On Sunday I heard a sermon which was the first in a series on Peter's epistles, 1 Peter 1:1-9. This section addresses readers Peter refers to as elect exiles (ESV) or in the NASB as aliens .... who are chosen. The issue of election isn't relevant to the discussion here, but the idea of exiles is. If Christians are exiles at the moment, what does that say about eco-mission? Indeed, what does it say about any action at all? If we are exiles, what does the end of exile mean?
Now exile is the non-willing removal of a person or group of people from their home. Many Christians will read this passage and immediately infer our home is heaven. Many will then go on to add that this means that things like eco-mission or creation care are optional at best, perhaps a distraction, and at worst pagan. I suspect this comes from a misunderstanding of both exile and heaven.
Graham Goldsworthy's classic expression of Old Testament hope was being God's people in God's place under God's rule, though we might replace the later as under God's blessing to bring it in line with Genesis 12:1-3, noting that God's rule was a sign of his blessing. So if any of these was out of place, there should have been a sense of exile. Daniel 9 appears to speak of exile up to the day of writing (v7 speaks of shame) because of Persian rule. So people could be in God's place but his rule not established in the sense of being usurped by a foreign power. Later in this chapter, end of exile is associated with the coming of the Messiah.
The point I am trying to get to is that while we are elect exiles, this doesn't mean that the Earth isn't our home and heaven is, as if the two are meant to be separate! Note how in verse 4 how our inheritance is reserved in heaven - but insisting that we need to go there to get it is like saying we need to go into the cupboard where our Christmas present is hidden to play with it. A few ideas to make this clearer:
Revelation 20-21 promises a new heavens and a new Earth and that one will come down to be joined with the other. Note how in the Lord's Prayer, heaven is where God's will is done now, and Jesus prays that it will be done on Earth as well. Further, if we acknowledge that heaven is where God is, heaven was on Earth for a time because (as Ed Kowalczyk noted) 'heaven wore a shirt', then since Jesus is coming back to Earth, so heaven is coming to Earth. Likewise, Romans 8 promises the Earth itself to be redeemed. Our home will ultimately be where heaven and Earth meet, not where they are separate.
So in a sense, we live like exiles because many things are impermanent. Yet as Tom Wright notes, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, the passage on resurrection, because we will be raised from the dead (and not simply ascend to heaven for ever), what we do now is not in vain. Exiles we are, but when home comes to Earth we shall be at home, and some of the things we have done in exile will matter for eternity. This includes groaning with and caring for creation.