This sermon was given on 16 November 2014; the readings for it were 1 Peter 2:11-17, as well as Revelation 21:1-5, 22-27. Hope you enjoy!
When Natalie and I were preparing to get married, I was told by someone wiser than I was in no uncertain terms that there are only two ways a marriage can end: (1) if you are one of the statistically fortunate, in death; or (2) in divorce. This was a pretty stark image for a love-struck young man to hold in his mind, as I reverently, advisedly, and soberly prepared with Natalie for our marriage. Truth be told, I was thinking more about our long-distance relationship ending, and not having to constantly say good-bye at countless airports and train stations and bus stops. I was thinking about finally being able to say a long-term hello, and not about the idea of a final good-bye down the road.
This might seem like a depressing way to start a sermon (and maybe it is), but what I am trying to illustrate is the fact that permanence in this life is fiction; even the things that seem the most permanent to us are fleeting. We’ve only ever experienced transition, and we only ever will. That is, until the Kingdom comes. Tonight’s topic is a sober one, but also a joyful one. To set the stage more fully, for the last few months, we’ve been looking at different aspects of community. When we first started this series, it was on friendship in the abstract: what it meant to be foreigner and family, the transition between these states of being, as well as the play of hospitality in that process. We then moved to different “one another” verses throughout the New Testament, looking at such exhortations as: encourage one another, love one another, forgive one another, confess to one another, and live in harmony with one another, trust one another. A sort of practical how-to of being a community. Tonight, we are returning again to the wider lens of relationship. The sober fact that we have to acknowledge is this: all communities on this earth shift, transition, and ultimately end.
For those of us who have been here long enough, this fact is a way of life. Brussels is a city in permanent transition, with thousands of people coming and going each year. So, when Saint Peter exhorts us as “aliens and strangers,” we simply shrug. We know that we are, living in the surreal city that we do. As aliens and strangers in Brussels, with other aliens and strangers moving through here (and the even stranger aliens and strangers from here), we live in the porous community that we have, which at times feels nothing like a community; merely a temporary collection of people, an exhibit, gathered for a common purpose. We are in the constant stream of transition, some of us moving faster in it than others. So, we acknowledge, very readily, that life is transition, nothing is permanent. We often allow ourselves to become calloused with this fact, withdrawing from the faster moving streams of life in Brussels to insulate ourselves from loss. To an extent, that is needed, but to cut oneself off completely is tragic, a loss both to yourself and to the wider community.
This is because the Christian life is a pilgrimage, a journey, one undertaken together. That is why Peter’s encouragement is to us, Christians in the plural, as aliens and strangers. I think his exhortation is one to pause over, to reflect on, as pilgrims. I think it is extremely important to note what Peter doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “You’re just passing through. It doesn’t matter what you do, or to whom you show respect. Do whatever. This world is passing away. Escape. Don’t be present.” In fact, he says just the opposite. Why? If we are aliens and strangers, pilgrims in transition from this earthly home to a heavenly one, why live at such personal cost? Why suffer through what being present requires, which includes sad and sorrowful good-byes? I think there are two main reasons. The first is this: anyone can join us on our pilgrimage, can enhance it, can take it in new directions if we are open to being present. We can also do the same for others who are passing through, and in so doing we might have the chance to show them more about who God is. So, Peter says, live good lives; the pagans may claim you are doing evil, but they will praise God someday because of how you lived. And the second reason is this, one that we must readily acknowledge today: we are not escaping this world. Yes, we are in transition as Christians, but we are the firstfruits of what will be a cosmic salvation story. As we see in the passage from Revelation 21, the new Jerusalem comes down to earth from heaven. Yes, the earth and the heavens are new, but this is just as we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). New means resurrected, born into a new life, the very life of God. And all of creation — nature, comets, stars, galaxies, and even us — will be saved by the love and the life of God. The old order of things passes away, God makes everything new, and everything is filled with His light. We live in the between; the painful transition of this birth, from the Ascension of Christ, who first inaugurated the Kingdom that is coming, this new Jerusalem, to the finally descending of it from God, when Christ will be all and in all and for all.
Here today, what does all this have to do with us? Our community is a transitory one. People come in and out of Brussels so often. Some will be seen again; others, perhaps not. May we live such good lives, may we live with such presence to one another, that the very love of God becomes manifest, that we see glimpses of the New Jerusalem and the end of all transition. May we live as though we are coming home, welcoming others to the feast and the light of the heavenly hearth. May we be given the strength to not grow tired as we say good-byes and hellos, again and again. May we meet each other and open ourselves to each other, not counting the cost. And may we pursue in all endings the blessing of ending well, of living and of dying unto God. Amen.