Foreigners and Strangers

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Reflections on 1 Peter

 

Culture Shock

When people move from one culture to a new, very different culture there can be all sorts of painful, or at least amusing, misunderstandings…

A Christian author of a book for missionaries learning how to adapt to a new culture tells a story about a couple who went as missionaries to a certain part of Africa. At first the locals were friendly, but later they began to avoid the missionary couple. They tried to find out what had gone wrong and finally an old man told them, “When you came, we watched your strange ways. You brought in round tins and on the outside of some were pictures of beans. You opened them and inside were beans, and you ate them. On some were pictures of corn, and inside was corn, and you ate it. On the outside of some were pictures of meat, and inside was meat, and you ate it. When you had your baby, you brought tins and on the outside were pictures of babies. You opened them and fed the meat inside to your baby!”

Funny for us, and hopefully they could all laugh in retrospect, but you can see why this couple began to have a seriously hard time being accepted and fitting in to their new culture. Things you would never even imagine could be a problem can cause devastating confusion and offense…

Now many of us here at Chatswood Baptist know first-hand about this struggle to understand and adapt, living here in Sydney as first or second generation migrants from Asia or some other part of the world. There is a well-known set of infographics from a Chinese/German designer Yang Liu which draws attention to some of the key differences between Eastern and Western thinking and social norms. Now of course, they are stereotypes, and so they are oversimplifications and don’t apply to everyone in the same way. And yet, I think many of us here will have experienced these issues in one way or another…

Some are immediately obvious, like how we queue up for something, group dynamics at a party, or noise levels in a restaurant. These issues might not necessarily create confusion, but rather strike us as very obvious (and perhaps unwelcome!) differences from what you’re used to.

Some differences can be a little harder to appreciate at first, and can create misunderstandings. Perhaps you think you’re turning up ‘on time’, but to the other person you seem unreasonably late. Or from the other point of view, you’re waiting for someone for 20mins, then when they don’t turn up, they don’t even apologise! We don’t always appreciate we’re experiencing cultural difference, but instead apply our own cultural lens onto the other person’s behaviour and interpret it as rude or disrespectful.

I think one of the key differences, which can be missed at first, is how we go about expressing our opinion, or responding to a request. A second generation Chinese pastor here in Sydney named Peter Ko explains, “The West values directness and candour; the East values indirectness and subtlety.” He explains that the value of subtlety and indirectness in the East is connected with a deeply ingrained value of ‘saving face’. All social interactions should be concerned with saving face for both parties, and if that means saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’, or dropping a thousand subtle hints that ‘no, I would not like to do that’, then that’s what it takes. Whereas in the West, you’re actually being disrespectful or frustrating to say something you don’t really mean, or to hide it behind a wall of subtle hints. We have sayings like, “Don’t beat around the bush!” and “Spit it out!”. We want you to say what you mean and what you want, directly, immediately and simply. Of course there are ways to say this respectfully or disrespectfully, but it’s not a matter of directness.

This quite profound difference naturally works itself out in all sorts of other ways, such as how openly we express our anger or displeasure, or how we tackle problems. To Westerners it seems obvious that the problem must be dealt with head on or it’s not really dealt with, whilst Easterners can see just as easily that all you need to do is walk around it and the problem is gone!

 

As a migrant, whether from East to the West or the other way around, or wherever!, typically your long term aim is to adapt to the new culture – to become part of it. You don’t just want to learn about these differences, or the language or other aspects of the culture because it’s interesting. And it’s more than just wanting to ‘get along’ with people. If you’ve made Australia your home and you have no intensions of moving back to the country you grew up in, naturally you want to be accepted and fit in. You may not want to ‘cut ties’ completely with your country of origin, but you do want to feel at home in your new country. You don’t always want to be seen as a ‘foreigner’, someone who’s ‘not from here’. I’ve come to appreciate that this is a particularly painful reality for children of migrant families – being teased outright, or just subtly excluded because they are ‘different’.

However, as someone on holiday, or on a temporary working visa/contract, it is different isn’t it? You still want to understand the language and the social norms of your host country to be understood, to form relationships and to work together etc… but you are always conscious that you don’tin fact belong, that your home issomewhere else, and you are headed back there one day. You don’t want to be teased – that’s never fun – but you expect that you will stand out and that you’ll never quite be accepted as one of the locals. Hopefully you’ll be treated with respect, but it’s always as an ‘outsider’.

Now what I want us to appreciate today is that as Christians, as people who trust in and follow Jesus Christ, we need to accept that we are ‘not from here’. Whether we consider ourselves locals or migrants struggling to learn a new culture, we are all just ‘temporary residents’ in this world. We need to learn that our true home is somewhere else, that we don’t truly belong here. We have different values and norms that should and will shape our behaviour, and it will cause difficulties, conflicts and perhaps even forms of abuse and rejection. Our ultimate aim is not to ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’, but rather to live as faithful witnesses to our true home and hope.

The apostle Peter writes his first letter to a bunch of Christian communities around modern day Turkey, and the thing he wants to impress upon them most of all is who they are in Christ and to understand and appreciate the implications of their identity as they live out their lives as ‘strangers and aliens’ in this world.

So the first thing we’re going to focus on is what Peter reveals about our identity in the first few verses of the letter, and then three key ideas or implications that flow from our identity: we need to knowour true ‘home’, we need to embraceour calling to holiness amongst the nations (or ‘pagans’), and we should expectto stand out and suffer as a result.

 

Elect, Strangers & Scattered

So as I said, in the opening few verses, in his greeting, Peter actually makes some profound statements about our identity as Christians. In these few verses, he pretty much lays the foundation for everything he goes on to say in the letter.

He begins, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…”

Peter uses two key words to describe his recipients – elect and strangers. And it’s important to note that he describes them like this purely on the basis of knowing they are Christians – that is the extent of his relationship with them. Because you trust in Christ, Peter explains, I can say two fundamental things about you: you are God’s special, chosen people – you belong to him and have experienced his grace; and secondly, as a result, you are strangers in this world – mere temporary residents. The first word describes their relationship to God – they are his elect people, chosen by his grace to belong to him. And the second describes their relationship to the world around them, which flows from their relationship to God, they are strangers, or temporary residents in a foreign land.

Now these people in reality would have mostly been locals in the places they lived – the places where Peter wrote to them. They had likely grown up in Pontus and Galatia and so on, speaking the language, knowing and breathing the customs and religious practices as their own – eating the famous ‘pork pies of Pontus’ for lunch every Saturday (that’s not really a thing btw). They would have been what the Bible calls ‘gentiles’ in contrast to ‘Jews’. But Peter does something odd. He describes them as ‘scattered’ amongst these nations. And the word he uses, ‘diaspora’ in the Greek, is a word used in the OT to describe the Jewish people scattered amongst the nations – exiled from their home in Jerusalem. And Peter goes on again and again to describe his readers in very Jewish terminology. He’s saying that they now have a new identity – they have been joined into the story of God’s people – they arethe people of God. As one commentator writes, ‘The addressees are “strangers” not by race, birth, or circumstances but because divine election has “estranged” them.’ They might have grown up in Pontus (eating the pies), they might think of themselves as locals, but no, they are the people of God, scattered amongst the nations, waiting to be gathered in to their true home, the new Jerusalem in heaven.

 

And Peter then goes on to fill out this identity a little more – to explain how it rests in the gracious activity and purposes of the triune God – Father, Spirit and Son.

He explains that their ‘election’ and their ‘strangeness’ is because God the Father has chosen them, the Spirit has set them apart as holy, and they have been purposed a new life of obedience, washed clean by the blood of Jesus. Peter explains he is writing to those ‘who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.’

At home we’ve got one of those cordless Dyson stick vacuum cleaners. Now, if you’ve ever tried to empty the tiny dust chamber of one of these into the bin, you’ll know that it doesn’t really work. Not by itself. You press down the button, and the bottom cover flops down, and that’s pretty much all that happens. All the dust and hair and gross stuff just clings around the filter, stuck in the chamber.

So you’ve got a few options. You can bash the whole thing against the top of the bin a few times, hoping the dislodge the dust, maybe thumping the side of the chamber while you do it. This doesn’t usually work very well, and you feel like you’re about to break your overly expensive vacuum cleaner too. Secondly, you can stick your finger up into the chamber and trying to pull out the dust and gunk… but not only does this not work very well, you wonder why you used the vacuum cleaner in the first place. It’s gross! Or finally, you can take the sensible option and use a thin stick of some sort to dislodge the dust and drag it out into the bin. This is of course what I (usually) do.

And early on, I chose, sanctifiedand purposeda particular kabab skewer for this very job. It lives on the bench above the bin, nice and handy to fulfil its new-found purpose – one that I’m sure is quite different from what the manufacturers ever planned. Ichosethis particular skewer. There was nothing special about it. It didn’t have ‘dust removal skewer’ written in tiny font along its side. I chose it according to my own will. And then I set it apart from all the other skewers. I didn’t want it getting mixed up with the other ones. This one is special, and everyone in the house needs to know this skewer is set apart as the ‘dust skewer’. That’s what it means to be sanctified or made holy. It’s to be set apart as different for a purpose.

And it’s exactly the same with you – and, of course, the total opposite. If you are a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, then Peter says you have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Not because of anything special or impressive about you, but because God determined ahead of time to graciously bring you into his family. And this election, this gracious choosing, has worked itself out in your life as the Spirit of God has worked in your heart and mind to bring you to repentance and faith in Christ. The Spirit of God has sanctified you – marking you out as different, as one who belongs to God and destined for a particular purpose. And that purpose Peter explains is a new life of forgiveness and obedience – a life of fellowship with God, being cleansed from your sin and having determined to live for righteousness. Not exactly the same as a dust removal skewer, but kind of similar…

So Peter writes to the Christians in Pontus, Galatia etc… and through him, God writes to us – to Christians in all times and places, helping us understand just who we are. We are God’s elect people, chosen to belong to him, and regardless of where we live and what our ethnicity is, we are set apart from those around us,holy, so that we are in fact strangers, temporary residents, purposed for a different kind of life and destined for a different home. And now in the rest of the letter, Peter goes on to explain further what this is going to mean for us – what the implications of our identity are. We need to know and remember our true home, we need to embrace our calling to obedience, and we need to expect to stand out as different – to suffer even.

 

Know your true home

So first up, particularly in verses 3-12 of chapter 1, Peter directs our attention to our great hope as Christians – our true home, our ‘family inheritance’ in heaven. He wants us to know where we belong. So he breaks out in praise from verse 3, ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he 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—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.’

Your new identity as a Christian means you now live in the very real hope of an incredible inheritance. Through the resurrection of Jesus, and through faith in him, you’ve been given new birth into God’s family. The resurrected Lord Jesus, seated with God in heaven, is living testimony of your future, your home, your hope. Your true home is a glorious future in God’s Kingdom that cannot be ruined or taken away like our earthly inheritance.

The Mentor is a new show that has started airing this year on Channel 7, staring a self-made multi-millionaire named Mark Bouris. The idea of the show is that Mark works with struggling small business owners to show them what’s going wrong and redeem their business. We’ve only seen the first 15 minutes or so of one episode (then our timer record from MKR ran out!), and this episode focused on a family real estate business in the suburbs just north of Brisbane. As the family was introducing themselves, and the mother in particular was talking about their situation, she explained that her and her husband had never expected to be running this real estate business. In fact, they had already retired in the early 2000’s. They had been extremely successful earlier in life, made millions and retired early. And then the global financial crisis struck and they lost almost everything. All their retirement fund, all their children’s ‘inheritance’… gone pretty much overnight.

Worldly inheritance is nothing to hope in. We find that hard to believe, and so we strive and strive to secure it. We do this because we keep thinking of this world as our home. We think our life, our identity, our future is bound up in the life we establish for ourselves and our children here and now. But that’s simply not true. Our home is in heaven. It is our salvation waiting to be revealed on the last day. And unlike the wealth and possessions of this world, it can never perish, spoil or fade. This is a hope that can produce joy even in the midst of suffering and frustration – a hope and joy that is not based on our circumstances, but on God’s grace in Christ.

That’s why it’s so important that we knowour true home. Knowing the hope we have, and knowing where we really belong enables us to experience a certain kind of peace and joy regardless of our circumstances – even in the face of suffering and persecution. In verses 6 and 7, Peter talks about this joy we experience through our hope in Christ even though we may have had to suffer all kinds of trials here and now. In fact, he points out that these sufferings and trials actually have a positive effect for those of us who know where we belong – they refine and prove the substance of our hope and faith in Christ. As we make difficult decisions to keep following Jesus, we confirm our identity and faith over and over again. Frustrations and suffering just reminds us that our ultimate happiness and comfort is not here and now.

And so Peter urges his readers, down in verse 13, given who we are and where we belong, to ‘prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ We need to know our true home. We are to set our hope, our focus and attention, fully on the grace to be given on that day when Jesus is revealed. Our life, our future, is bound up in him and his kingdom, not in this world and the things of this world. So don’t get caught up in the stuff of this world, says Peter. Don’t get distracted or think you’ve arrived at your destination. ‘Gird up the loins of your mind’ as the old KJV states. Just like the Israelites were told to ‘gather up their garments’ as they ate the passover and be ready to flee out of Egypt, knowing they belonged somewhere else, so we are to approach life with the same attitude. God’s chosen people, strangers in this world, know where their true home is.

 

Embrace your calling to holiness

Secondly, as God’s chosen people we are to embrace our calling to holiness amongst the nations. Immediately after Peter urges us to prepare our minds for action and set our hope on the grace to be given us, he explains in verse 14, ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”’

Our new identity as God’s chosen people, set apart by the Spirit, comes with an inherent purpose – to embrace the holiness, the goodness and purity – the differentness– of the God who has chosen us. It is no longer appropriate to simply conform to the patterns of behaviour of the world around us – to just do what we feel is best. No, says Peter, that’s the life you lived when you didn’t know better. You are called to be holy in all you do, just like the God you belong to. You are to pattern your life, your decisions, your priorities after him, not after your neighbours, friends and colleagues.

The key is to remember that this is about living out our identity in Christ. ‘As obedient children, do not conform to evil desires…’ says Peter. And down in verse 22, ‘Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth(that is, believing in the gospel)… love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again…’ And again at the beginning of chapter 2, nowthat you have tasted that the Lord is good, and asthose who have been born again, ‘therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.’ The truth of who we are, the grace we’ve experienced, the relationship we have with God… these things compela particular kind of life – a life of holiness – in the various places and spheres we live out our lives.

A Christian who ignores their calling to a life of godliness, holiness and love is like a Christian who ignores that their true home is heaven. They’ve forgotten, or perhaps never realised who they are – what their life is for and where it’s headed.

Every day you are faced with opportunities to either embrace or reject this calling aren’t you? Opportunities to speak the truth, when obscuring things to make yourself look better seems like a very tempting option. Opportunities to sit patiently with someone and really listen to them, when you have things to do yourself. Times when you really want to vent about a particular person behind their back to make yourself feel better, but you know you should simply speak to them directly. Peter urges us to rid ourselves of all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind. That is not who we are. We are to crave pure spiritual milk – to embrace the life of Christ, his ways, his thoughts, and to grow up in him. God’s chosen people embrace their calling to holiness amongst the nations.

 

Expect to stand out and suffer

And finally, really as a consequence of the first two points, we should expect to stand out as Christians in this world. Because our true home is heaven, we don’t really belong here – and that will show. Because we are called to a holy life, by very definition, we will, or should, stand out as different. As I explained earlier, we need to appreciate that life as a Christian is like taking on the identity of a foreigner, someone ‘not from here’, even in your own home country.

We recently visited Broken Hill, a largish country town almost on the border of NSW and South Australia, created and sustained through the mining industry. It’s a VERY long drive, but worth seeing one day. We went there because an old friend was getting married. After the wedding I was talking to the pastor or the church our friend attends, and he explained that there are basically two types of people in Broken Hill; you’re either ‘from here’, or ‘from away’. And to be ‘from here’, you pretty much need to be 3rdgeneration. Doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. If you’re ‘from away’, then you’re probably going to go away again one day. He explained that if you’re from away, maybe you move to town as a doctor or a teacher, and you join the local footy club, the locals will befriend you to a certain extent and treat you with respect, but the friendship will never go too deep. Because they know that no matter what you say, one day you will leave them, just like all the other people ‘from away’. Broken Hill is just too far away to stay if you’ve got family ties to other places.

We need to appreciate that we are ‘from away’. Sometimes it will hurt, and we will desperately want to be ‘from here’. But we aren’t. Churches are supposed to be a certain kind of community – a community of people not quite at home in their neighbourhoods and cities. Not because they’re notinterested in getting to know people. Not because they’re jerks and they can’t make friends. Not even because they struggle with the language or don’t get the jokes. We’re not quite at home because we are ‘from away’; we’re always conscious that we’re just here temporarily, and we’re looking forward to going home. As much as we want to form deep friendships and throw ourselves into culture, work and family, we have beliefs, values and priorities from our ‘home country’ that we are unwilling to let go of – ways of thinking and behaving that will sometimes seem strange and out of place to those around us.

 

In Chapter 4, where Peter is urging his readers to put away the sinful practices of their past lives for good, he acknowledges that this will likely bring scrutiny and criticism from those around us. ‘For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.’

You know what it’s like. If your friends notice you look away from a pornographic image passed around amongst the group rather than take a look and make a joke like everyone else, you’re seen as a prude and uptight. You’re the ‘boring’ one who doesn’t get drunk and really let loose like everyone else at the office Christmas party. You don’t have as many outfits as your friends, or the same branded stuff, because you and your family have made decisions about money that are very different to your friends.

 

And of course, there’s those beliefs and opinions that you’re just not allowed to have anymore. It’s not exactly a surprise, but the general response over the past few weeks to Israel Folau’s comments on Instagram about gay people has very clearly underlined what our culture deems to be acceptable public opinion. In case you somehow haven’t heard, Israel Folau, who’s pretty much the best rugby player in Australia, was asked by a random person what he thinks God’s plan is for gay people. Israel replied, “Hell, unless they repent of their sin.” Now I wish he had paused and thought through his response a little longer. I would hope that anyone here would see that there’s a lot more to say on the topic, and a much more sensitive starting point. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much else you say and how sensitively you say it, because if you even hint that homosexuality is not an appropriate way of life, or worse, that you would go to hellfor such behavior… you’re going down. I mean, he just combined the two most hated aspects of Christianity in the eyes of the Western world in one short sentence! Belief in hell is ridiculous and offensive, and belief that homosexuality is not ok is just plain dangerous. This has been a nightmare for the executives of Rugby Australia as they desperately try to hold onto both their star player and their corporate sponsors. Christians who embrace their calling to holiness will stand out. We should expect to stand out and to experience conflict.

 

But in the end, the goal is not to just endure being rejected for being ‘different’… The hope is that as we stand out as holy – as different – in this world, we will ultimately direct people to the God we worship. In chapter 2, verses 11 and 12, Peter exhorts us, ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

Peter is optimistic that as we abstain from sinful desires, even though our ‘strangeness’ might inspire ridicule, we will live such good lives of love and purity that we will ultimately provoke others to repentance and faith in the message we hold out. We expectto stand out as different, as ‘foreigners and temporary residents’ in this world – but the hopeis to win people over and bring them with us.

 

Belonging & not-belonging together

I don’t know whether you feel like you fit in here in Chatswood, Sydney. Maybe you’re migrated recently and you’re trying to get your head around the culture and the language. Maybe you’ve grown up in Australia with a Caucasian background, but now you find yourself feeling a little like an outsider in this part of the world. Maybe you feel perfectly at home, or maybe you feel split between the two.

In the end it doesn’t matter all that much, because together as a church we want to encourage each other in the fact that we don’t really belong here, our home is in heaven. We want to encourage each other that we have a calling to live distinctly holy lives, and that we should expect to stand out – to not quite belong in this world. Each and every one of us who calls on the name of Jesus as Lord and Saviour is a foreigner and stranger, no matter where we are, because we are God’s chosen people and we belong to him, not to this world.