I have just come home from a wonderful two weeks camping in Brittany with my wife and daughter. We have packed away our tent for another year and are back in the manse, enjoying its comforts and its shelter from the British rain. We are once again in our “home”, a house we occupy as long as I am minister here and which belongs to the Thames North Synod Trust and for the maintenance of which the two churches of my pastorate are responsible.
I am greatly blessed that this house is in very good order and that the churches are very generous and competent in keeping it in that condition. This is not the least of the signs of their health and vigour.
Coming back from our holiday I am very aware of the multiple and difficult meanings of the word “home” for a Christian and the ways the difficulty is intensified for a stipendiary minister. After all we are told in Hebrews that we are “strangers and exiles in this world”. We who belong to the coming age, to the kingdom of God, cannot be fully at home in the passing age, the dominion of sin and death. We are a people of existential homelessness, belonging to a world whose reality is uncertain and shadowy. We stand between two sovereignties and are hence without citizenship.
There has sometimes been a tendency to ease the tension of this refugee status by positing a home to which we go when die, when we “land safe on Canaan’s side” to quote the hymn. Some in the contemporary Church continue to embrace this teaching of individual post-mortem salvation, some (for example Marcus Borg, whom I have been reading again) reject it completely. Both are, it seems to me only partially right.
The truth this heaven-oriented individualist Christianity preserves is that we can and should embrace and live our salvation in Christ here and now. We are “saved” and we can and should know it. This means, perhaps most of all, that death has been conquered on our behalf (one of the most prominent themes in Paul’s letters). We do “have eternal life” (the great message of the Johannine literature in the New Testament, both gospel and epistles). An awareness of this new reality can sometimes best be held onto by the idea of “life after death” however much this may also distort the Christian teaching.
Borg’s utter rejection of this kind of thing has its value too, though (there’s a surprising thing for me to find myself writing). He is quite right, it seems to me, to say that the notion of a disembodied “heavenly” existence in a realm different from the one we now inhabit has next to no warrant in the New Testament. The apostolic writers expected a regeneration of THIS world at Christ’s return in glory. They looked forward to a bodily resurrection (however different the resurrection body might be from the mortal body), Above all they believed in a communal, cosmic, temporal salvation in which all Creation would be made new.
In terms of the theme of “home” this implies that this world in which we are exiled is our homeland. It is under occupation but it remains, in right, ours. We are like the French between 1940 and 1944 rather than like the Palestinians in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. We are still on our land but we cannot fully enjoy it. We look forward not to a return to the land (like the Israelites coming home from Babylon in the 6th Century BC) nor to the conquest of a promised land (like the people under Joshua) but to the liberation of the land we’re in.
We should thus do our best to take care of and the enjoy our home while remembering that things are wrong and resisting them. While in Brittany I was greatly moved to read about the two priests of the church of St Joseph in Pont Aven who were arrested in 1944 for sheltering American parachutists and who died in concentration camps in Germany. The rector was quoted as telling a fellow inmate in Buchenwald that his great regret was that he would not be buried among the parishioners he loved. This was a man who had a sense of that beautiful town as home but who also lived and died a citizen of the City of God.
We stipendiary ministers, who have made the Church our home, who depend on its hospitality and generosity to give us a place in the world, have a special access to this problem of home and exile. We are always only temporarily and provisionally anywhere. We do not (on the whole) own the place where we live (a good theological reason for the manse system, it seems to me). At the same time we are at home everywhere the Church is and welcomes us and at home nowhere except with God.
In this we are called to inhabit in an exemplary way the position of every Christian, aware both of exile and of belonging, dependent not independent at the same time. Aware of dependency on God, as all should be, independent of the opinions and standards of the passing age.
In a sense the life of a minister is permanent holiday (since the stipend frees us from and does not pay us for work). This too should be an aspect of every Christian’s discipleship. We are on the way to our destination and under the protection of God. We receive gifts from him and order our lives to his glory which must be our happiness.
I’m home from my holiday to begin again my work, work that I have chosen and that I thank God for.