Fifth Sunday of Easter 2011

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

(1 Peter 2. 2-10)
The New Testament has all kinds of images for Christians. In the First Letter of Peter, however, there are two that prove to be most significant. First, God’s elect are “exiles” and “foreigners”. Second, believers are “living stones [and] spiritual houses” hewn from the one “living stone” and built around the rejected “cornerstone” of Christ who is “chosen and precious in God’s sight.” Exiles and living stones. Foreigners and spiritual houses. These two contrasting images can help us think even now about what it means to be a Christian community. Each image can also warn us of particular dangers along the way. It’s good, then, to think about these two images as we reflect what it means to be an Easter people.

God’s elect, God’s exiles, God’s foreigners, God’s living stones. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas joins these images together into one: God calls Christians to be “resident aliens.” We can hear both images found in 1 Peter here: we live in the world, we have spiritual homes here, but we are also not of the world, we exist as a people who are different, who are aliens.

Hauerwas means something like the following by the image of us as ‘resident aliens’. On the one hand, the Gospel establishes a kind of Christian colony that cuts across all social, ethnic, and cultural barriers and whose population live in all kinds of non-Christian contexts. Such a Christian colony may find itself at odds with other cultures and mindsets along the way, whether that is materialism, atheism, apathy, or individualism. As a result, Christians are ‘aliens’ in foreign lands that often have very different values which Christians are called to reject. Hauerwas writes, “Our world recognizes the subversive nature of the Christian faith and subverts us either by ignoring us or by giving us the freedom to be religious--as long as we keep religion a matter of personal choice.” On the other hand, this Christian colony is always constructing something of God’s presence in the world. This Christian colony above all else should focus upon proclaiming the Gospel and drawing people into relationship with Jesus. If ‘resident aliens’ are called to be followers of Christ, then we build the content and nature of our lives around Jesus too as “spiritual houses”. Jesus is the beginning, the end, the content, the style, the purpose, the reason, the way, the truth, and the life. Whatever we do, we must do in the name of Jesus Christ. As Hauerwas puts it, “The greatest challenge facing the church in any age is the creation of a living, breathing, witnessing colony of truth.”

Where do we stand as ‘resident aliens’ and ‘spiritual houses’? We share a great number of joys as Christians locally and nationally. We have much to celebrate: baptisms, confirmations, conversions, callings to ministry, growth in discipleship, and a Christian presence in every community, not least this one.

Yet, I think that we are also in danger. Two recent examples have given me pause for thought as to how we might best be ‘resident aliens’.

First, we might reflect about how we respond to the ‘Big Society’. Mr Cameron said to 60 Christian leaders last week that “You’ll all say that [what] our Lord was really dealing with [was] starting the Big Society two thousand years ago” and urged Christian communities to provide more public services. Mr Cameron is half-right: the ‘Big Society’ is hardly anything new and social responsibility is incredibly important. The reality, of course, of ruthless government cuts may make the ‘Big Society’ a smokescreen and pipedream. Yet, either way, Christians should beware of seeing the purpose of Christ as being simply to create a ‘Big Society’ or that the content of Christian faith is simply the building of schools or provision of public services. Social and political reform, even where pressing and important, is always secondary to this primary aim of proclaiming God’s mighty acts of salvation. Without a firm and confident proclamation of the “mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness,” churches will be charities, not communities of faith.

A second example revolves around the killing of Osama bin Laden. Whatever his moral status – and it surely was a grim one – I was worried by the sight of public celebrations of his death and the rush of some Christian leaders to commend the assassination. In opposition to this celebration of death, Dr Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, wrote: “the Christian gospel waits, unheard, in the wings, speaking of love of enemies, prayer for per-secutors, [and] forgiveness of sins.” Similarly, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi commented: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event is an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.” In short, ‘resident aliens’ celebrate life, peace, and love over and above death, conflict, and violence. How we react might give us pause for thought if we are truly in but not of the world.

For Stanley Hauerwas, ‘resident aliens’ have a difficult relationship with their surrounding culture and must not simply conflate Christianity with any political vision or action or forget the primary aim of following Christ as disciples. Without a primary commitment to discipleship and worship, any social and public reform with which the church engages will be about being citizens only of this world rather than God’s kingdom. In this place, then, we must be about creating Christian communities that learn together, pray together, and work together. How might you deepen such a community of resident aliens here in Ingleby Barwick?