The Aliens Have Landed. A sermon for Trinity 11, 07.08.16 by Roberta Berke
“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth….” [Hebrews 11.14]
Some years ago, I was returning to London from the States with two British friends. When we reached passport control, my British friends thought it hilarious that I was forced to go through a separate gate marked: “Aliens”, They made jokes about Martians and creatures from outer space. Nowadays that gate at Customs and Immigration is labelled “Non-EU Passports.” After Brexit that gate may once again be marked “Aliens”, or “Johnny Foreigner”, or perhaps “Strangers and Sojourners”.
People in the Bible quite often described themselves as “aliens”, as “strangers and sojourners”. Abraham said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you.” [Genesis 23.4] Joseph told Pharaoh, “We have come to reside as aliens in the land”. [Gen. 47.9] Abraham and Joseph were nomadic herdsmen, literally “strangers and sojourners” in the places they were passing through. The word “alien” is used in a wider sense by the writer of Psalm 39, who asks God to hear his prayer: “For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forbearers.” [Psalm 39.12] We are only briefly passing though this mortal life, our stay on earth is transient, we are not here forever.
In the first century, when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, Christians were “aliens” because they were neither pagans nor Jews. As outsiders, they were viewed with suspicion. Therefore the writer of the First Letter of Peter warned Christians to conduct themselves honourably. “I urge you as aliens and exiles….” [I Peter 2.11] Today Christians are often viewed with suspicion, as aliens in a secular society. Recently a television interviewer was questioning why a certain candidate might not be suitable as a prime minister: “She has very strong views…She is a very committed Christian. Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be a drawback.” [Jon Snow on Channel 4 News 7pm, 7th July 2016, referring to Andrea Leadsom in an interview with Amber Rudd and Sir Bob Neill. channel4.com] In public life, the attitude is often, “We don’t do God.” Christians are often regarded as aliens, people who come from a different place, who live in a weird world of their own.
In many ways, Christians are aliens in contemporary society, because we try to live according to different values. For many people, money, success, and celebrity are all-important goals. Of course, Christians also strive for success and for wealth. But these material things are not our ultimate goals. We have a different perspective, a vision of a better life, an ideal of God’s kingdom. But is our ideal of God’s kingdom what that interviewer called “a drawback”? Does our vision of God’s heavenly city mean that we are detached from this world, that we neglect earthly concerns, or that we are contemptuous of worldly things? Christians have been accused of being “other worldly”, of being escapists who dream of “pie in the sky”.
No, Christians are not otherworldly escapists. At the very core of our faith is the incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh. God entered into the world He had created. Jesus was “found in human form.” [Philippians 2.7] Although Jesus said that his followers were not of this world, he said to His Father, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world.” [John 17.15] St. Paul wrote that “our citizenship is in heaven” [Philippians. 3.20]. At the same time he was adamant that he had been born a Roman citizen. He insisted that he be treated with all the rights and privileges due to him as a full Roman citizen. [Acts 22.26-29] St. Paul could write of mystical visions of heaven. [2 Corinthians. 12.2] Yet he was also practical enough to ask for a cloak that he had left behind. [2 Tim. 4.13]
Because we have a vision of a heavenly city, we work to make God’s kingdom come here on earth. Daily we pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians today cannot be condemned for being “otherworldly” escapists. Here at St. Mary’s we are engaged in social action on many fronts: youth work, the cold weather shelter, and debt counselling. Members of our congregation have taken donations to the refugees in the camp outside Calais. These refugees are “aliens” in Europe, strangers and sojourners. We are told, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were a stranger in Egypt.” [Deut. 10.19] Archbishop Justin and other Christian leaders have condemned the attacks on foreigners that occurred after the Brexit vote.
As Christians in this world, we must cope with everyday, practical matters. At the same time, we view this life from the perspective of our faith in God’s heavenly world. We try to find a balance between temporal concerns and eternal hopes. One of the collects asks God to be our ruler and guide, in order that, “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” [Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Trinity 4]
For the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, although the patriarchs were aliens, “strangers and sojourners”, their travels were not haphazard wanderings. They journeyed with a purpose, they journeyed towards their ultimate goal, the heavenly city of God. They travelled with faith in God’s promises, which enabled them to endure hardships. The Letter to the Hebrews gives many examples of those who journeyed with faith, those who followed God’s commands, such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The faith of these people empowered them to persist on their journey to God. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11.1] This statement is not so much a definition of faith, but a description of the strengthening power God generates in those who have faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
As Christians we are not merely aliens, but also pilgrims to God’s Heavenly City. “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” [Hebrews 13.14] The prime example of Christian life as a pilgrimage, as a journey to God, is Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan describes the many hazards and pitfalls along the Christian’s journey to the heavenly city. With the strength of faith we can persevere on this arduous road. Despite all our wanderings through this world as aliens, we have a lasting home in the City of God. St. Paul tells us, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” [Ephesians 2.19] The gates of God’s City are described as luminous pearls. [Revelation 21.21] In heaven there is no separate gate marked “Aliens”. AMEN.
Copyright © 2016 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.