From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart. Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples. In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list. I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?
For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country. Yet is this really the right approach?
People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in. If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here. But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in? Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong? Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world! Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)
The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV). There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’. People who weren’t from round here. People who were different, who didn’t fit in. Who didn’t have rights. People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there. The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.
This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us. Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God. Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.
This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church. Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens. To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church. This truly is good news for a broken world.
At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news. He wasn’t from round here. He moved into our world and brought a message of hope. Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation. For a while he was a political refugee. He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head. He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave. This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.
How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?