One of the oldest Christian pilgrimages is the Camino de Santiago, which largely traverses northern Spain. The most popular route originates in Biarritz, France, and ends 500 miles later at the shrine of St. James in a cathedral in Galicia, northwest Spain, not too far from the coast. As one might suspect, the pilgrimage originated in the Roman Catholic Church as a way to do penance to atone for temporal punishment due to sins. Wikipedia claims that, “according to this system, pilgrimages were a suitable form of expiation for some temporal punishment, and they could be used as acts of penance for those who were guilty of certain crimes.”
Now, as a good Protestant, I don’t buy it. I could circumnavigate the globe on foot—if it were possible—and wouldn’t atone for being snippy with the checkout clerk at Kroger. Only Christ can atone for my sins, and He paid the full price for all of them on the old rugged cross.
That being said, even as a Protestant I can see benefit to taking a pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago—even spiritual benefit, albeit in a different way than envisioned by Pope Callixtus II. A trek such as this could be very effective at reorienting me to my rightful place in this world as a pilgrim—passing through a land not my own to a desired ultimate destination. And that’s a needful perspective as a follower of Christ, a vital part of the way I view the world and my place in it.
In his first letter, Peter helps us with this orientation, even if we never set foot in Spain. He refers to those he addresses as “strangers” (as the KJV translates it) or “exiles” (as the ESV has it) or even “sojourners.” Whichever term you choose, the point is they’re people who don’t belong. He may simply be writing to Jews who, because of intense persecution, had to leave their homes and resettle in another region—sort of like today’s Syrian refugees. They don’t really belong in the land where they’ve resettled.
But I think there’s more to it than that. They’re a people still under persecution and are suffering greatly. So my sense is that Peter’s talking about the common status of every believer in this world, regardless of nation, culture, language, etc. The reality is the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven—our ultimate destination on this journey or “pilgrimage” of life. The apostle Paul made that very point in his letter to the church in Philippi. After exhorting Christians to follow the right kind of godly leaders, he mentioned the alternative—leaders, he declares, who are the enemies of Christ, whose “end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But,” he points out in bold contrast, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ….” (Philippians 3:17-20 emphasis mine).
Given that the Christian’s citizenship is not in this world, how appropriate that Peter describes his letter’s recipients as sojourners regardless of which region of Asia Minor they’ve landed in. What’s also significant is that all the believers in those regions are so identified, and they would come from all strata of Roman society. Some would’ve been slaves, either by having been conquered in war or by being bought on the slave market. Some would be citizens of Rome by birth (as was Paul). Others purchased their Roman citizenship. Depending on the city they live in, they may not have been citizens at all, merely tributaries to their Roman conquerors with some limited degree of freedom.
As followers of Christ in this world, we need to see ourselves rightly in relation to it. Whatever my community—large or small, rural or urban, inner-city or suburban—regardless of my national and cultural heritage, wherever I hold national citizenship, ultimately I am a citizen of heaven. That is my destination and final, eternal home. In the meantime, I’m a pilgrim on a sojourn. And while en route, all those other ties are important, but only temporarily so.
One of the highlights often mentioned by pilgrims on the Camino is the relationships forged along the way—people they meet, walk alongside, break bread with, share a hostel room, engage in hours-long conversations, and more. They forge the most lasting connections with those headed toward the same destination, the cathedral in Galicia.
So, too, the Christian’s earthly pilgrimage. Again, Peter encourages the Asian pilgrims:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart…. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.1 Peter 1:22; 2:11
As followers of Christ, we’re to make much of our common citizenship. It should be a point of unity that overshadows many of the lesser points of disagreement—doesn’t eliminate them or make them totally unimportant, but minimizes them in light of the larger sojourn.
We don’t stop at hostels along this journey, but we do step off the everyday path for awhile and gather as the people of God to enjoy sweet communion as we worship, learn, pray, and fellowship together. This is a vital part of the pilgrimage, one we ignore to our own detriment or enjoy to our soul’s delight.
See you along the way, I trust!