day, designating a class of people considered inferior to the “citizens”, and who were accorded only limited legal and social rights. "Such resident aliens, " the professor pointed out, as in our own national regulations today,
"were prohibited from voting, prohibited from owning land (which, in a faming economy was the major source of income); they were limited in who they could marry, unable to inherit property, and restricted in commercial transactions with full citizens."
In the provinces of Asia Minor, where Peter addresses his letter, some of these "social outsiders" lived in the cities… and carried out handcraft trades. (!) But the majority lived in the rural regions of the interior, where, as peasant-class laborers, they worked the land.
These resident aliens, exiles, and refugees, had turned to Christianity as a form of human community that provided, not only the social unity and acceptance that they lacked from their surrounding society, but the Christian Gospel also assured them of the favor and acceptance of the God of Israel, who "sets the solitary in families."
From their sense of isolation and alienation, they responded well to the inclusive embrace of the early Christian missionaries -- who were, themselves, strangers (alien foreigners) in this Greco-Roman world of rural Turkey.
Having bonded themselves together through baptism as a new family -- a new community -- they soon began to realize that membership in this sect (meaningful though it was!) provided no escape from the prejudices and pressures of the prevailing society. In fact, for some, their public adherence to Jesus Christ increased the friction with their neighbors!
In the face of the pressures to conform to the culture around them, Peter addresses his letter to the "par-oikoi" (resident aliens, dispersed exiles) as a sort of “pep talk” and theological reminder... that through their shared faith and common baptism, they were a unique community, set-apart from the passions and prejudices of the non-believing majority.
Peter reminds them of God's faithfulness, of God's ultimate judgment between righteousness and wrong, of God's promise to vindicate and celebrate those who remain faithful under pressure.
As their unfair treatment and social rejection -- both by the government and by the majority of their neighbors -- causes them pain, Peter says it should fill them with a living hope!
Because -- as they join themselves to the suffering and death of Jesus -- they also are assured of new life by the raising of Jesus from death, and they can look forward to an inheritance of rich blessings in heaven! (That was in our Call to Worship! Wow!)
Which brings us to the text Bill Dempsey read for us. … Taking seriously the uniqueness (the strangeness) of this new “Christian community” in rural Turkey -- and knowing first-hand the oppressive alienation these "refugees" are enduring under the slanders and pressures of the native majority -- Peter provides a theological reason for them to remain "aliens!" He removes the negative emotional baggage attached to the word "par-oikoi" and gives it a positive "spin".
God -- who is the most strange of all strangers, the most wholly unlike divinity of any of the nations of the world -- has chosen them (us!) -- and set them apart, through baptism and the blood of Christ, to be forever "aliens" resident here on earth.
Peter sees God intentionally reaching past the high-&-mighty -- reaching outside the majority & beyond the norms of society -- to collect the strangers & the marginal… and to gather them into a new family (a spiritual family) which is wholly different in its origin (and in its behavior, and in its goals) from any of the natural “blood-line” families, or the “political” families (that is "nations") of earth. A new society: something different!
Peter puts the personal and political challenge in these words: “Beloved, I beseech you, as aliens and exiles, to … maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds, and glorify God.” (I Peter 2:11-12) If your conduct is up-building and encouraging and inclusive, they’ll notice it!
I feel the need to re-define, as Peter did, the term "par-oikoi." For we, who generally feel fully included in the local community (we feel “at home” in Alpena, and especially here at First Church!) -- we are reminded in today's text that we are intended by God to be a collection of "par-oikoi!" -- visiting strangers, resident aliens, a haven for refugees, a home for exiles (or as Professor Elliott puts it: a home for the homeless!)
"Para" in Greek means "outside, or alongside." Param-eters, perimeters, parabolic: up to the edges, along the margins. And "oikos" in Greek means "house": either the dwelling place itself, or the family which resides within the home. So, "par-oikoi" are simply those people who dwell alongside the house, those who are left out of the family, those who find them- selves on the margins of society & are looked upon as strangers.
Resident aliens -- foreigners to your family -- marginal strangers -- those outside anyone's "home"... these, says Peter, are "reborn" into a new household. They are born anew as children (I Peter 1:14), born of a heavenly Father (I Peter 1:2, 3, & 17) united in one family (I Peter 2:5 & 4:17) or "brotherhood" (I Peter 2:17). The church is a new "oikos!" We are born into a new family -- designed & begun by God -- to be inclusive of the stranger. (!) We are a new filial/familial community established by God (through Jesus) in direct contrast to the pressures and prejudices of normative society (which is prone to exclude and alienate “us” from “them”)!
In the end, says Peter, even though we Christians live with the tension of being strangers/aliens in society, our ultimate citizenship, inheritance, & familial character is assured by our inclusion in God's family -- a "home for the homeless." Being "alien" (exile, refugee, marginal) in society is more than matched by realizing we are "at home" in God, who births us, and nurses us to health!
We are (as I say in my sermon title) “Born again, into a new family”: into God’s family, one & all.
Peter’s use of the metaphor of “newborn babies, who long for the pure spiritual milk,” (I Peter 2:2) reminds me of the text that we talked about just last Sunday from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3… How Jesus told the old Pharisee Teacher Nicodemus that he had to be “born again”.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he would have to begin again like a newborn – born over, born from above, born of the Spirit. Nicodemus (you may recall) seemed both confused by what Jesus was saying to him, and a bit resistant. (“Born again? Born anew?”) After all, Nicodemus had a lot to lose if he “started over” like a newborn infant, without the status he had earned over a lifetime of following the rules most faithfully. He had moved up in society to “top dog” on the Temple council!
Despite Nicodemus’s confusion and resistance, it is to that venerable Pharisee -- this ruling elder -- that Jesus said not only that “you must be born again” … but he also insisted that “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16. For many Christians, those are some of the most often-quoted statements in all of the New Testament.
With that in mind from last Sunday, you probably noticed that this First Letter of Peter also used the metaphor of being born anew (I Peter Chapter 1, verse 3, and again in verse 23). It was in our Call to Worship and (again) in Bill Dempsey’s reading. Peter gives us an even more graphic image of a “new-born infant” (than Jesus did to Nicodemus) – it’s being like a newborn baby longing for “pure, spiritual milk.”
I suppose there is probably no better metaphor for what it means to receive divine love without pre-conditions or expectations than the newborn infant… snuggling against her (or his) mother’s breast. The newborn baby is thoroughly vulnerable -- powerless to care for herself beyond the ability to draw a breath. And actually, when we consider a pre-mature baby in a hospital incubator, we realize that even the ability to take that first breath is a miracle! “Come-on, girl, Ruah for us; nooma! Breathe!”
Not only is life a gift, so is everything else that will come her way! -- The newborn owns nothing. She is the essence of poverty -- an empty receptacle that needs to be filled with life-giving things. To be born is to be open & empty, ready to grow.
The newborn has nothing to barter with to get what she needs; no ego that might get in the way of acknowledging those needs. She is totally and utterly at the mercy of those adults whose job it is to care for her.
“You have been born anew,” writes Peter (I Peter 1:23 & 2:1-2), “not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living & enduring word of God… Rid your-selves, therefore, of all malice & all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow unto salvation.”
As we grow older, we gradually forget that our lives are gifts, bestowed by a loving God, who does not hold us to rules of merit & de-merit in order for us to be loved.
Over time, like what happened to Nicodemus, the ways of the world begin to “harden” us: malice & guile, insincerity, envy, & slander take its toll!
And once we cross that mental divide -- knowing we have to look out for ourselves… getting our way over competitors… making something of ourselves, regardless of who gets put-down or set-aside along the way -- it’s awfully hard (as adults) to go back to the openness & vulnerability of simply trusting God to survive. Like Nicodemus said to Jesus last Sunday: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again?”
No… it’s not about physical birth. It’s about awareness, consciousness, mindfulness. It’s about openness, & wonder!
If Jesus can get Nicodemus (and get us) to remember what it means to be “child-like” -- what it’s like to be the littlest, the lowliest, the most helpless “newborn” -- we might begin to intuit what it mean to give ourselves over to God without condition. Trusting God’s love. Following the Spirit, wherever it blows. Faith in God’s unconditional love (such as we spoke of last week), with the curiosity of a child, & the wonder of learning!
If we trust God’s love like a child trusts a parent, we won’t catch ourselves saying to ourselves: “God will love me because I make a generous pledge, or because I support worthy causes, or because I have been a faithful spouse, or because I attend worship more faithfully than my neighbors do.” No, we will be more likely to say: “God loves me, not because of my best days, but in spite of my worst ones.” God loves me because that’s God’s nature… to love!
God will love us despite the list of vices that Peter asks us to be rid of: in spite of our malice and guile, our insincerity, envy, and slander. Clearly we would do better to have, as Peter says in verse 22: “a sincere love of the brethren; love one another earnestly from the heart.” … But even when we fail to do so, we must still trust that God knows us and loves us and wants to save us from those sins.
“By God’s great mercy,” wrote St. Peter, “we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading!” (I Peter 1:3-4)
*(Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament,
I-II Peter/Jude, by John H. Elliott, c. 1982, Augsburg Pub. House, 426 S. Fifth St., Minneapolis, MN 55440)
*(Home for the Homeless: A sociological exegesis of I Peter, its situation and strategy, by John H. Elliott, c. 1981, Fortress Press, Philadelphia)