Remembrance Day for Aliens and Strangers

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Briercrest College Chapel November 9, 2015
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17

It’s September 14, 1938, and my father is on ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s his 9th birthday (he remembers getting a whole orange to himself!) and he is with his family—his father and mother, his grandfather, and 8 other siblings, and thepoppyy are headed to Canada, leaving their homeland of Poland behind. Rumours of war have been brewing in Poland, and their pastor has encouraged the Guretzki clan to leave for their well-being. Why? That has never been made clear to me, but it may be because the name Guretzki was a common Jewish name, and you only need to be scarcely aware of some of things happening during that time that might suggest the need either to lay low or leave. Indeed, just a few weeks after my father’s family arrived in Canada, on Nov 9, 1938—77 years ago on this very day—that Hitler’s so-called Storm Troopers attack and destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and houses of worship. The terror, Kristalnacht—The Night of Broken Glass—would result in dozens of Jewish deaths, and the arrest of tens of thousands of other Jews who were sent to concentration camps, many of whom never returned home. By God’s providential mercy, my father’s family—the family with the Jewish sounding name—were spared.

But things were far from rosy in the dilapidated farm house north of Edmonton where my father’s family settled after the long journey from Poland. The winter that year was brutal. Water left in a pail in the house would be frozen solid by morning. There was no social assistance, and the family survived on potatoes and cabbages given to them by the folks from the local Pentecostal church. My grandparents wondered if they’d made a mistake in coming. Then on Feb 14, 1939, just months after arriving in Canada, my grandfather fell sick. He was rushed to hospital 40 miles away, which turned into a nightmarish journey because the car kept breaking down along the way in the sub -40 below zero temperatures that day.  That night Grandpa died, leaving behind his young widow and family. Say what we want about Christian hope of the resurrection, but I can’t imagine Grandma took easy comfort that Valentine’s Day. For her, Feb 14 must have ever after been a perpetual reminder of the horrible day she and 9 kids under 14 were left alone, aliens and strangers in a strange new world.

Dan asked me some time ago to provide some reflections on a Christian perspective on Remembrance Day which we will observe this week, so you’ll forgive me if this bit of my own family’s life history may not seem immediately to relate. I hope it eventually will. As far as  Remembrance Day goes, my family hasn’t been involved much in the military. My Dad was too young to serve in the military, and few in my extended family have served. I have two uncles who served, but frankly, I know little of their story. One I didn’t even know and one I visited maybe twice in my life, and all I know of him is that later in his life, the war memories haunted him to his dying days. So I can’t really speak from the perspective of one affected directly.

When I began preparing for today, I start where I usually start: In search of a text. As I prayed, I landed on 1 Peter 2, which we have just heard read. Turn with me again to this text and let me point you first to vss. 13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Sure, it would be easy, and indeed, right, to tell you that Remembrance Day, for the Christian, is one day when we should stop momentarily, remind ourselves and one another, that much of what we enjoy today—the freedoms to worship, to move around freely, even to attend a theological school—were won and protected by the blood and scars of many before, especially in those instances in the past when we went to war to fight an evil that seemed to be so clearly Evil, and when the Just cause seemed to be self-evidently Just. My father’s family didn’t know it in their immediate tragic situation, but eventually would see the blessing of having escaped the ravages of the war in Poland. And eventually enjoying the blessings of living in a country like Canada, despite their initial hardships.

And so, I must not fail to exhort you today to obey what Peter by the Spirit has commanded us: Honor the authorities, honor the king. And do this by honoring the ones sent, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, to do the king’s bidding. We don’t have to agree on our theology of war or Christian involvement in the military to do this very thing. It is significantly different to honor the king than to agree with the king. Indeed, I can’t imagine Peter agreeing with the King of his day, especially since it was possibly Domitian (Dom-ish-an) who was the Emperor at the time and who opposed all who denied his divinity. But Peter—and Paul in Rom 13—both say: Submit to the authorities and give honor where honor is due. And so on this Remembrance Day, do what you can to honor those who have served, even when those “in charge” have sometimes acted against our own theological convictions. You may attend a Remembrance Day service, or wear a poppy, or not. Or you may say a pray for those who are serving now and those who have served, and especially for those injured in body, mind, and spirit in the midst of their service. You don’t have to agree with individual’s decision to join the services. You don’t have to agree with the all the reasons we have gone to war. But at the very least, a basic sense of common honor should keep us from scorning those who have and do serve in this way.

But if that were all I had to say, I think you should be disappointed. I don’t give the preceding advice tritely, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Virtually anyone of any religious or political stripe should be able provide some level of civil honor. You don’t have to be Christian to be civil. But is that all that Peter is saying to us in this text?

As I studied the text more carefully, it was “context” that finally nailed it for me. You know, that fundamental rule of hermeneutics: always read a passage in its context. So as I reflected on Peter’s imperative to submit to authorities, I looked at the larger context. Unfortunately, in lots of Bibles there is a break between vs. 12 and 13, as there is in my NIV. But that break causes us to miss something vitally important, and that is that the way in which we submit to the authorities and honor the king depends in large part in first understanding who it is that we are. Let me explain.

Jump back to v. 9-10. There we discover we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. We also discover that once we weren’t a people but now we are the people of God. Such royal language! We should be proud—and indeed, we can be proud in the Lord. But then Peter does something unexpected in vs. 11. It as if he says, given all that you are, do not be surprised by what I am about to tell you: You are out of your element! Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war [or as some translations put it, “wage war”] against your soul.” Here Peter, under the Spirit’s inspiration, reminds us that though we are a royal chosen people, we are nevertheless aliens and strangers in this world.

I guess when I first read that, I came to realize that really and truly, I don’t have much clue of what it must be like to be an alien and stranger, but as I recalled the stories from my father’s family—of their feelings of alienation and insecurity both in their homeland and in the land to which they have come—that I got maybe just a tiny glimpse of what it means to be an alien in our own world. Maybe there some of you here who can indeed relate firsthand to what Peter says, either now or at some time in your life. You know what it feels like to be the alien and stranger. We could learn a lot from you, I’m sure. But I also know that really, probably most of us really don’t “get it.”

Here’s the thing: Whether you can relate to the experience of being a “foreigner in a foreign land” or not, Peter here reminds us that regardless of the presence or absence of a feeling of alienation, the fact is that we, that strange band of Christ followers called the Church, are indeed aliens and strangers. As followers of the Stone rejected by men (v. 4), we should, therefore, not be surprised to be rejected also by the world.

But something really unfortunate has happened: Christ’s followers, us, have at times become so comfortable in this world that we have forgotten how unlike the world we are. We have forgotten that we really do not fit into the expectations and patterns of this world. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical state of being strangers and aliens who have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers! As my dad’s family struggled to find their place, I can’t imagine that they had to pinch themselves and say, “Oh yeah, we are strangers in this land!” They knew it and they lived it every day.

Now hold on to that thought for a moment, and let’s move on to the second thing that Peter points out in the second half of verse 11. Having reminded us that we are in fact aliens and strangers, Peter urges us: “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Some versions more accurately call these “fleshly desires”, but whatever they are, Peter makes clear how dangerous they are: they are waging war for your soul.

Notice how Peter combines two images: a sociological image—aliens and strangers—and a militaristic—of things waging war. And no doubt Peter combines these images for good reason. Even a semi-honest accounting of human history tells us that war, civil strife, and military action have caused more human alienation and suffering than anything else. Is this not what we are seeing in places like Syria even today?

Peter knows war damages stuff deeply. And not only stuff, but the people who engage in it and the people who involuntarily suffer under it. And yet, he also reminds: there are other things than war itself—things as hellish as war itself—that can and will do great damage to our very being.

At this point, we might cue up images of an ominous battle scene, the Orcs vs. the Dwarfs, Elven and Hobbits, complete with epic battle music! But that is not what happens. We might expect Peter (like Paul?) to say, “Now that you know these things are coming to destroy you, get ready to do battle with every piece of spiritual weaponry and bravado that you have!” But he doesn’t.

Instead he says: Abstain from these things. WHAT? Yes, you heard it. “Avoid those things.” Peter’s response is almost laughable. But indeed, that is all he says. Abstain from them. Simple measures for epic dangers.

Well, ok. But what are these things? Frankly, he doesn’t give us a list. He gives us no indications of what we should be on the look-out for. Why not? Maybe it’s because the things that seek to destroy us, that wage war against our souls, are self-evident when we see them. Sort of like seeing an Orc. You never have to wonder whether Orcs are of the friendly or unfriendly type. We just know they are there to destroy you. And there’s no second guessing the things that are waging war on our souls. Why not?

I think it’s because those of us who are living stones of God’s spiritual house (v. 5) already know full well what those Orcish, hellish, demonic desires are. Peter doesn’t tell us because the Spirit of God is fully capable and faithful of doing just that–in his time and in his way. Sure, we all need instruction of wise teachers and spiritual examples of godly living. But when it comes to the things that could destroy our soul, we already know what they are. We don’t need Peter, and you don’t need me and I don’t need you to tell me because God’s Spirit has already made it plain. You know it. I know it. That’s not the problem. By God’s Spirit you may even be able to name it right now. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t know it. The problem is that I simply don’t want to abstain from it.

And this is where the two images of v. 11 come together. You see, the problem is twofold: On the one hand, we have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers in this world; and on the other hand, we have gotten too comfortable and made false peace with those very things that are destructive to the souls of Christ’s followers. So what then shall we do? How do we show ourselves to be aliens in this world? How do we avoid being destroyed by these evil desires?

Peter gives us insight in v. 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong (as indeed, they will), they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” In other words, Peter says, Start living in this world as the aliens and strangers you already are. The world may not like it, and the world may not understand it, and the world may even accuse us of wrong doing. But know this one thing: One day, they will know what is right and that your citizenship is with God, and they will glorify God when Christ returns.

Well, where does that leave us when it comes to Remembrance Day? No, I haven’t forgotten about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about political theology? About pacifism and just war theory? About theories of political engagement? Certainly, those have their place, and those who know me know that I think these are critical issues to work through. But as I looked at this passage, I came to realize that these discussions are finally secondary to the fundamentals we’ve discussed this morning.  No matter your view on military service, 2 things are firm: 1) God’s people are strange, and 2) their strangeness is manifest in their refusal to make peace with the very things which are seeking to destroy us, AND that the things most trying to destroy us aren’t other peoples or nations. That doesn’t mean we don’t honor the King, but it does mean doing so in a way that refuses to allow our strangeness to be domesticated by the King’s demands.  I think this is implicit in the three things that Peter commands to us do in v. 17: Love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king.

1) First, love the brotherhood. Peter knows our Lord’s word: “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, by how you love one another.” It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: Our primary “love allegiance” is not to the mother or fatherland, not to the flag, and not to the King or Queen. Our primary allegiance is with the King of Kings, our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the Church over whom he is Head. Therefore, we remember well when we remember to love our brothers & sisters in the Lord. (IDOP yesterday). And yet, when it comes to a day like Remembrance day, it is tragically ironic how easy it has been for a Christian pacifist violently to denounce his brother or sister in the Lord for taking a just war stance. And it is equally tragic and ironic how easily a Christian just war theorist can unjustly denounce, and even punish, her or his brother and sister who conscientiously objects, even to the point of labelling them as traitors to the State. Our failure to love another in the midst of our theological differences about Christian participation or abstinence in the military is already to put the allegiance to the Flag or the Country ahead of our Spiritual Communion in Christ’s Church.

The failure to love is the first and most deadly danger to Christians which Remembrance Day presents. Whether our theology permits us to participate or not, may we not grieve Holy Spirit of peace by treating our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree as if they were the enemy. Practically, that means simple things like not turning your nose down at those who may wear a poppy though you may think you should not.  And vice versa. Or more positively, it might mean taking the time to sit down and listen to those with whom we disagree to get a better perspective. But whatever we do, me must do it with the recognition that we are CHRISTIANS—aliens & strangers—first, and Canadians (or Americans, or whatever) second, not the other way around.

2) Second, fear God. Notice that Peter puts Fear God before Honor the King?  Yet it is an unfortunate reality that so much of our present political climate is based on fear of each other (terrorists, immigrants, politicians, political parties, nation-states, etc.) rather than our fear of God. It is a sad state of affairs that we can so boldly pronounce our favor or disfavor for the State’s foreign policy, in its use of the military, and in its treatment of the foreigners and aliens in our midst, and yet be so timid in boldly pronouncing to one another against those things that battle for our very souls, and against the ways of God. It is, frankly, easier for us to condemn a political platform, or social or foreign policy, than to condemn the greed, laziness, gossip, rage, covetousness, overindulgence, prayerlessness, sexual immorality and plethora of other things that are killing our very souls. But let us recognize that our propensity to advocate for the things that make us safest and most security politically—even if there is nothing wrong to do so—is perhaps evidence that we more often speak and act out of our fear of people than out of fear of God our Father and Maker. On Remembrance Day, and on every other day, let’s not forget that all of us, kings and servants, prime ministers and citizens, men and women, rich and poor, will be called upon to give an account in the Last Day. And the question which we must soberly ask every day: Am I abstaining, even fleeing, from those desires that war against my soul?

3) Third, Honor the king. We do well to heed Peter’s words here. Peter doesn’t make the wrong assumption that fear of God means snubbing our noses at the King. On the contrary, being a follower of Jesus means acknowledging that all authorities in heaven and earth are under his domain. We do not have to dishonor lower case “k” kings in order to honor the upper case “K” King of Kings. But what we must remember is that it is only as children of the King of Heaven that we can honor the earthly kings and authorities. We do not honor God by honoring the king; we honor the king by first fearing the King.

So, on this coming Remembrance Day, let us never forget that first, we are aliens in a foreign world. We will be hated and challenged, whether at home or abroad, and so we should not be surprised when even in our observances of honor, we may be criticized because we haven’t fallen prostrate to the King, or we don’t jump on a militaristic bandwagon. Christians should be the first to realize that the State is Fallen, indeed, it often does evil things. Yet neither should we be armchair rebels and electronic revolutionaries who take potshots on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere at those who have given and served on behalf of their fellow citizens, sometimes even with their own blood. To do so is to exercise a strange form of Christian anarchism that thinks we can live under the authorities without submitting to them, as Peter says, for the Lord’s sake. Indeed, for the Lord’s sake and for his glory, let’s us pay honor to those who have served, to those who are serving, even while remembering that we do so as spiritual expatriates whose kingdom is from above and whose King shall live forever. Amen.

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