We are Born Again...into a New Family
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 the