“Yes, you; you used to be aliens,” Paul says (see Eph. 2:12).
Words of Not Belonging
And were we anything else?
Yes, many things else: strangers, uncircumcised, hopeless, far off, disobedient, dead (see Eph. 2:1-14). Enough?
Since the introduction of sin, humans have mastered a thousand ways of distinguishing between “them” and “us.” If “they” have been the good, then “we” have been good’s other side.
If they have been Jews, they have labeled us Gentiles; they, Greeks—we, Barbarians; they, Romans—we, the Peregrini; they, Black—we, White; they rich—we, poor; they, learned—we, ignorant. If, as in China, they have been the nobles of the Shi class, then we have been the peasant farmers of the Ning class. If, as in India, they have been Brahmin priests, then we have been the Dalit untouchables. Thinking discriminately is a gift of God. Fallen humanity has shown ourselves gifted in using it to exploitative discrimination—economically, socially, intellectually, financially. And what about religiously? Spiritually?
Sometimes the God of the Bible deals surprisingly harshly with discriminations of ours that we thought came straight from Him: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28);* when it was He who separated Abraham, calling Him out from country, kindred, and father’s house (Gen. 12:1-3); and He who had created us male and female (Gen. 1:27; Matt. 19:4).
Remembering the Difference
Sometimes the difference is forgettable, to be given up. God did call Abraham out, but nothing in His differences supports racism, classism, or any other of human society’s oppressive categories. In that regard Paul speaks His mind and will to the Athenians for whom superiority over barbarians was a given: God, he explained, “has made from oneblood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Some differences are to be repudiated out of hand.
But Paul is reminding us today of a difference to be preserved in memory. Remember that what is now, was not always so. He is reminding us, because if we forget the past the present can lose its significance.
Remember, Paul says, for if you forget the past you can fail to see the implications of the now.
Remember because if you forget, then it becomes possible for you to end up in your past circumstances again.
Remember you were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Don’t Wallow in the Past
Paul’s call to us to remember is not calling us to wallow in the past. Nor is he calling us to be stymied by our history. But inherent in this call is a summons to remember not just as a mental action, but as a fixed, intentionally established attitude. For it is difficult to be judgmental with others, even with strangers, if you remember that you too used to be an alien.
True, sometimes we don’t want to remember! For some things in our history it hurts, it terrifies, it traumatizes us to remember. We ask, “Why go back there? I’d rather not think about that. I want to move on.” But rescued sinners take our memories a step further: as the cross of Jesus Christ compels us to face the reality of our history, as we acknowledge that it was our sins that nailed Him there, as we realize that because He hung there, we may now stand where we do, on solid ground, delivered from our darkness and translated into citizenship in His kingdom. Sinners saved to eternal life because Christ took our eternal death know “that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).
As former spiritual aliens, once without hope and without God, you and I can never ever forget where we came from and where God’s overwhelming love has brought us. We want that for everyone we love; for everyone we’ve ever met; for every stranger, every foreigner, every alien who, like we once did, has wandered the world alone. I want—and you want—everyone else to experience what you and I now experience: God’s powerful embrace; the undying love of Jesus, who died to save us. Now, instead of aliens, we are first-class citizens, spokespersons, aides, ambassadors for Him and for the country of the saved (see 2 Cor. 5:20).
Hamilton Williams currently pastors the Beacon Light Seventh-day Adventist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, United States.
* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.