Aliens and Exiles
What can 1st century Christianity teach us about 21st century living?
by Bruce Yocum
Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles so that in case they speak against you, they may see your good conduct and glorify God in the day of visitation. –- 1 Peter 2:11-42In many respects we who live at the beginning of the twentyfirst century have lived through a dramatic time in world history. Consider these developments: ‘the advent of nuclear power, and with it the threat of self-inflicted mass destruction; enormously increased capacity for long-distance, high-speed transportation and communication, and the resulting opportunity for a unified world culture; the reality of space travel; revolution in means of production, and the phenomenal increase in standards of living that accompany it; the extraordinary change in work and daily life through computers; and the seemingly miraculous achievements of medical technology. These factors so greatly distance our era from everything in the past, that in one sense at least, we might be said to be living in a new age.
Yet in the midst of all this, the very greatest of the changes can go unnoticed. Our Western society and culture have fundamentally rejected Christianity as well as the foundations for thinking and living that Christianity has provided for the past 15 centuries. In future evaluations of even secular historians, this change in beliefs and values may well rank more highly than the technological marvels. Certainly in the eyes of God, this revolution in our society’s relationship to him and his law is the crucial issue.
And this revolution in our society’s relationship to God should be crucial to us as followers of Christ. Sadly, for many of us, it is not. The apostle Peter, in the passage quoted above, addresses the early Christians as aliens and exiles who live among a people very different from themselves. Peter’s first letter has a profound relevance for us today. His instruction to the early Christian community is precisely what is needed for Christians of the West today.
The early Christians recognized that their way of thinking, of understanding the world, of evaluating ideas and events, was radically different from those around them. And they understood that because they saw things so differently, their way of life needed to be different as well.
We Christians today have been raised to accept the society around us as fundamentally decent, and in sympathy with our deepest values. So we join with it in its entertainments and pastimes, in its thoughts and judgments about people and events. But our society is not fundamentally decent, and it is not at all in sympathy with our deepest values. Secular commentators are at times more honest than we are in their evaluations of what underlies much of our society. A while ago, for example, former professional basketball player Walt Frazier said, “In a way, they [the National Basketball Association] are selling sex, just like MTV.” Frazier apparently doesn’t see anything wrong with selling sex and so he doesn’t have to pretend that MTV is not selling sex. Many Christians, on the other hand, have to pretend that MTV is not selling sex, because if they did admit it they would have to condemn MTV, and they certainly don’t want to be so prudish.
What would happen if Christians agreed to stop pretending and accepted the fact that our society is alienated from God, and that consequently people in our society “have become futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds are darkened,” as Paul says in Romans chapter 1? What would happen if Christians admitted that most of what we see in many magazines as well as a lot of other media is gossip and the sort of impurity and covetousness that “must not even be named among you” (Ephesians 5:3)? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to recognize that all of the greed, fraud, and sexual license that we see around us daily is the result of people “exchanging the truth for a lie, and worshiping the creature rather than the creator” (Romans 1:25)?
Would we then all have to run to the mountains and hide in caves until the dreadful day of judgment comes? Or would we all have to form isolated semi-monastic communities to preserve ourselves from contact with the evil world? No, we would not have to do that, if we follow the direction given by Peter in his letter. He speaks with a profound awareness of the evil at work in the society in which he lived, but he does not exhort the early Christians to leave that society. He exhorts them to live in it in such a way that they can be a source of salvation for others. What does he tell us to do?
First Peter tells us to recognize that our life as Christ’s followers in this world will bring with it suffering and persecution (see 1 Peter 1:6; 3:13; 4:4,12). Many of us want to make peace with the world because otherwise we face inconvenience, ridicule, hostility. Peter tells us (as Jesus did) that mocking and opposition come as a part of the package. Accept it.
Second, he tells us to avoid the ways of thinking and acting that are so prevalent in the world, but are unacceptable to God: “Be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15).
We are called to live respectfully in all our relationships with others, relating to them out of love in spite of the fact that they ridicule or abuse us, so that they might, through our manner of life and through our testimony to Christ, be brought to a recognition of God (see 1 Peter 2:12, 15, 16). In this way, we are living as Christ lived, who suffered the rejection and persecution of men in order to be their savior (see 1 Peter 2:4; 2:21-25; 3:17; 4:1).
This can all be put very simply. Christ suffered
rejection, and death because he believed and obeyed his
Father. Yet he
did not curse those who opposed him.
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