Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Aliens And Citizens


People joke about it, but meeting someone for the first time and then asking that person where he or she goes to church is a very real way to make conversation in the south. Church is who we are. It's what we do. Even people who do not belong to our congregation apologize to me when they see me wearing a clerical collar in the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. Last night, I was talking with a friend about a mutual acquaintance and, wanting to know some background on that person, I asked where she had grown up going to church. Seriously, it's how we define ourselves and others.

Because church is such an integrated part of our culture, I find it hard to understand the dichotomy of alien and citizen that Paul (yes, I'm going to call him Paul) writes about in Ephesians 2:11-22. He's writing to those members of the Christian community who were once pagans, and he's reminding them that their transformation from outsider to family, from slave to heir, from alien to citizen, is a fundamental part of their faith: "Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth...were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." And, for Paul, this is more than a statement about the Gentiles. This is a statement about who God is and what God does. He writes, "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us...that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two." In other words, it's not only the effect that Paul is focused on but also the source, the cause.

In my own journey of faith, I experienced a moment of clarity when God's love became real to me. Before that, I didn't feel like I belonged. I wasn't confident of my place in God's family. But that was an internal struggle. No one turned me away because, with magical x-ray faith glasses, they could see that I had doubts. No one shut me out of the fellowship because they sensed that I didn't belong. To my parents, my friends, my classmates, my Sunday school teachers, and everyone around me, I represented someone who belongs in the family of God. Yes, my experience of reconciliation was real and powerful, but it does not capture the real alien-become-citizen transformation that Jesus Christ represents. Instead, I need to pull from a different referent, an experience that isn't my own, to understand how God works.

God is in the citizenship business. The gospel is a gospel of amnesty. In Jesus Christ, God declares to those of us who were outside the promise that the promise belongs to us as well. Those of us who came out of the womb assuming that we belong, that we have access, that we have power, need to hear the gospel from the perspective of the undocumented immigrant, the convicted felon, or the mentally ill neighbor. God grants to those who never dreamed that they could belong that they are members of the family of God. If that's what God does for us in Jesus Christ, who are we to exclude others from this family? We, too, were accepted not because we belong but because God is the one who gave Jesus in order to bring us into God's family. If we will not welcome strangers and aliens in God's name as our sisters and brothers, we deny the work that God has done in us and for us.

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