Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Easter 4

1 Peter 2:19-25

If you were to do a top ten of the most popular Psalms, I am pretty sure that at number one would be the 23rd Psalm: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’  This Psalm has been the inspiration for many hymn-writers, we have sung a version of it in our service today.  Perhaps more famous is the version that has as its first line: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd…’!  Like the Psalm itself, it is a hymn that is popular at many different services.  It is, for example, sung or said at both weddings and funerals.

The image of God as a shepherd is a popular one in the Old Testament, and it is one that is taken up in the New Testament by our Lord himself including in, but by no means limited to, our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd.  This is quite a daring move for as I have said in the Old Testament it is God who is the shepherd of his people.  Jesus is claiming now to be fulfilling God’s role on God’s behalf.

This idea of our Lord as a shepherd is behind our Lord’s understanding of his own mission.  He told people who were critical of his friendship with sinners that he had come to ‘seek and to save’ those who were lost.  In one of his parables, he implicitly compares himself to a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are OK and goes off to search for the one sheep who has gone astray.

The image of the shepherd is taken up by St Peter in our second reading.  He writes to the recipients of his letter: ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.

St Peter is writing, you may remember, to believers spread across several Roman provinces.  He describes them as ‘exiles in the dispersion’.  In chapter 2:11, he describes them as ‘aliens and exiles.’

Anyone who knew their Old Testament Scriptures would have immediately got the image of dispersion and exile.  In 8th century BC Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom belonging to ten tribes of Israel and had carried most of them off into exile.  This left just 2 tribes, those of Judah and Benjamin, in the south centred on Jerusalem. 

In 597 BC, these two were to suffer a similar fate, this time at the hands of Babylon who destroyed the Holy City and carried the inhabitants of the southern kingdom off to exile in Babylon.  Here they lived as ‘aliens and exiles’ remembering and longing for their home in the Promised Land.  Psalm 137 captures their sense of loneliness and longing for home: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’

Some of the exiles returned having been given permission to do so by the Persian ruler, Cyrus.  But many stayed on and settled and made their homes outside of the Land of Israel.  Those so living away from Israel were known as the diaspora (or dispersion).

It shouldn’t be thought that those living in foreign lands were any less Jews or any less committed to their faith.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  What is quite incredible is the way they managed, over many centuries, to preserve both their faith and identity.  Generally speaking, they avoided being assimilated into the culture where they were living. 

Under the Romans, they were given special privileges that allowed them to go on practicing their religion even when it went against Roman Law.  They remained intensely loyal to Israel and to Jerusalem even paying an additional tax to the Temple on top of the taxes they paid to the authorities.  This was completely voluntary.

So, when St Peter writes to those who are in the dispersion, he takes up this idea.  Probably, in the first place, those he writes to were Christian Jews living outside of Israel.  But he extends this idea.  Those he writes to are ‘aliens and exiles’ not only in the historic sense, but in a new sense. 

Now that they have become Christians, they have been born again to a living hope: an inheritance that is ‘imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’.  This inheritance he tells them is kept in heaven for them.

They are aliens living as did the Jews of the diaspora in a foreign land.  They are exiles from their true home, but that home is not now an earthly city, but one that is to come.  In Revelation, St John describes that city as the New Jerusalem.  St Paul writes to the Philippians: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

As Christians, we belong to the heavenly city.  We are exiles and living as aliens here in this earthly city. We are refugees if you will.  The New Testament draws a number of consequences out of this:

1. Our values and beliefs should be those of the heavenly city.

In the same way as the Jews of the dispersion looked to Zion and the Law for guidance, even though they were living in a foreign land, so too we Christians must seek guidance from the heavenly city to which even now we belong.  Our values, attitudes, and priorities are to be those of the heavenly city.  People should be able to tell where we belong to by the way we live and behave.  It is always difficult for those who have been exiled and find themselves living in a foreign land.  No matter how hard they try, they inevitably find themselves adopting the culture of the place where they live.  Sometimes this is harmless, but as we have seen all too graphically in recent years, there can be a clash of cultures and of values. 

One of the greatest dangers facing the Church as the moment is that of assimilation.  We have always been tempted as Christians to adopt the values and attitudes of the kingdom of this world rather than the values of the attitudes of the kingdom of God.  Often, we have done so.  As Anglicans, we ought to be aware of this as much as anyone.

Nevertheless, despite the temptation and pressure to conform and our failure to resist it, we have managed at least to preserve a distinctive theology and set of beliefs so that even when we have gone wrong in practice, there has still been a body of beliefs to challenge us and call us back to what should be our true identity.

There will always be arguments over what we should or should not believe as Christians, and Christians have and will disagree over this.  What I find a bit worrying, however, to put it mildly, is how at the moment Christians seem willing to compromise and even abandon what have in the past been beliefs that have been regarded as central to the faith.

If we are to survive our exiles as aliens in a foreign land not only are we to live the lives of the kingdom of God, we must know what we believe and value it.

2. As citizens of the heavenly city and members of the kingdom of God, we realize that God’s Kingdom is not going to come on earth by our own efforts. 

Or at least we should realize it.

The New Testament teaches that God’s kingdom is not going to be established by us, but by God.  But all this raises a question that has occupied the minds of some of the greatest thinkers of the Christian Church.  What is the relationship between the earthly and heavenly city?  And given that we are members of the heavenly city, what should be our attitude, as ‘aliens and exiles’, towards the earthly city in which we live?

The answer the New Testament gives is in some ways quite surprising.  In our own day, we are seeing groups who have a different culture to the culture of the place in which they live becoming radicalized and seeking to bring down the society in which they live, replacing it with one based on their own values and beliefs.

The New Testament instead urges Christian ‘to honour the Emperor’, to be submissive to those in authority, to pay their taxes, to live, as much as lies within their power, peaceably with those amongst whom they live.  St Peter tells slaves who are Christians that they should accept the authority of their masters ‘with all deference’.  In case they think they can be selective in this, he continues: ‘not only those who are kind and gentle, but also those who are harsh’. (1Peter 2:18)

Nowadays, St Peter and other New Testament writers, come in for much criticism for these words and others like them.  How could they support such a cruel and oppressive institution like slavery?  Why didn’t they do more to condemn and to change it?

This as much as anything, I think, shows the difference in perspective between them and us.  They did not see as a priority the transformation of a society to which they did not belong.  This is not to say that when they could make a difference they didn’t take the opportunity to do so.  They did.  It was just that their priorities were different.  They expected suffering in this world as part of God’s plan to prepare them for the next.  St Peter actually tells his readers when speaking of the suffering they face: ‘For to this you have been called …’

What is more, and this brings me onto my third and final point:

3. The role of Christians in the earthly city is to live as citizens of the city that is to come and to find those who belong to it.

I used to live in Bedford in the UK where my brother is now a Vicar – amongst other things – Bedford is very ethnically mixed city.  It has several different ethnic communities:  Italian, Polish, Pakistani to name but 3.  What is striking is how these communities have managed to keep their own identities while living in what is otherwise a typical English town.  Their grandparents may have been born in Italy, etc. but the vast majority were born in Bedford.  They still, however, regard themselves as primarily Italian, Polish, Pakistani, or whatever.  This is graphically illustrated when England plays Italy or Poland at football or Pakistan at cricket!

They have, for example, their own shops, community organizations, and travel agents.  They live in Bedford and partake in its life and vote in its elections, but their culture and lifestyle are that of Italy, Poland, or Pakistan.  They have kept their identity.

This is the image that the New Testament uses of the Church.  Yes, we are living in this world, but this world is ‘not our home’.  We follow the laws of the kingdom of God and maintain its values and attitudes even though it is a temptation and pressure to do otherwise.  We too must keep our identity or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we should discover it.

Now, as an individual, it is very hard to do this.  As an individual, the pressure will always to be to fit in.  The reason why the different ethnic communities I have spoken of have been able to keep their identity is precisely because they are a community with community networks that support each other and enable them to preserve their shared culture and values.

This brings us at last to our first reading today.  If we are to maintain our identity as citizens of heaven.  If we are to hold out against the pressure to conform to the values, attitudes and priorities of society around us, we too need our support networks, we need to belong to a community of fellow citizens.  This community God has given us in the Church.  We are told that the first believers devoted themselves: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers’.  Luke tells us that all who believed were together and had all things in common.

The role of the Church is to offer support and to foster our identity as Christians.  We cannot live as ‘aliens and exile’ on our own.  We need each other.  The Church is not an optional extra.

Finally, returning to the image of the Shepherd, St Peter writes: ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’.  We have returned and for that we thank God and all those who were used by him to bring us back.  Many, however, remain lost and God wants to use us to find them and bring them back to the city to which they belong.

In our reading from Acts, Luke writes that the ‘Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved’.  Our beliefs and values, our behavior and lifestyle, should draw people to us.  Some sheep, however, are so lost that they need shepherds to go out in search of them.  While we must be ready to welcome all who come to us seeking their true home, we must also go in search of those who are so lost that not only do they not know their way home, they don’t yet realize they have a home to go to.

In conclusion, I think I can do no better than quote the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who puts it this way:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

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