Who wants to be an alien?
The word ‘alien’ may bring up different pictures for us. For me, growing up in the 1960s on a limited diet of TV programmes and films, aliens meant imaginary creatures from other planets, Martians with aerials instead of ears or the strange creations seen on Dr Who and Star Trek. They look rather pathetic nowadays to youngsters used to digital imagery. But they were our imaginary aliens.
Or we might think of alien customs or ideas, things that we do not share. Some might think of aliens as foreign nationals - people who do not share the nationality of the country. It sounds a cold and exclusive way of speaking about people but in many countries it is the legally correct way of describing people who are of a different nationality.
In 1 Peter 2:11 we Christians are described as “aliens and strangers” (NASB), or “foreigners and exiles” (NIV) or “strangers and pilgrims” (KJV) - there are many different ways of translating the words but the idea is that we are here but do not belong here. We might be good citizens of the UK or law abiding visitors, but the truth is that as Christians we have a higher loyalty than nationality, a closer bond between us than the bond of sharing citizenship with others. Paul makes this clear too, in Phil 3:20 “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
Does that mean we are just passing through and make no attachments with the people around us? No - we are not called to hide away from the people around us. We still live in the world - in John 17:15-18 Jesus states quite plainly He is not asking that we are somehow taken out of the world, in fact He has sent us into it! But He prays that we will be kept from the evil one and that we will be made holy, which means “set apart for God.”
So the separation is something that happens in our hearts not in keeping away from people. In fact Jesus specifically commissions us to get our hands dirty, to be amongst people who need help, who need Him. Holiness is not keeping away from certain things. Holiness is living wholeheartedly - literally from a heart made whole by God’s grace. Grace means we can live on the basis of our new citizenship being more important than any natural citizenship or other tie.
No wonder Peter describes Christians as aliens.
Writing about 130AD an unknown Christian expresses it clearly in his Epistle to Diognetus. It was probably written to someone who was being taught the faith and discipled as preparation for baptism. What he wrote still has a contemporary ring to it today:
"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life..… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.…
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them..…
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their spiritual life remains unseen."
That is how I want to live!