Strangers in a Strange Land

St. Peter once offered his new Gentile converts some advice about the task of being in the world while not being of the world: “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and strangers to avoid fleshly desires which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Note this last bit: he urges them to avoid worldly desires because they are no longer of the world, but live in it as “aliens and strangers”. Citizens of a country are expected to conform their country’s customs and norms, but aliens who come from another country and strangers who are merely visiting are not expected to fit in. They will live and behave differently from those around them.

That, St. Peter says, describes us Christians: planet earth, the society in which we live, is no longer our country, since our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20)—or, in the words of Jesus People Larry Norman in 1972, we are “only visiting this planet”. We will therefore no longer fit into the secular society where we live. Fleshly desires are for those in the world, not for Christians who no longer belong to the world. Though we are in the world, sharing earthly citizenship with others in society, partaking of its voting rights and its patriotism, we are no longer of the world. The flags under which we stand and to which we may pledge earthly allegiance no longer ultimately define who we are. We are no longer fundamentally Americans, Canadians, Russians, or Scots, but Christians, and our true countrymen are those who share our faith in Christ, regardless of their colour and nationality, and regardless under which flag they stand. That is why St. Peter, later on in his epistle, tells his readers not to act like the Gentiles do (4:3), despite the fact that they were Gentiles. Or, more specifically, they used to be Gentiles. Now they were Gentiles no longer, and so should not act like them. Now they were a chosen race, a holy nation, the Church of the living God. It would be like writing to American Christians and telling them “Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Americans like to do”. St. Paul says the same thing, mentioning the Church of God as a third category, separate from Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 10:32).

This Biblical teaching finds an early echo in the letter of an early church father who wrote an open Letter to Diognetus sometime in the early second century. He described Christians like this: “They dwell in their countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.” In other words, Christians belong primarily to Christ and therefore to the age to come, not to any earthly nation. They live in this age simply as those who are passing through.

It is important to remember this basic Biblical truth, and not to become so invested in the political storms around us that we forget that the land in which we cast our votes and eat our bread is not really our native country. We may love our nation, but must not let it define us, and certainly not to the point of separating us from our true countrymen, the Christians who live in other countries and who share our faith. That would be to indulge the fleshly desires which St. Peter tells us to avoid, for by “fleshly desires” the apostle was not speaking only of sexual desires, or of gluttony. By “fleshly desires” he meant any appetite or consuming passion which grips and controls us—including the passion of anger, enmity, disputing, dissensions, and factions of which St. Paul warned us in Galatians 5:20—passions which often characterize those entangled in political turmoil. Politics is very interesting, but we must cast our votes with the knowledge that in the final conflagration at the Second Coming (2 Peter 3:10) all flags will burn, including our own. But that’s okay, for we did not wrap ourselves in any flag, but stood under a cross, and that cross is completely nonflammable.

The emphatic and consistent teaching of the New Testament is that we live in the last hour, so that the form of this world is passing away (1 John 2:18, 1 Corinthians 7:31). We must live in this age and in our society as those with a certain detachment—not the detachment of indifference, for we must still love our neighbour and seek to lift his burdens and meet his needs. Rather, we live with the detachment of those who know that they are already dead to this world, and that our true life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Here in this world, for a while, we live, and love, and rejoice, and give thanks to God for the good things we find here, including good things that may characterize our nation. But our true native land is elsewhere, and our desire is to depart and be with Christ, and to finally come to our true home.

 

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8 comments:

  1. Fr. Farley, I am indebted to you for your english commentaries on the New Testament which I reference frequently in my research papers as a seminarian in the UOCC. I do so even at the disapproval of some (not all) my professors. My knowledge of Ukrainian is at best conversational and my Greek and Russian are decidedly worse. My latin is better than the latter two but without formal courses (20 years) it has lapsed most egregiously. Besides Tazari for Pauline studies are there any other biblical (english) commentators./exegetes you would recommend? I mean in the Orthodox sphere? I also have a predilection for Fr. Raymond Brown, having completed by undergraduate studies at an RC institution before my exodus from Rome. I dare say that many liberal ideologies I encountered as a cradle catholic I now face with some “Orthodox”. Not all is amiss. My second seminary run with the Orthodox is much more traditional than the “free for all” I experienced in my four years with the RC’s. It’s always the students that are much more apostolic than the professors- I find. Thank you so much for your weekly blog. I hope to see you some day, God willing, when I head to BC.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am curious, though, why some of your professors disapproved of my NT commentaries? Regarding other Orthodox commentaries in English, I am told the works of the late Archbishop Dimitri are very good. You are very welcome to come and visit us here at St. Herman’s in BC. May God bless you in your studies!

      1. Thanks so much Fr. Farley! Disapproved is a strong word, they are in the seminary library, yet I was dissuaded from using them by professor(s), on what basis I failed to ascertain. I seldom take the word of someone in the academic sphere, uncritically,be they heterodox or Orthodox and tend to make my own deductions based on a critical reading of the source. Moreover, there are a number of our priests that have your works in their personal libraries. It is my opinion, and that only, that the prejudice they hold may be founded on something as trivial as jurisdiction. I only conjecture given my experience. Though, there is a great deal of politicizing in our jurisdiction and political reductionist posturing that is , reducing politics and even gauging the value of political candidates , with respect to how they stand, vis-a-vis, Ukraine. When I first came to Orthodoxy it was my understanding that priests ought not to be overly political, perhaps I am mistaken.

        My polemic is that I prefer to think of myself as Orthodox first and all else follows. To put an ethnicity before faith is a great injustice in my eyes. At times when you hear some speaking of Volodymyr and how he baptized Ukraine and the faith spread from there, well, historically and presently I think it presents problems. As one of my professors noted, it comes across as ideology and not theology. Don’t get me wrong, Father, I love everybody there and am grateful for their presence.

        Perhaps I’ve misjudged based on the strong ethnic ties in my own family. I perceived that upon my conversion to Orthodoxy I was viewed by many family members as un-ethnic and conversations that followed relegated me from a “we” to a “they” -may it not be laid to their charge, for the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me…forgive my rambling, Father bless!

        1. God bless you! I quite agree that clergy should strive to be as a-political as possible. If I must give offence, I want it to be over my proclamation of the Gospel and defence of Holy Tradition, not over something as “grey” as the various political opinions dividing our nations. Hyphenating our Orthodoxy (e.g. by saying “I am Greek-Orthodox” or “I am Romanian-Orthodox”) is always a mistake. Even saying “I am Orthodox” can be misunderstood, for saying “I am Orthodox” is really just an abbreviated way of saying “I am an Orthodox Christian”, and it is the Christianity and following of Christ which counts. Saying that we are “Orthodox Christians” merely describes the way in which we serve Him–i.e. according to Orthodox Tradition and not (for example) through Mormon tradition.

          1. Thank you Fr. Farley, “it is the Christianity and following Christ that counts”-very insightful! please pray for we as I will you.

  2. Thanks again Father. This is very true, unfortunately I cling to this world and my identity in this world far too much.

  3. Thank you, Father. With all of the craziness in the world, your words reminded me that this world is not my true home. May God grant me the strength to take care of those around me and leave the rest to God.

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