Pilgrims and pilgrimage

by Michael E. Brooks

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1).

It is pilgrimage season in the Muslim world. The Islamic religion promotes five “pillars” of faith which are:

  • Ramadan (one month per year of fasting)
  • prayer (5 times per day)
  • alms-giving (as one is able)
  • the frequent recitation of the “Shahadha” (“There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”)
  • the “Hajj” – a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which every Muslim who is able is to make at least once in a lifetime.

In this part of the world a “pilgrim” is one who is on his way to Mecca.

In the U.S. pilgrim has a different connotation. We think “Mayflower” and remember the brave party of religious refugees who fled England in the seventeenth century so they could practice their own faith without fear of persecution.

The word brings to our minds the story of their suffering during a hard winter and their Thanksgiving celebrations when a bountiful harvest assured their survival.

Peter’s use of the word differs from each of these. He is describing Jewish Christians who lived in cities of what is now Turkey – the same area Paul visited on his first missionary journey.

They were not traveling at the time Peter wrote. Most of them had been resident there for generations — hundreds of years. We would not consider them pilgrims, but possibly exiles, refugees, or ex-patriots. Many of them no doubt were comfortable and happy in the only home they had ever known.

But to the apostle they were “pilgrims.” This Greek word suggests one who is staying somewhere temporarily. The New American Standard translates it “aliens.”

Elsewhere Peter uses the alternate term, “strangers” (1 Peter 2:11). He is not concerned with their travels, if any, but with their relationship to their current surroundings.

There is a vast difference in our perception of “home” versus “somewhere else.” We are rarely or never as comfortable in another place as we are in our familiar home environment.

Peter uses this fact of human nature to remind us that as Christians we are always in a strange place, far from our natural situation. This world is an alien environment, inhospitable to those who would “walk by the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).

In 1 Peter 4:4, he points out that “Gentiles” (unbelievers) will be surprised at Christian values and will not react well to our insistence upon them. They will treat us as foreigners, because in truth we are.

Christians are different -– fundamentally, intrinsically different from those who do not share their faith.

The address of Peter’s first epistle reminds us that we are in a strange place -– this physical world –- and we must never be too comfortable here.

Be prepared to be treated as aliens, with hostility. Accept it, and know that the Lord is with us.


One thought on “Pilgrims and pilgrimage

  1. In his book, Talking With My Father: Jesus Teaches on Prayer, the late Ray Stedman writes,
    “An old missionary couple had been working in Africa for years and were returning to New York to retire. They had no pension; their health was broken; they were defeated, discouraged, and afraid. They discovered they were booked on the same ship as President Teddy Roosevelt, who was returning from one of his big-game hunting expeditions.
    “No one paid any attention to them. They watched the fanfare that accompanied the President’s entourage, with passengers trying to catch a glimpse of the great man.
    “As the ship moved across the ocean, the old missionary said to his wife, ‘Something is wrong. Why should we have given our lives in faithful service for God in Africa all these many years and have no one care a thing about us? Here this man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody makes much over him, but nobody gives two hoots about us.’
    “‘Dear, you shouldn’t feel that way,’ his wife said.
    “‘I can’t help it; it doesn’t seem right.’ “When the ship docked in New York, a band was waiting to greet the President.
    “The mayor and other dignitaries were there. The papers were full of the President’s arrival, but no one noticed this missionary couple. They slipped off the ship and found a cheap flat on the East Side, hoping the next day to see what they could do to make a living in the city.
    “That night the man’s spirit broke. He said to his wife, ‘I can’t take this; God is not treating us fairly.’
    “His wife replied, ‘Why don’t you go in the bedroom and tell that to the Lord?’
    “A short time later he came out from the bedroom, but now his face was completely different. His wife asked, ‘Dear, what happened?’
    “‘The Lord settled it with me,’ he said. ‘I told him how bitter I was that the President should receive this tremendous homecoming, when no one met us as we returned home. And when I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put his hand on my shoulder and simply said, ‘But you’re not home yet!'”

    – from a sermon by the late Dave Redick

Share your thoughts: