What is Church?

Resident Aliens


Readings: 1 Peter 2:4-12 and John 17:13-18


            We use the term “alien” in lots of different ways. For me, when I hear that word, the first thought I have is a little green man with an extra eye who lives on Mars or someplace more remote.  But we do not reserve the word “alien” just for little green men.  In fact, our government’s immigration branch defines an alien as “an individual who is not a US citizen or a US national” (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/international/article/0,,id=129236,00.html).  So, an alien can either be a little green man or a non-American…or, an alien can be a Christian. 

            Listen to how the dictionary defines alien (dictionary.com): “a resident born in or belonging to another country”

An alien is someone who lives in one places, but belongs to another, and that is exactly who were are as followers of Jesus Christ, and that is who the church is—a bunch of folks who live here, but we do not belong to this world’s way of doing things.  Jesus put it this way in the prayer that we read earlier from John 17 (14, 18):

the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…”  But then he goes on to say, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” 

We don’t belong to the world, but we belong here, because we have been sent here.  We are Resident Aliens: God’s people in a place that is usually not interested in following after God.  The church is to be a place where we aliens are reminded that we do not belong to this world, but instead we belong to God’s kingdom.  We do not live as this world lives focused on ourselves and our selfish desires.  Instead, we live as those who belong to the one who came to serve.  As such, the world around us should see us as a little bit strange—a little bit off—because we do not quite make sense to this world’s way of thinking!

We are, as Peter says, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet 2:9)

            The older translations use the phrase “a peculiar people” (e.g. KJV) in that verse, and I like that phrase a lot because it points out that God’s people look a bit peculiar to the world at times.  When you serve the one who came to die on a cross, you life is going to look different from those who are living to keep themselves as far away as possible from self-sacrifice.

            Now, Joy and I have had the opportunity to know what life feels like as aliens.  When we lived in India, there were no other non-Indians in our village, or the next one over, or the village after that.  We heard a rumor that there was another alien living in a town which was an hour away by bus—but he was never more than a rumor to us.  As a result of being the only aliens in our community, there were times that we struggled.  I doubt that I will ever forget the day a little girl mistook us for demons.  We approached her with a smile, but she ran away from us screaming because we were the first white people she had ever seen and Hindu legends teach kids that demons are white.  That was an alien experience.

            Another alien experience was eating rice and curry for three meals a day.  Now, I love rice and curry, and we eat it often even now, but curry for breakfast was too alien for me because, while I lived in India, I was not from there.  To be honest, there were days when the alien experiences were overwhelming—whether it was the piles of trash everywhere that we could smell before we saw them or the people urinating and defecating on the sides of the road, (which, unfortunately, we often had no waning about before we saw!) or the constant stares or people trying to rip us off in almost every shop we entered…sometimes being an alien was hard.  But, no matter how hard it was, we could not stop being aliens in that place.  There was no magical switch that we could throw and simply become Indian. 

The option that we did have was to leave that culture and enter a place where we were less alien, and, after a school-year’s worth of alien experiences, we did come home, but I cannot help but wonder, if we should feel more at home should we feel in American culture than we felt in Indian culture?  You see, we are still aliens here.  We are the people of God who are not going to fit in in any culture because we are called to a higher calling than any culture can offer.  We are called to live as Kingdom people and while living for the Kingdom of God will look different in Southside Virginia than it will in Mori, India, we will always be strangers and aliens—or at least we should be.

Look with me at the words we shared in our greeting from Hebrews 11 (13-16).  These words have always struck me as a powerful declaration of what it means to be the people of God.  Read with me beginning at the quote:

“All these died in faith without receiving the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 

But as it is, they desire a better country, a heavenly one.

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.”

Hebrews is telling us: You know what, if you really want to fit in, if you really want to have a homeland here in this broken world, if you really want to be a person of this world who is not peculiar, then go ahead, go back to that land that you know, that familiar way of living that is comfortable.  If your focus is on what you left behind, then you can have it back.  But, on the other hand, if you look at the world around you and you ache for something better, if you see life and you know that God has more for you and more for the people around you, if you live with a holy discontent that declares that all is not well with the world and if you say, “I am not ok with the way this world is,” then you are moving in the right direction.  You are in the place where God is not ashamed to be called your God; indeed, God has prepared a city for you.

            The Book of Hebrews goes on to remind us that Jesus himself was not just an alien, but he was despised and rejected and that he freely went where no one would choose to go.  Listen to this (13:11-16):

the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

            This is what it means to be church.  Church is not about building, or even singing or good sermons.  Church is about “going to Jesus outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”  Are we at Williams and Antioch interested in a lasting city right here in Lunenburg County or are we looking for something bigger?  Are we willing to be a peculiar people, a people who do not beong to this place, but nevertheless belong in this place because this is where God has placed us and sent us.  Do we recognize that it is this place, this corner of Southside Virginia that needs some Light from on High?  You know what God’s plan for bringing Light from on High is?  Look around.  It is the church.  The church is God’s plan for bringing light to this place.  That is why Jesus made it really clear in our reading from John that just as God the Father sent him into the world, so he is sending us into the world.  He declares in John 9 (:5) that as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world.  That is why Jesus was sent.  But do you know what else he tells us?  He also declares that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14).  Jesus is not longer physically in this world, but just as the Father sent him, so he is sending us.  So, if you think we need a little bit of light around us, if you think that hearing about people breaking into churches to steal the hardware sounds like we need some more light, you are probably right.  Look around.  This is the church.  You are the light of the world.  You are the people of God.  You are the ones who are called to bear that light.  When we hear that someone is breaking into church buildings and stealing, how do we bring light?  Bishop Myriel in the story Les Miserables found a powerful way to change a life and bring light through church candlesticks—what are we going to do?

As Peter says (2:9):

you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

This is the church. 

Once you (we) were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.

And that should change everything.  That should make us aliens.  Resident aliens, on a mission.

            One of the bits about these passages of scripture that we have before us that is striking to me is that these passages are not commands.  Peter is not telling us “you must be an alien.”  Jesus is not saying “you need to act like you don’t belong.”  Instead, they are simple statements of fact.  This is the way it is if we are truly God’s people.  As Jesus tells us in John 17, if we are following him, then we do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world (Jn 17:16).  We are aliens and exiles, because being a Jesus person transforms you from being self-centered to being a light-bearer.

            My point in this sermon and in this sermon series is not so much to try to get you to do anything, but instead, my hope is for us to better understand who we are as the church.  We are a watering hole for resident aliens.  We should not be surprised that the world does not look right, because we have eyes that are shaped by God’s heart.  We need to be committed to going out and bringing light.

That is the church.  We are the church.  Pray with me…