Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the World XIII

Aliens and strangers
Augustine writes movingly of the civitas Dei peregrina, the pilgrim City of God. By this, he refers to that society of people scattered among the nations on earth who love God more than self, who glory in him, rather than seeking their own glory, who confess Christ and yearn for home, finding themselves homeless wanderers in this world. Indeed, the Latin term peregrina, often translated 'pilgrim' might perhaps be better rendered 'resident alien' or 'sojourner'. It is a word closer to the experience of Tom Hanks in The Terminal than the merry pilgrim-cum-tourists of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

To confess Christ is to put yourself on the wrong side of those powers that crucified him, and so to find oneself misunderstood as a rebel. Misunderstood, because just as Christ was a prophet calling the nation back to its true identity, calling humanity back to its Creator, so those who take up their cross and follow him are doing so out of faithfulness to that Creator and thus in solidarity with the groaning creation.

And like the creation, those with the Spirit - the firstfruits of the future presence of God - yearn for the redemption of our bodies, for a transformed world where death is no more, where Christ's gracious kingdom is unopposed, where the riches of God's kindness are poured out with unspeakable joy. We long for the day when the oppressor is no more and the earth is inherited by the meek.

Because of this, we can never feel at home in a world where the rich devour the poor, where unborn strangers are turned back at the borders of life, where Christ is crowned with thorns and anointed with spittle. We are aliens, citizens of the civitas Dei peregrina.

But this is not because our home is elsewhere. It is elsewhen.

And so I wonder whether when Christians are called 'aliens and strangers', this is less like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, who pined for Zion and could not sing for grief, and more like Abraham. Abraham and his immediate descendents are repeatedly called 'aliens' and 'strangers' (Gen 17.8; 21.23, 34; 23.4; 26.3; 28.4; 37.1), though they are already living in the land that God had promised them. Though strangers, the land belongs to them by promise.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

- 1 Corinthians 3.21-23

Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
Ten points for guessing the country in the above pic.


boxthejack said...

Excellent stuff Byron - thanks for this. It's given me plenty to think about.

Anonymous said...

where unborn strangers are turned back at the borders of life...

Is this your own locution? It's brilliant!

Christian A said...

I find this stuff very exciting – thank you for sharing it. Being strangers and aliens in a land that is rightfully yours has a very different (tense/ironic/expectant/potentially explosive) feel to it than being strangers and aliens in a land that you’re waiting to get out of.

And I would have thought Israel not only experienced this first kind of alienation in Abraham’s time but also in Joshua’s time. In Joshua, the Israelites aren’t described as being “aliens and strangers” but they're everywhere described as standing on turf they’re due to inherit (e.g. 18:1-3). And “inheritance” is unambiguously an elsewhen not an elsewhere thing. Again, like in Abraham’s time, the land belongs to them by promise.

Forgive me if I’m only just latching onto something you explained long ago Byron….but surely this could be extremely helpful for understanding the Spirit in the context of Christian hope: in the minds of New Testament writers having the Holy Spirit amidst an un redeemed creation is like having the Abrahamic promise of inheritance in a an occupied land. For me this sheds new light on Ephesians 1:13-14….especially when you look at it in a more literal translation:

"13In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise,
14who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory."

Given the Joshua overtones, I don’t think it should be translated “promised Holy Spirit” – it should be “Holy Spirit of promise” (if this works in the Greek!), because it’s the pledge God is giving us before he brings the whole of creation we stand on into the glorious freedom of his children.

byron smith said...

Christian - yes, I guess there is also a similarity to Joshua's time, although one difference between the patriarchs and Joshua is that while Abraham was simply to trust and wait, Joshua was to trust and act, to seize the land by force. The only excuse Joshua and co. had for not inheriting the land immediately was their own fear or laziness. I don't think Christians are to violently seize anything! Unless you want to start talking about spiritual warfare, I guess.

As for 'Holy Spirit of promise', I certainly don't think the Greek rules that out. There are a number of passages linking Spirit and promise (Acts 2 springs to mind), and without looking at them, I think they all have a similar ambiguity. Is the Spirit the content of what was promised, or does the gift that is the Spirit itself promise more? I suspect both. This is why we have 'the first fruits of the Spirit' in Romans 8 - the Spirit is what was promised, but also points forwards to more of the same: more life, more love, more joy and peace. Of course, there are some aspects of the Spirit's work that will not roll over in any straightforward sense: the gifts of the Spirit (which will pass - 1 Cor 13); the groaning, etc.

PS Am I right to assume that this the Christian A that I know from Sydney Uni?

Mandy said...

Brain will only let me interat with simple things at teh moment. For the picture points is it Scotland?

byron smith said...

Mandy - good try, but no, not this time. Though we had been in Scotland that morning (the sun is setting in the photo).

David W. Congdon said...

Another great post, Byron. I am especially interested in the comparison/distinction between the Jewish exiles and Abraham. You might also use the comparison with the Israelites in captivity in Egypt.

On a tangent, how do you think an "elsewhen" perspective might benefit liberation theologians who generally rely on the Exodus and exilic narratives for their theology, not Abraham?

byron smith said...

You might also use the comparison with the Israelites in captivity in Egypt
True, through again that can have connotations of hoping to leave here and get to over there, rather than waiting for God to make here your home.

As for liberation theologians, I think an elsewhen perspective can help in two ways: (a) as I've been saying, it can change otherworldly yearning into a focus on the present conditions of oppression; changes a desire for escape to a desire for liberation. Merely breaking out of prison is a very different thing to being set free after a revolution, or after a pardon. And (b) while present anticipations of future hope are stirred up by the knowledge of Jesus as the coming one, an elsewhen perspective can help avoid identifying those present anticipations directly with the future hope. In Barth's language, it helps keep the great and little hopes distinct lest the former be reduced to a function of the latter. Another way of putting it is that helps avoid overrealised eschatology, or the utopian demand for such to be achieved now through our effort.

Do you have further thoughts on the question?

michael jensen said...

Ps 137: the great song about not singing...

Anthony Douglas said...

A post about people who live in one time, but exist in another, about a people who long to be satisfied, and a photo that shows a land that contains a 'west' - it can only be England, the land of eternal discontent...dare I say, in winter?

byron smith said...

Anthony - for that answer, fifteen points. Beautiful.

Anthony Douglas said...

Glad you liked it. I think Tolkien would have been proud of it too...