At Magdalen Road Church we have just begun a series looking at the book of 1 Peter. The relevance of the book for contemporary life is already obvious. One of the things that I've been reflecting on since Sunday morning is the use of the word 'exiles' to describe the (almost certainly Gentile) Christians of first-century Asia Minor. The word is poignant, and resonates through Scripture.
But it is hard to pin down.
I distinctly recall, as a student, trying to work out what it meant that Christians are 'exiles' in the world. I had, and to a certain extent certainly still have, an unduly literalistic mind. I wanted to fit the idea of exile into my biblical and systematic theology. I wanted to understand exactly what part of the OT was being recalled here, and exactly how it could be that the exile has lasted beyond its apparent end (with Cyrus) and what must be its actual end (with Jesus). It mattered to me, partly because I wanted to live in line with Scripture, but largely because I wanted to get everything neat and tidy. And 'exile' vexed me as a concept, because it didn't seem easy to fit with the broad Scriptural narrative, or with other NT descriptions of the Christian life. Exile was a result of sin, but sin is dealt with now, so how are we exiles?
Now I tend to think that the effort to pin things down in this way is hugely misguided. There is a place for precision in theology and in Scripture reading - it is important! - but it must not be allowed to crush the actual way in which Scripture communicates. When the apostle Peter calls his readers 'exiles', it is, I think, not so much a label describing them as an image that will resonate with them. It recalls Psalm 137, and the terrible sense of homelessness, of a hostile surrounding, of the cry for justice and salvation. It recalls Jeremiah's letter to the exiles, instructing them in how they should live in this hostile environment, blessing those around them, working for the common good, and waiting for the Lord. It recalls Daniel's prayer of repentance and faith, seeking God's fulfilment of his promises to Israel. And there are lots more.
The point is not that Christians are in exactly the same situation as the Jewish exiles. It seems to me that the language is used rather to capture the mood; to convey what it feels like to be a Christian in this last time. This exile of ours is not like the OT exile; they looked back to Jerusalem and wept for their sins, we look forward to Jerusalem and rejoice in our salvation. But still, there is that waiting, that sense of being in a hostile world, that alienation - and exile captures it perfectly.