30 March 2018
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world.” (John)
Let’s start with a question: In what sense could Jesus be said to be a migrant?
As the dictionary defines it, to migrate simply means to move from one country or place to another, often in search of some relief or change. On a day like Good Friday, therefore, the question is not frivolous, for the whole of Holy Week is marked by Jesus’ movement, from triumphal entry into Jerusalem as hero, to condemned criminal on the cross; from the intimacy of a Passover meal with his disciples, to his betrayal and arrest in the garden; or, even at the most basic of levels, his movement from a prophetic life of teaching and healing, to his humiliation and death on the cross.
It is striking that throughout the Bible, migration is an absolutely consistent motif. God for example expels Adam and Even from Eden. Noah is set adrift in the ark. Then later, God calls Abraham out of the land of Ur to journey to a new land; subsequently Jacob and his sons follow Joseph to Egypt to escape famine; then Israelites have to escape their slavery by fleeing with Moses to Sinai; still later, the people of Judah are forced into Babylonian captivity, and only much later do they finally return home from their diaspora to Jerusalem. On and on it goes.
And when Jesus himself is born, the gospel narratives go out of their way to emphasize his migrant status: Joseph takes his young wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors, where she gives birth to her child as a homeless pobrecita; the family then almost immediately has to flee as refugees into Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath, and are able to return home only after the king dies; and as the young man Jesus begins his public ministry, he is driven like an exile by Satan into the wilderness, after which he begins to refer to himself as “the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.”
And as last Sunday’s epistle reminded, there is yet a further and more cosmic dimension to Jesus as migrant: as the great Christ hymn in Philippians puts it, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Jesus migrates from his divine origins into human form, entering into the role of servant when it is in fact he who is the Lord of all. Jesus lives in exile among us.
Now, there are several threads that one might follow to trace the significance of this idea of Jesus the migrant, or Jesus migrator. One thread would be that it puts a whole new meaning into how we serve and receive him, in serving and receiving the immigrant among us—for Jesus is himself the primordial migrant. There would be much to say about that.
But the thread I want to trace here this evening is rather different: that as a migrant, God in Christ is never static, never settled, never at home. Jesus is always in motion, moving from place to place, from one life changing encounter to another. Perhaps that is even one way of looking at the meaning of the cross: Jesus moves through it from the life of violence and injustice that we know now, into a different life marked by peace and dignity on the other side (which we will describe on Easter Sunday as his resurrection). So if we are to be followers of Jesus, then it means to journey with him, to participate in this immigration with him (if you will), from one life into another.
We are, in effect, strangers and sojourners in this life, but Jesus is leading us toward another land, a promised land—a pattern of human living which he calls the Kingdom of God. As one of the earliest Christian texts put it (The Letter of Diognetus, from the 2nd or maybe 3rd century), “[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and yet endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their homeland, and yet every homeland is a foreign land [because at heart they are refugees from their true homeland, which is with God].”
Now this vision of being in constant motion as followers of Jesus, of being bound toward some new life, is rather counter-intuitive. We tend to look toward faith and religion as something that we seek out to give us as sense of security, certainty, and stability. But as the deus migrator, Jesus calls us out of and beyond all that toward its exact opposite: in following him, we embrace risk, complexity, and unpredictability. But we also gain wonder, joy, and courage.
There on the altar, there is an icon by the local Franciscan Robert Lentz, sometimes known as “Christ the Refugee.” In it, you see the figure of Jesus on the other side of some strands of barbed wire, pulling them apart with his own, wounded hands. Our first instinct, on seeing the icon, may be to read it as depicting Christ imprisoned, a refugee caught inside some sort of jail.
But if you pay close attention to Jesus’ gaze—and in an icon, the gaze is always all important—it becomes less and less apparent that it is Jesus who is imprisoned. His gaze of compassion, mercy, and longing seems to suggest that it is we who are behind the barbed wire, and he is on the outside looking in. Or perhaps both things are true at once.
Through this ambiguity, the icon of Christ the Refugee speaks powerfully to us of the prisons which hold us—and him—captive. Prisons of personal privilege and national identity; prisons of class status and party establishment; prisons of selfish self-interest and personal security.
What if the message of Good Friday, spoken to us both by Christ on the cross and Christ on the other side of the barbed wire, is an encouragement to break out of those prisons, and to become a migrant with him: to follow him into a new country, a new vision of life, a new and more compassionate understanding of ourselves. What if the ultimate purpose of the cross, is to make of us, displaced migrants? Amen.
 I am indebted for the idea of God as migrant to Peter C. Phan, “Doing Christian Theology in the Age of Migration,” a paper presented at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ, February 6, 2018.
 Cyril Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 48-49.