1 Peter 1:17-23 New International Version (NIV)
17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart] 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
In our reading, the letter from Peter to the churches spread around what is now Turkey, he says the following: 1.17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.
Live out your time here as foreigners. Some other translations use the phase: presently staying here. It’s the old-fashioned word sojourner. We might describe it as being on a temporary Visa. We are living in one country and yet we are citizens, nationals, of another, the kingdom of God. This is a theme found throughout the New Testament, indeed throughout the Bible. In the next chapter, 2.11, Peter says: Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to abstain from sinful desires. Live such good lives among the pagans though they may accuse you of doing wrong they may see your good deeds and glorify God. In Philippians 3.20, Paul says: our citizenship is in heaven.
We are living amongst others, speaking the same language, doing the same work, obeying the same laws, enjoying the same pastimes but we are not the same. We have an ultimate allegiance elsewhere. We have a hope and expectation that we will subsequently live in our home country, amongst our fellow citizens, in heaven with our Lord. And in the meantime we live here. But how are we to live here and what does it mean to be foreigners? How crucially do we deal with split loyalties? The conflicts which arise for all foreigners living in another country. Because there always are conflicts, and it is no different to us as Christians
Amongst many other verses, perhaps the chief is Paul in Romans 12: 2. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good pleasing and perfect will.
In our very global community, this international living is certainly not an unusual experience. Nationals of one country living in another. In England, we may have more international families from right across the world than any other state. The EU has estimated that of the population of about 600 million, as many as 100 million may be families where one or both are not living in the country of their nationality or birth. As I have read bible commentaries going back 50 years and more, the experience described by Peter of being a foreigner is put across as a quite rare one, unlikely to be encountered often. Now it is the utterly normal experience in our community. Our country defines itself by its openness, its welcome and its diversity. There will be many watching this service who have worked abroad, as I have, and many presently living here who have family or other connections with other countries. The description of Peter and of Paul of being in one country with an allegiance to another is really now commonplace.
I work with many international families. I have been to lots of conferences where I have heard their stories, the joys but also the struggles of expat living. I myself worked in Sydney for a couple of years, which is certainly one of the easier places. International families even have their own terminology with their children known as TCKs. Third culture kids and yes, it is from America. Children born of parents of different nationalities, cultures, who are then raised in a third country or culture. Such has been globalisation over several decades that we now have a third generation, children born of parents who were both born of parents themselves of different cultures and generations. Where is their home, allegiance and commitments? But that is not for today
What from our human experience can we learn and then apply to our Christian experience? If Peter was writing to us today, how would we understand what he is saying? Let me today go through just a few elements of expat type life to see how they help us in understanding of our Christian life
Expats continue to celebrate the happy things from their home country. I am, sad some of you may think, a lifelong supporter of Southampton football club, only occasionally the greatest football team in the world and certainly not recently. When I was in Sydney, a group of like-minded Saints supporters used to gather at 2 AM on a Sunday morning in a bar in the city centre to watch our games live, wearing of course our red and white striped shirts. Super Bowl is a big American event and all Americans here in England will expect to watch throughout the night and probably not do much work the following morning! One of the wonderful elements of diversity is that we join in the national and religious celebrations of the many communities in our country so we have particular meals or we light candles or put up lights. And then anyone who has visited the English retired community across the Mediterranean will have seen the daily ritual of collecting the Daily Express or Daily Mail.
And we Christians celebrate the habits and practices of our kingdom of God. We join in holy Communion to encourage each other to remember Christ’s death. We ring home by joining with others in prayer. We keep in touch by regularly reading the Bible. We have distinctive holidays to celebrate parts of the Christian calendar. Of course we are flexible. After all, we are living in a foreign country. So in Dubai the sabbath is a Friday and that’s when the Christians have their church services.
So we join in celebrating together being Christians and we are fortunate mostly, and I use that word specifically, to be in a country where there is still freedom to do so
But we mustn’t let seemingly outward freedoms, diversity and liberties deceive us. Many expats have a distinctively different lifestyle, particularly at home and in their personal lives, which they maintain and mutually encourage. Sometimes this is indulged but sometimes it causes real conflicts. We see a whole succession of Westerners getting into trouble in Islamic countries with public drinking and public shows of sexual affection. Private lives and public behaviour. If we look carefully, there is a huge amount of subtle pressures on expats and immigrants from countries quite different to our own to fit in, to assimilate and be like us and not like their own home cultures. The temptation is particularly strong for the younger generation.
Within expat and immigrant communities, the call goes out to maintain your national values. Be true to your homeland. The message within these groups, especially to those most likely to assimilate and give up on values is: where we are living is only temporary even if perhaps quite long-term. We are here by choice, perhaps reluctant choice but this is not our preferred home. There is another place we care much more about, where the food and customs are far more to our liking and where we will be one day. So don’t mix, intermarry, adopt those customs but hold firm.
This is the same challenge by Paul in the Romans passage and by Peter in the second chapter. Paul tells us not to conform to the pattern of this world, it’s mindset, ethics and priorities, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Peter in chapter 2 tells us to live particular lives so that those around us may see our good deeds. But it won’t be easy as Christians. We will have a different lifestyle on sexual issues, of sex outside of marriage, of the importance of marriage, of respect and equality for each gender. We will want to have and to show integrity and honesty as employees or employers. We will want to raise our children and grandchildren with particular values. We will want to make sure we care for the poor and the disadvantaged. We thank God that we are living in a country which still mostly holds to many Christian values. It makes it mostly easy for us although the conflicts are increasing. But we have to watch, notice and then call out where the lifestyle morality of the community in which we live differs from that of our kingdom of God community. Because it does. Some would say increasingly. And too often we Christians simply absorb without realising we are doing so. And our distinctive Christian lifestyle, our priorities, our particular values and ethics become weakened, become less observably different and less of a witness to the kingdom of God. We are here as ambassadors to tell everyone about this other country, our country of which we are so proud, with its very different life and a phenomenal king whom it is a pleasure and privilege to serve. And it is difficult to do that if we are no different. It is the salt which Jesus describes as having lost its saltiness and is thrown out. This is a real challenge for us.
Peter in the passage contrasts the ultimate emptiness of silver and gold, key emblems of every materialistic culture, with the preciousness of Christ’s body and blood, given and surrendered for us at Easter. The choice set before us as Christians is whether to follow the cultural values of the place in which we are now living or live as cultural strangers: disciples of Jesus and accountable before God.
Another curious feature of some expat communities is that they are only there for the sole purpose of sending money back home. The huge number of manual workers from South Asia and Southeast Asia now in the Emirates and other parts of the Middle East, sometimes in appalling working conditions, often away for most of the year or longer, but sending money back home to support the family and community. They put up with the dreadful conditions because of the benefit for the family. A few years ago, one of the distinctive sources of income for Italy were the many Italians in America sending money home. As the light has been shone on the NHS workers, we have seen how many have families abroad whom they are supporting. And so it goes on around the world. They do so because they are not spending it on the pleasures and opportunities where they are working but to support those elsewhere.
Please be assured that I have not been briefed by the church treasurer in now saying this. But we too have a commitment to use our funds, our available resources, for furtherance of the kingdom of God. For some this may be the conventional tithing. For others it will be use of time, use of gifts and resources and talents. Whichever it is, we give back to his people either here or elsewhere around the world where they are in need. Distinctively, Christ calls us to support our neighbours and those in need even if they are not Christians. So we work and live to give to others and in so doing give to Christ and the furtherance of his kingdom
I work with many embassies in London. They are a close-knit community, working for their own nationals but working together in London. They provide a tremendous service for their nationals in a time of need in a country abroad. They arrange various national celebrations and put people in touch with each other. They provide a huge pastoral service. They look after them when they get into trouble with the police. And so on
We have an embassy. It has been created by the kingdom of God for his people presently living and working abroad, here on earth. It’s called his church. It’s where we go to be with other citizens of heaven. It’s where we get support when we are finding it difficult to carry on living our quite different lives. It’s where we celebrate. It’s where we encourage each other. And it’s just as important to keep in touch with our embassy during this present difficult time as it is coming into Godalming on a Sunday morning as we normally do. The church of Christ is found throughout the world; he has an embassy wherever he has his people. He has set it up to help us as foreigners in this land. Make the most of it. Contribute to it. Support each other through it. And enjoy it because however imperfect it is, and it is, there are elements of church life which are a foretaste of the delight of heaven to come.
Expats posted abroad often find themselves moving countries. Embassy staff tend to be transferred to other countries; promotion is a move to a larger embassy. Military personnel are sent to another foreign base. Some executives are moved every few years to another continental regional office. Some get so used to living abroad and the expat lifestyle that they don’t return home until the end of a working career. But whichever experience, most eventually go somewhere they call long-term home.
As will we Christians. Home awaits. Heaven beckons. In Matthew, Jesus says that there are many rooms in the mansion, and he has prepared five-star accommodation for each of us. We will be with like-minded citizens. The pressures of Christian living in a Christian society, sometimes critical of Christians and sometimes absolutely hostile to Christianity, will be no more. We can sing and rejoice without concern. Particularly our fellow Christians who are even today being persecuted for their Christian faith, either by physical means or economic segregation, will be free at last. And what rejoicing there will be. We will be united with those who have gone before us. We will be with those who will yet live their lives on this planet loving and worshipping Christ and look forward to going home.
In 1.3 Peter says God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance, our citizenship, is kept in heaven for each of us. And this is important. Unlike expats born with one nationality but presently living in another country, we were actually born citizens of this world, without a natural inclination to live as God wants us to do, without wanting to live in a glorious relationship with him as saviour, King and friend. We may be citizens of heaven, but it was not always thus. We were born citizens here.
Becoming a Christian is described by Jesus as being born again. Paul takes this description and refers to the process of adoption, which may be an easier concept for some of us. We become adopted into the family of Christ when we look to him for faith and salvation. When somebody is adopted, they leave the old family completely behind. No longer any legal ties. That’s what adoption is about. The adopted child is not secondary, but an equal child in the family. We are now truly children in the new family of God. And this adoption gives citizenship of the kingdom of the family of God. In Ephesians 2.19 Paul says: consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. We have renounced one nationality and have taken on another, that of the kingdom of heaven.
And this renouncing is fundamental. There will be a several, perhaps many, watching this service, members of this church, who have dual nationality. My sister emigrated to Australia many years ago married to a Greek and my nephew and niece have English, Australian and Greek citizenship. A couple of years ago I did a study on how many countries in the world in fact refuse dual nationality and demand renouncement of a previous nationality before adopting a new nationality. It’s a surprisingly high number including a good number of westernised countries.
And it includes the kingdom of God. Dual nationality is not an option for the Christian. We cannot hold the passport to living according to the ethos, priorities, expectations and life values of this world and hold our Christian passport in the other hand. We can’t go through the passport control gate of this world on one occasion and the passport control gate of Christ on another occasion dependent upon which queue seems the shorter or less questions will be asked. We are required to choose and then to live our life as citizens of heaven.
We will fail. There will be times, often frequently, when we still live as if of our old nationality, our original home country, our old ways. But with God’s grace, with the support of others and his indwelling through the Holy Spirit we live day by day more and more what it means to be a valuable and valued citizen of the kingdom of God
So today, enjoy, relish, sing about and give thanks for being a foreigner, somebody staying here for only a time, and for being a citizen of the kingdom of God, looking forward to going home, looking forward to being with our king in all his glory and living in his love. He calls us to live a holy life because we will one day be living in the holy land. Stay pure, love each other, love the Lord and look forward to being with him
A short prayer. Dearest heavenly father, help us to reassess our lives, our faith, our love for you in a culture which tends to drag us away from you. Release us we ask from the bondage of pervading cultural priorities which are not yours. Help us to live our lives bearing good witness to you here today in our community all around us, showing your life values and priorities and pointing the way to the far better kingdom, your salvation for all men and women