A people in exile and a people of hope

24 March 2020

The Revd Ruth Gee, Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference, reflects on how we can offer hope in the desert of fear that coronavirus has brought to communities. 

I was standing washing my hands and singing the Lord’s Prayer to myself on the day the churches issued the guidance that there should be no public worship. London like other cities was getting quieter every day, physical greetings were unwelcome, shop shelves were being stripped of items thought to be essential and we were entering a strange new world. This was a world of self-isolation chosen or imposed, a world where we were being separated from loved ones in order to protect them, a world where our physical gathering to worship, pray and share bread and wine was forbidden.

This felt like exile from the world I knew and I began to think about the exile of the people of Israel.

I want to share some initial thoughts about the experience of exile, acknowledging that in this fast-changing world I have not had time to research in any depth. I am drawing on my memory which may be imperfect. If this initiates any conversation it will be good but please let’s be kind to one another.

When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon they were taken from the land, which they believed was their inheritance and in which they had built the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was not the only place of worship, people met together to pray, to read scripture and to receive teaching. Families prayed in their homes. The temple was not the only place of worship but it was the only place where sacrifice could be offered to God. The temple was the place where the faithful felt that they came into God’s presence in a distinctive way and the continuity of the offering of sacrifice in the temple was at the heart of their identity as God’s people in God’s land, people of the covenant.

In Babylon there was and could be no Jewish temple, in Babylon they could not offer sacrifices to God. Even worse, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and desecrated and the offering of sacrifice could not continue there either. The heart had been torn out of their religious practice.

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?         

(Psalm 137:1-4)

How did the exiled people of Israel respond to their new situation?

There are, of course, a variety of interpretations of the biblical evidence for the way in which the exiles lived and worshipped in Babylon but what seems clear is that they identified the practices that were distinctive of their religious identity, those they could continue to observe and develop in their new context. It seems likely that Sabbath observance and commitment to following the Torah (teachings or law) became a focus. Groups met for worship where there were a minimum of ten  adult Jewish men, the same criterion that holds for synagogue worship today. By identifying the practices that could continue they were able to recognise the presence of God with them, even in a foreign land. In fact, they began to develop an understanding of God as present everywhere in the world and perhaps God could be known by everyone.

In exile the people of Israel were able to continue to worship, to grow in their knowledge of God, to be challenged by new possibilities.

Of course, exile was not easy and there continued to be a longing for their own land and a hope for return. It took a little longer for the people to realise that after return from exile things would not simply be the same as before, but that is another part of their story and ours.

We may feel that we are in exile, certainties have been stripped away, we are facing an unknown future. For some of us, the fact that we cannot share together in services of Holy Communion is a cause of sorrow and a great loss. Holy Communion is a central and distinctive part of our worshipping community and it is not possible for this to continue at this time. we are forced to accept this, perhaps to grieve and certainly to look forward to the time when we will come together around the Lord ’s Table again.

We regret what cannot be but we should also look to those parts of our life that can be continued, enriched and even transformed. There is much that we can do together through social media and other forms of communication, new ideas are being shared on a daily basis among the churches. We continue to pray and will find ways of praying together at particular times and in different ways. Our Methodist Prayer Handbook and other prayer disciplines enable us to retain a sense of community even when we are not in the same place. At a time when we could become completely absorbed by the coronavirus outbreak, prayer schemes and set liturgies encourage us to look beyond our immediate circumstances and to engage with the wider context.

The call to care for others, to be aware of the needs of our neighbours and to offer hope in the desert place of fear and despair is another distinctive of our faith and we are finding many ways to share God’s love with those around us.

In exile we still respond to the calling of the Methodist Church to respond to the gospel of God's love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission.

We are a people in exile and a people of hope, we are a people for such a time as this.

As St Paul wrote:

in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:38-39)