The experience “the church” is currently undergoing is not an exile – it is a return! It is a return that is providing an opportunity through which we might learn to be the church again – living as aliens, outcasts, heretics in a world that is inherited through meekness; not through being at the centre but by being the underground, the rebellion, the subversive people of peace, justice and hope through whom the rule of a God who died in the mess of space-time becomes realized.
The church is not in “exile”!
The church is not in exile because it is the home of “exiles”, aliens, outcasts, ragamuffins and the refuse of the world.
The church can’t be exiled from power because it doesn’t have any – ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (Mk. 10:43-44).
The church can’t be exiled from its privileges because it denies them (Lk. 9:57-62).
The church can’t be exiled from the position it occupies in the world because it knows it is not welcome (Matt. 5:10-12; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Phil. 3:20).
And the church can’t be exiled from its personhood because its only identity is found in the radical equalization of life in Christ (Gal. 3:28), the primary activity of which is self-denial.
The church is an alternative community or polis that calls the world to account by its very being – it will suffer for this, it will not be welcome in the world for the implicit critique it is to the world by its very being.
This is the church – and for this reason the church cannot be in “exile”. The church is a community of radical otherness that exists fully for the world – it’s definition of it’s position; privilege, power and personhood do not derive the conclusion that the church can be “in exile”. The church is an outpost of heaven in the world, its commonwealth is elsewhere and this commonwealth is coming here. Exile does not apply to the church because the church, while it can name the world “home”, is not “at home” in the world as it currently exists – and so it works for the world’s betterment in the full knowledge it shall be opposed by those who have a different vision.
I believe it is more than likely, if “exile” is our adjective of choice; we are no longer talking about the church. We may at the very least be talking about the vague and mistaken dream of Christendom and at most struggling for what is ultimately an insufficient Biblical precedent for understanding where we currently find ourselves.
The ruins of buildings that resembled churches surround us in a world that no longer cares who we are – this is not exile, it is irrelevance, and it is in the ruins of what should not have been that we may just learn to be the church again. And it is in refusing to rebuild what was that we will find new space to begin calling the world to account, in its midst, through our practical integrity and faithfulness as we struggle and suffer as alternative communities that exist invariably for the world as we live to realize a kingdom that is founded through our sharing in a death on a cross that all may live again.