This is a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7.
In my spare time, I volunteer as a moderator on a Christian discussion forum online. And one of the things I really enjoy about that is the enormous diversity of Christians – and quite a few others interested in faith-related discussions – who participate. The site has about a quarter of a million members, from all around the world and just about every possible viewpoint, and interacting with them is a great way to learn and grow.
But the reason I mention it today is that there’s one member there who has as a tagline at the bottom of each of his posts: “Citizen of heaven, currently deployed to the U.S.” I found that such a neat way to set out for us his understanding of himself in relationship to God and to his surrounding culture, and to hint at how those realities might interact. It really got me thinking.
And so when I looked at our reading today from Jeremiah, I was reminded of that, because it seemed to me that Jeremiah’s letter was addressing some of the same issues, for the Israelites who had gone into exile in Babylon. Those exiles had to work out how they understood themselves, in relationship to God and to Babylonian culture, and how those things might interact too, and Jeremiah’s letter is an attempt to provide part of an answer.
What he had to say was important; invest in this place. Build houses, plant gardens, get married and raise families. We’re in it for the long haul here. And pray to the Lord on behalf of this place, because your welfare is tied up in the welfare of the city. But do all of this without compromising the essentials of what it is to be the people of God; because – the passage goes on after the bit we’ve read – God has plans and a future for this people, if they will seek God with all their heart. Exile isn’t forever.
Of course, the identity crisis that the newly-exiled Israelites were going through was not unique. Over and over again through history, as circumstances have changed, the people of God – Jewish and Christian – have had to think again about our relationships with God and the world we live in and what those things mean for how we actually go about our lives. You can see it in the New Testament; as the Christians started to realise that Jesus wasn’t coming back tomorrow, and that the Church was going to have to figure out how to sustain itself over more than a single generation, they had to wrestle with what was needed to sustain a unique subculture within the Empire.
And I think that Christians – at least in the west – are going through a similar time of re-evaluation. It would be within the living memory of many of you, I’m sure, that Christianity was taken for granted as the default for our society, and Christian values were expected to shape our laws, our education system, our social interactions, and so forth. And of course that is increasingly not the case as our culture changes and becomes more secularised; and so we have to work out, as our culture and the Church become less intrinsically linked, what it means to be Christians in this time and place. For many who watch the news, I know that this question has been brought into sharp relief as we face the prospect of a plebiscite on whether or not to change the Marriage Act.
So with that question – what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven, currently deployed to this local area? – in mind, let me make some observations and suggestions.
My first observation is that, like the exiles in Babylon, we’re most probably in it for the long haul. I don’t pretend to know when Jesus is coming back, but I can look back over two thousand years of people who were very confident that it would be “any day now” and see that we are still here. My guess is that Jesus’ return is unlikely to be during my lifetime.
And that suggests to me that – as individuals and as a Church – it’s appropriate to engage in long-term thinking. Plan not just for tomorrow but for 2050 and for 2100. What legacy will we leave to those who come after us? What can we put in place today that will be a blessing to them? Think about stewardship of land and wealth and resources, about succession planning, about sustainability. Think about investing seriously in those who are still young. Think about the environment and whether we live responsibly; about how much damage we inflict.
My second observation is that, like the exiles in Babylon, our welfare is tied up in the welfare of the society we live in. And that suggests to me that the kind of approach that seeks to separate Christians out from the rest of the world is probably not helpful. Be involved; whether it’s through paid work or volunteering or informal relationships, or whatever works for you, find ways to make a positive contribution. And of course, pray for the community around you.
But then there’s the tricky bit. Because the third observation I’d make is that, just like the Jewish exiles in Bablyon, we do have an identity in Christ which sets us apart from the rest of the world.
And that suggests that we need to let go of any expectation that Christian values and norms (however we understand them) are going to shape our society beyond the Church. We should not, for example, be put out if we find that the Marriage Act is changed (or indeed not changed) in ways which we might personally not have chosen. We should not expect Christian education in schools to become mainstream again. We should not expect to have the last word on any matter in the public square (although nor should we be silenced). We need to get real about the fact that we are a minority, with no right to impose any of our ideals on the rest of society, who will only resent that attempt at domination and control. We need to accept that our society is not going to manage the business of being Christian for us by default, and so we need to take responsibility for our own discipleship, paying attention to our own homes and our own lives and churches as the places where we work out how to live and pass on the faith.
So where does that leave us? It seems to me that our Christianity as it relates to the world will have a very great deal to say about what we attempt do for those outside the Church, and very little to say about what we expect or require of those people. The Israelites were instructed to pray and work for the welfare of Babylon, despite the fact that Babylon had very little care for the welfare of the Israelites in return. Nor should we expect the welfare of the Church to be a primary concern of those around us in the world today. Our welfare, ultimately, is established by God and lies beyond this current set of social systems.
I realise, of course, that my observations and suggestions today have only just begun to scratch the surface of a very big topic. Many of Christianity’s greatest minds have wrestled with these questions of identity and social relationships, and if it’s something you want to explore further there are no end of great resources. But it does seem to me that there are useful parallels between our situation and that of the exiles in Babylon, which are worth reflecting on as we work out what it means to be citizens of heaven, currently deployed to this local community.