“ If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth[d] so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply[e]from the heart.[f] You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” I Peter 1: 17-23 (NRSV)
It’s amazing that Peter would address us with the word, “exile.” Some translations use the word, “sojourn,” or “pilgrimage” or “journey.” But I prefer the word, “exile.” For one thing, Peter uses that same word with that same meaning several other times in this same letter.
Which is odd when you consider that his audience was mostly Gentile, and native to the place where they lived when they got his letter. Peter calling himself an exile would make some sense. He was Jewish. At the time most Jews considered themselves to be still in exile even though many of them had returned from Babylon to Israel. Many of our Jewish friends still consider themselves as something like exiles in the world until the Messiah comes. They are exiles in two ways: 1) is that they have here no safe homeland where they are completely secure and in charge, not even in modern day Israel. But 2 secondly, their values, beliefs, identity and their God are so foreign and alien to the wider world.
By using that word for his Gentile disciples, Peter is effectively inviting and including his Gentile converts and disciples into Israel’s exile status, because they share Israel’s God, faith, values and identity through faith in Christ Jesus. And because this world, as it currently runs, is not entirely safe, secure, friendly world for them. That makes us exiles, too, if we share Peter’s gospel and his faith in Christ. We become then exiles in same two senses.
This past week a group of us exiles for Christ got to meet other exiles who know more deeply and feel more strongly this exile in both senses of the word than I usually do. These were people exiled from their homes by political corruption and oppression, by grinding poverty, by gangs operating with money and guns coming from this side of the border. I learned this week how the things crossing the US and Mexican border from my country into theirs are at least as scary as the scariest things that come into this country from the other side, mainly drugs, and yes, some thugs. This country, like every other, has legitimate rights and reasons to protect its citizens from things like drugs and thugs. But that is not the nature of any of the migrants we met this past week. They are simply looking for the same things most of our ancestors came looking for here. Most of them were also exiles for reasons of Peter’s alien, exile faith that we share. Otherwise, they could have stayed and accepted the rule of drugs and thugs, even cooperated and profited from it. They are not that different from Peter’s fellow exiles in the First Century. Reading the whole letter one sees that Peter’s disciples were mostly slaves and other lowly, relatively powerless people who lived at the mercy of more powerful people who held them and their faith, their values, and their Lord in contempt. Their hostile, contemptuous overlords were like the drug lords or land owners who terrorized the migrants into leaving their homes, or the government officials and enforcement officers who abuse migrants on both sides of the border.
In this, our time of exile, Peter tells us to conduct ourselves with fear. Which also seems strange. The exiles we met already know much fear, even a constant, grinding, unrelenting terror. Not only the terror that drove them from their homes, whether of gang lords or hunger, but the terror they felt on the journey. Like that recounted by one woman who, like so many other migrants, rode “The Beast.” The Beast is their name for the freight train that many migrants ride on top of to get to the US border. It is terrifying to get onto the train as it moves. It is terrifying to stay on the train and stay awake, and not fall asleep and so fall off. It is terrifying, the threat of kidnapping by human traffickers, or capture and imprisonment and mistreatment by police.
But such is not the fear which Peter recommends to us. Various translations say holy fear, or reverent fear, or awe and wonder. It is not the fear of what God might do to us if we misbehave, for “perfect love casts out [such] fear,” says St. John. What Peter recommends is the fear of what we might do to God, or rather, what we might do to our relationship with God, and to every good and godly blessing in this world that is sacred, beautiful, tender, and, vulnerable to our abuse or neglect. At the top of this list of these fragile, sacred gifts that we should fear abusing and neglecting would be God’s image bearers, people.
Which people? Peter tells us that God judges impartially. So we are not at liberty to honor and cherish some people as God’s image bearers over others, especially not by nationality, not if we are all exiles in any sense of the word. Poverty, fear and trauma, such as what many migrants have lived with, can make us hard, cold, bitter and brutal toward God’s human image bearers. And that has led some of Latin America’s exiles into gangs and the drug trade. I’m glad that there is a Border Control agency to protect us against the thugs who try to take advantage of borders. But every country raises enough of its own thugs so that foreign thugs are not our scariest problem. As a wealthy, privileged, relatively secure US citizen, however, I have more to fear from the things within the border of my own skin that would lead me to neglect and abuse God, my relationship with God, and God’s human image bearers: the temptations I face toward indifference, a sense of entitlement, of superiority, of self -sufficiency and independence, which would make my heart cold and hard toward God and others. Those are the things which Peter means for us to fear in the time of our exile.
Stories I heard about abuse, corruption, oppression and violence on both sides of the border tell me how easily indifference and entitlement can turn into active violence. Or how easily my indifference and sense of entitlement can be taken as a green light by others to abuse, violate and oppress others. As our guide, Jack Knox, told us, the opposite of violence is not nonviolence; the opposite of violence is hospitality.
No, I don’t want to idealize the poor and poverty and condemn the wealthy just because of their incomes. But I experienced again the truth of what St. James says about the faith of the poor, how strong and rich it so often is, perhaps because entitlement, self reliance and independence are just not options for them. And any preoccupations with status, schedules, and keeping up with the Joneses are beyond pointless for them. One recently deported migrant reminded me of how money can buy us food, but it can’t buy flavor, nor the enjoyment of food. Money can buy us a house, but it can’t fill that house with love nor a family. Money can buy us transportation, but only God gives us anywhere worth going.
Where, then, can one feel really, truly, completely at home anymore, this side of the New Jerusalem? Maybe Jesus’ disciples are not supposed to. That is just not an option for any of us who would take to heart Peter’s words, to conduct ourselves with reverent fear in this, our time of exile. But don’t despair; that can be a very fruitful, even joyful way to live, as St. Peter’s exiles for Christ, for a reason expressed on a mural painted by a migrant who was deported back to Mexico, of someone who accompanied him as he rode The Beast toward the north, through Mexico, looking just for work or to reunite with family. It was Jesus, who told one person who would follow him, that he had nowhere to lay his head. Jesus is the presence and the person of God who accompanies us in our exile, here where we live, east of Eden, where the angel with the flaming sword still blocks the way back to innocence. But God has something better than our lost innocence in mind for the exiles who survive the journey in faith: glory, the glory of sharing Christ’s throne. We had better get used to the fact that we will share that throne with many of the people whom we are trying to keep out of this country, or who are even being deported from this country. God also has a better homeland in mind for all of us exiles, whatever language we speak, whatever our nationality: a new Zion populated by worshipers of the Lamb, from every tribe, tongue and nation (Rev. 7:9).