Augustine observes that it was Cain (the first murderer) who built the first city, “while Abel, as though he were merely a pilgrim on earth, built none.”
Augustine uses that example to talk about the people of God as a wandering people–– “as on a pilgrimage through time looking for the Kingdom of eternity.”
The next case of city-building in Scripture is no better. In it, the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We know that tower as the Tower of Babel.
What’s wrong with this picture? “Let’s make a name for ourselves” is an easy clue. Beyond that, the people are doing their best to avoid scattering “over the face of the whole earth.” That’s a problem when God has already twice told them to fill the earth.
So God confuses the people’s language, ends their building, and scatters them “over the face of the whole earth.” God accomplishes his will, regardless. Sadly, it happens in spite of the people, rather than in cooperation with them.
By contrast, look at how the book of Hebrews describes Abraham:
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”[1. Heb 11:9-10]
Cain built a city. Those at Babel tried to build a city. But Abraham lived in tents. Now look at the concluding statement, with references to life on earth and the city of God:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”[1. Heb 11:13-16]
Pilgrim people, Pilgrim church
Augustine says that we’re a pilgrim people, even a pilgrim church. But our flesh lusts after safety, security, and permanence.
The Israelites in the desert longed to go back to Egypt. They created romantic ideals in their heads about those great times in Egypt, where they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted.[1. Exod 16:3] Why the false romantic notions? Because a trek through the desert is neither safe, nor secure, nor comfortable. At least there’s comfort and some security in the known––even if it involves slavery in Egypt.
This is the constant tension we face as the people of God. We live in this world as foreigners and exiles, pilgrims on a journey, never fully settled here because this world and its desires pass away.
We can’t build any new city where we will be fully comfortable. No cloistered community will suffice. The utopian paradise––where we make our own rules and everything works––is a dangerous mirage. The city we seek is the city of God, and it comes only when God’s new creation comes. We can have tastes of it now–– “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come!”[1. 2 Cor 5:17]––but these are only tastes. For now, we remain pilgrims.
What does it mean for Christians to live as pilgrim people? What does it mean for the Church to live as a pilgrim Church? It at least means living with less comfort than we would prefer.
We follow a Messiah who said, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”[1. Matt 8:20] One scholar comments on that line: “The nature of his mission kept him on the move and would keep his followers on the move.”[1. D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew] We follow the teachings of a man named Paul who traveled across the Roman Empire, often in peril, to preach the gospel and help establish churches. In my tradition, we follow in the more recent footsteps of circuit riding preachers who traveled the country by horseback––again at great risk to life and health––for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.
In our own desires, we seek safety, security and permanence. Those can seduce us away from the hard, but better, road of pilgrims. We can settle for what’s comfortable and safe. We can try to stop and build our own secure cities and become comfortable in this world, because the pilgrim life is too daunting.
If we ever find ourselves fully comfortable and content––safe, secure, and at ease––might we wonder if we’ve settled too soon, camped out at a way station along the trail as if it were the final destination?