by Claire Potter.
In the 1960s Marvin Gaye sang: “Wherever I lay my hat – that’s my home?”. There is something rather impressive about people who sit that lightly to places. In Jeremiah 29 there is an account of Jeremiah’s remarkable letter to all the people who were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was, for them, the only place where you could truly worship God. Since all of life’s activities were associated with religion – work, family life, existing in society – then it is hardly surprising that they were so frustrated in exile. All they could do, like refugees across the world today, was to long for it all to be over.
But Jeremiah told them that God was not only to be found in Jerusalem – but was in fact with them even in exile. So he said: get on and live out your lives, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat the produce, form relationships, marry, have families – for generations. It was clearly no short term solution. And Jeremiah went even further telling them to ‘seek the welfare of the city … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’. They might have lost their homes, their holy places, their familiar places, but they had not been abandoned by God and they would not be abandoned by God.
There is a similar feeling right at the end of Luke’s gospel. The two disciples who had had their eyes dramatically opened at Emmaus had run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus. As they are all discussing this incredible news, Jesus himself appeared amongst them. He demonstrates how physical he is by showing them his hands and feet, using the words that would have been familiar to them ‘peace be with you’ and then eating a piece of fish in front of them. He then helped them to understand how his death and resurrection had been foretold and what it meant for them. Then he gives his final instruction. As they wait for the power of God to come upon them – they are to ‘stay there in the city’.
Surely Jerusalem was the last place on earth where they wanted to stay. This was the place where everything had fallen apart for them. This was a place of betrayal, of the ending of their hopes, a place of loss and brutality and fear. It would have been so much better if Jesus had told them to wait in the more friendly environment of Galilee where they could go back into normal life. In Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus did in fact appear to the disciples in Galilee. The point Luke is making is significant. Before the disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have to muster all their courage to stay there and to believe that God’s power was coming.
“Stay in the city” said Jesus according to Luke. “Seek the welfare of the city” said Jeremiah. What makes us feel that we are in exile? It could be a very real sense of isolation caused by illness, fear or addiction. It might be the speed of development of the virtual world and the possibilities of social media. It might be the political world or injustice. The natural human response is to look for security.
In churches though, there is a danger that we will locate our need for settledness and security in our church buildings, our hymn books, our familiar seat, or our favoured traditions. Then it becomes so difficult for us when any of those things change, and we can be a block in the development of a church. Surely it is much better to locate that need that we all have in God. God’s love for us will not change. He made us, he called us, he planted potential within us. When we are at sea in this bewildering world, let us allow God to be our anchor. Then everything becomes possible. We can then seek the welfare of the people we do not understand, We can seek the welfare of corners of our world that others think are hopeless, we can seek the welfare of whole communities who will never think like us or share our priorities or opinions. And miracle of miracles – when we do that – we will also discover our own welfare – our own hope, strength, courage and calling. So rather than retreating into our settled traditions and hoping that the threats will go away, perhaps we can all take the courage given to us through God’s Spirit to fling wide the doors and offer vulnerable hospitality as part of our living communities.
May God help all people in their own context to stay in the city and to seek the welfare of the city – wherever we lay our hat.