Friday, June 24, 2016

A word to exiles - respond with faith to the EU referendum

Today Great Britain has embarked on an uncertain journey, following the referendum on whether we should remain a part of the European Union.

Months of sharply divisive campaigning has revealed itself in a result that is far from resounding with 52% voting to leave, and 48% to remain. There are people in our neighbourhoods and churches who are struggling to make sense of the enormity of the decision, and as I write this our Prime Minister has just resigned, the Governor of the Bank of England has issued an emergency statement and our finance markets are in turmoil.

How should those of us who follow Jesus respond to these events? Is there anything for us to do other than pull up our drawbridges and try and ride out the coming storms? Whether we voted to remain or leave, is there some shared action or attitude that will help in this time of questioning and uncertainty?

I want to offer a few thoughts as someone who is first of all a pastor. My concern is to help church members navigate this different terrain we find ourselves in as faithful followers of Jesus.

I've used the idea of journey and shifting terrain, and I do that on purpose, as I think it's a really helpful way of understanding something important about our identity. The Apostle Peter, writing a letter that's included in the Bible, addresses his readers this way:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,  who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:1-2)

Part of what it meant then to be a follower of Jesus was to be an exile - a person who is not living in the place of their nationality, their own nation state. For Peter's first readers this was often because the persecution that had arisen because of their faith meant that had to flee from home. 

But in a deeper sense, all of us who follow Jesus are exiles in this world. Whereas before the time of Jesus, God's dealings with humanity had been done primarily with a particular nation-state - Israel -  after Jesus all of humanity is potentially the people of God, with no need to become part of a particular nation. So, in Jesus all who follow, from wherever they are in the world, are on a different journey, and have a different sense of belonging. Yes, legally we might have nationality in a place (GB for me), but we are also citizens of Heaven, a place we haven't got to yet, but a place where our real belonging is.

The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews tells a number of stories of great heroes of faith, and then includes this reflection:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Exiles we are then, looking for a new home, travelling through this world trying to be faithful followers.

So, what word to exiles might encourage us, give us hope and direction right now, on this day when our nation faces an unsure future, and when deep divisions between old and young, poor and rich, native and foreigner have been so sharply revealed?

God's people have often been exiles, and in the Old Testament we see what happened on many occasions when they were divorced from the land they had called their own. So, what did they do? Did they sit and pray, or look longingly back to the place they remembered? Did God call them to resist the exile? 

The prophet Jeremiah wrote much that has become very familiar to us, including the passage in Jeremiah 29 where he speaks for God saying "I know the plans I have for you..." But earlier in that passage God gives instructions on what it means to stay faithful to Him in a time of exile:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

So, in that list of getting on with things, engaging with culture not withdrawing from it, we see an instruction to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where we exiles find ourselves, and to pray for it. 

Two things for us to be doing then. 

Prayer seems fairly straightforward for us, bringing to God our concerns for the place we are, listening to God for His guidance on how to pray and act. 

But more than praying, we're to seek peace and prosperity. We're to be those who look for the embers of peace and fan them into flame. We are called to find the people of peace and co-operate with them. It is for God's exiles to do what they can to see prosperity - which means dealing with issues that hold people in worklessness, and using our resources where we can to bless our locality. 

Right now, when there is a rise in far-right ideologies in our continent, and where an ugly strand of racism ran through parts of the referendum campaign, we need to be those who work for the peace and prosperity of those who are economically marginalised, or are strangers amongst us, as refugees and asylum seekers, or as those for whom immigration was a better or safer option of a bright future.

Again, in the Old Testament, Moses speaks to the people of God and reminds them:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.  And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. (Deuteronomy 10:18-20)

At a time when there's a real temptation for our nation to close borders, and to concentrate on a narrow and self-interested agenda, we, the followers of Jesus, must be those who ensure that the new Britain that emerges should be a generous one, an outward-focussed one, playing our part in caring for the whole world, not merely our own bank balances.

So, it's a word to exiles, that's all of us who haven't reached heaven yet. It's a call to pray, but more than that a call to act, a call to seek, and a call to build a peace-filled and prosperous nation.

In the middle of all the questions that are to come, I encourage you to find your identity in Jesus, not in nation, and your purpose in service, not self-interest.

Grace and peace

A 10 minute video version of this is available here: