My friend Antony Billington of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) recently wrote a great piece about how we are supposed to be a blessing to the city we live in. This resonated deeply with me, and I hope it will with you, as Central seeks to be a church For The City.
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… 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.’
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage 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.
1 Peter 2:11-12
‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city’, Jeremiah tells God’s people. That wouldn’t be such a big surprise, except that the city in view is not Jerusalem, but Babylon. Babylon – which had ransacked Jerusalem, looted its temple, and carried away the cream of its population – pagan, idolatrous, God-defying Babylon. So, how should God’s people live when their postcode puts them in exile? Some resentment, surely, antagonism even?
Jeremiah urges them to establish their presence there, to get married, have children, build houses, plant gardens, grow produce, start businesses – and to do so for the sake of the place and the people where they find themselves. They still take their ultimate identity from Jerusalem – which remains their true home, and to which their descendants will one day return. Yet, through a combination of presence, public activity and prayer, something of that identity and hope is lived out in ‘foreign’ territory.
Although the time and situation are very different, Peter applies exilic language to his Christian readers spread across northern Turkey, who are both ‘God’s elect’ and ‘exiles scattered’ (1:1), called to live ‘as foreigners here in reverent fear’ (1:17). Neither abdicating from the culture nor absorbing into the culture, Peter’s direction for them is ‘to live… good lives among the pagans’ (2:12) – which he then applies to life in society, the workplace, and the home. It’s precisely in these arenas that his readers will be seen to follow a different pattern – the pattern of Christ, no less – where neighbours and colleagues and family members will be prompted to ask why they do so, even in the face of suffering.
It’s easy to overdo exile language, particularly when it becomes a way of talking about the decline of society away from Christian mores – even if the contemporary climate might make us more aware of our marginalised status.
Still, as one of the ways of understanding our identity as the people of God, the image suggests we are strangers and exiles in whatever culture we inhabit. For us too, where the temptation might be to dig in or give in, we’re called instead to seek and pray for the welfare of others. Living faithfully in exile is a way of affirming that the world is in safe hands, as we set our ‘hope on the grace to be brought to [us] when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming’ (1 Peter 1:13).