“His descendents would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others” – Acts 7:6
These words were uttered by Stephen – the first man martyred for following the Way – just before his death. And I’ve come to believe that these words just might be the best descriptor of the church’s vocation and mission in the Bible. God’s people are “resident aliens.”
Of course, in the context of Stephen’s discourse, these words describe Abraham and his descendents, who quite literally were called to live in a foreign land. Abraham was a nomad, and his descendents were slaves in Egypt, wanderers in a desert, and they never fully conquered the Promised Land. In fact, the back-story needed to properly understand the entire New Testament is that God’s chosen people were also a “conquered people.” As Jews, they were “resident aliens” living in a Roman colony.
Now, their “resident alien” status was never seen as a desirable state for God’s people. They wanted a home. They wanted a king. They didn’t want to be resident aliens in a country belonging to others. Such is why their hope for a Messiah was so great – an “anointed” one to drive away the “others” and give the “country” back to God’s people.
As the Messiah, Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus didn’t overthrow Rome. And after his death, the Jews remained “resident aliens” under Roman rule.
And I think the reason for this is simple.
Being a resident alien is at the heart of the church’s vocation and mission.
Think about it. To quote Jesus, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). And after saying these words, Jesus turned and looked at his disciples intently – take up your cross and follow me.
Theologically speaking, God’s people are called to be resident aliens. To quote Paul, we are “ambassadors.” An ambassador is a person that is sent by one sovereign or state to another as a visiting representative. If we have been transferred into God’s Kingdom, then we are living on this earth as God’s representatives. The kingdom of the world is not our true home, any more than the US ambassador to China calls China his home. To be an ambassador of Christ is to be a resident alien.
The word extraterrestrial, by definition, means “originating outside the limits of the earth.” At least in the Gospel of John, this is a claim Jesus makes about himself. “I am from above” (Jn 8:23). In other words, “I’m here as a resident alien." But that’s not all – he tells us that we too must be resident aliens. “You must be born from above.” (Jn 3:7)
To be “born from above” is to live your life on earth as a citizen of the Kingdom of heaven. That’s what I mean when I say it’s our vocation, and our mission, to be resident aliens. In a world of hatred, God’s resident aliens will love. In a world of division, God’s resident aliens will work for reconciliation. In a world of death, God’s resident aliens will be an aroma of life.
It’s not that we don’t have a home. It’s that our home – the Kingdom of God – hasn’t fully come “on earth as it is in heaven.” And until that day, we live as an extraterrestrial church.