Peter addresses his readership as “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” The terminology comes from the Old Testament where Israel and then Judah went into exile. The Jews are the elect people of God whose historical experience was exile and dispersion into many lands. Only in recent history have Jews returned to their homeland of Israel.
Christians are those chosen by God, who are found in many nations and whose identity is one of exile from the homeland of heaven. The communities of Christians found in several provinces of the Roman Empire, located in what is now the nation of Turkey, were experiencing “various trials.” Persecution was an everpresent danger. Their experience was one of exile, an unpleasant and difficult reality, from the heavenly country for which they longed.
The post-New Testament Letter to Diognetus takes up the theme of Christians as aliens in this world. The sender of the letter writes, “They (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” (Cyril Richardson, translator and editor. The Library of Christian Classics. Early Christian Fathers, Volume I. Westminster: Philadelphia,1953, p.217). Christians are not distinguishable from others in many things, but they are set apart by their moral practice. For example, they shun adultery and the exposure of their children unto death, as pagans sometimes did.
Christians consider themselves as exiles or aliens here on earth. Our permanent home is in heaven. These characteristics are primary to Christian identity in the world. We are separate from the unethical practices of the world, even though sometmes Christians fail in this.
Peter also characterizes Christians as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own (God’s) possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2: 9-10 ESV) We who have had God’s mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ are an elect peole who are to proclaim the mystery of our salvation so that others may also become a part of God’s people.
This way of looking at life, determined by our redemption in Christ, sets us apart from the world; and, as a result, causes conflict with the world. Our interface with the world has all the possibility of inspiring anger and hatred in us as it does with those who are not Christians. Our path, though, should be one of gentleness and respect. Hard as it is to practice, we are called to address the world in the love of Christ. But we are also to be separate from the corruption of the world. Relying on texts from the Old Testament, Paul instructs the Corinthians with these words: “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them says the Lord, . . .
Michael G. Tavella
June 1, 2019
Feast Day of Justin Martyr, c. 165