Citizenship

The Second Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2022
Philippians 3:17-4:1

You are never more aware of where you are from than when you travel. I didn’t know how American I was until I spent a month in the Dominican Republic. And I remember moving to Washington, D.C. for seminary. I didn’t realize how much of a Texan I was. I mean, their “barbecue” and “Mexican food” were, well, not much. And a couple of years ago Maggie and I visited Belfast in Northern Ireland. We got a ride in the taxi cab and I swear I could not understand a word the driver. You are never more aware of where you are from than when you travel. 

This hints at Saint Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians. He writes to them, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Let’s unpack that a bit. It’s important to know that Philippi, the church in the city to which Saint Paul is writing, was a Roman colony. This would mean that the people of Philippi were Roman citizens. This afforded the Philippians some status in the ancient world. They weren’t just another city, another place on the map. They were a bona fide colony of Rome. They were citizens. And it was from there, from Rome, that they had a ruler, the emperor in Rome. Many of the early inhabitants of the city were veterans of the Roman legions. Even though the two cities are thousands of miles apart, the Philippians considered themselves part of Rome.

With that in mind, you can see where Saint Paul is going with this. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Saint Paul is offering a not so subtle reminder to the Christians in Philippi that their true ruler is not the emperor in Rome but the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. It is there, in heaven, that we owe our allegiance. And it is from there that we expect salvation. A salvation that no earthly power can provide.

This all sounds very well and good, until I put myself into the shoes of those Philippians. Personally, I’m a little offended by Saint Paul. I mean, imagine that we live in Philippi. We’re proud of our city, we’re proud of our heritage, we’re proud that some of our earliest citizens fought for the legions. We’re proud of our allegiance to Rome and to the emperor. Sure, we’ve joined the church and all, but this seems a step too far. If I was one of the Philippians, I probably would’ve said, “Paul, you need to stick to religion. Talk to us about Jesus. Talk to us about faith. But keep the emperor out of it.” 

It’s a criticism that just about every preacher has heard, that their sermons are too political. That they should just stick to religion. That politics have no room in the church or in the pulpit. It’s been said to me. But I want to share with you some words of Bishop Milton Richardson, who was Bishop of Texas from 1965 to 1980. He was, shall we say, not the most forward thinking bishop. But he said this once, he said: “Too often I hear the question, “Why doesn’t the Church stick to religion?’ Lay people often say they do not want the clergy speaking on contemporary public issues.” 

But you know, what they really mean is they want their preacher to agree with the views they already hold on public issues. 

The bishop says, “Lay people usually say this when they disagree with your position. If you preach against communism from the pulpit, though it is a public question, very few people complain about that.” Yikes.

This is something that the modern Church has to struggle with. The way I see it, the Church has been bought off by promises of power and persuasion. We have been bought off by this side or the other by the vain promises they make to us. We have become far too much like the Department of Religion for some earthly state instead of the embassy for the heavenly country. If this world, if this life, if the politics of this world seem like the only way to do business, well, then, it just shows that our citizenship is still here below. It shows that we haven’t yet met Jesus. (See, The New Testament in its World, Wright & Bird).

As ambassadors of Jesus, as citizens of heaven, we gather here to get out orders. To know the mind of our leader, to gather with fellow ambassadors so that we can go out and advance the same goal, the same mission. We are here today because we are desperate to hear about and to hear from Jesus. We, the Church, followers of Jesus, will not be conformed to the ways of the world, but we will be transformed by the power of Jesus. And then transform the world so that it would look more and more like heaven. I know this sounds political, but that’s because the Church, our faith, the Lord Jesus, is concerned with every human being, every human organization. Yes, we are citizens of heaven, that is our identity. But we are more than that, we are ambassadors. That is our mission. 

Bishop Richardson says it best, “The Christian has to do not with a particular providence of life but with all the provinces. The sovereignty of God extends not only over prayer and worship but over all interests and activities. The Church should be concerned that the social order and international order function in accord with God’s will.” (Bishop’s Address to the 119th Council of the Diocese of Texas). Yes, we are concerned with how the world is run, because we are ambassadors from Jesus. It is our diplomatic mission to make the world more like heaven.

With all that in mind, of course, our thoughts turn to world events, to the war and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. What do we do, what do we say as Christians? What do we say when we see hospitals and homes bombed out? What do we do when we see streams of refugees pouring out of a country in chaos? As ambassadors of Jesus, how do we bring heaven to earth when it’s all going to hell in a hand basket?

First things first. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. Though we are citizens of heaven, we live here, in this world. And it is our solemn duty, our sacred responsibility, to make this world as holy as possible. We are a human family, and we must care for each other when we suffer. Just as Jesus cares for us when we suffer. This problem in Ukraine, this problem of war, it is our problem, it is the Church’s problem because as the good bishop once said, the Church is concerned with every aspect of life, including the social and international order.

Now, it would all be too easy right now just to pile on and piggyback on what everyone else has already said. Obviously, is it wrong to attack civilians. Obviously, we are opposed to nuclear war and to the threats of nuclear war. Obviously, as followers of Jesus, we believe that all humans are beloved by God and should be afforded basic human dignity. But beyond that, I have no idea what we should do going forward. And maybe that’s why I feel so helpless, why I’ve become so keenly aware of where I am, and where the world is. I feel helpless, much as a man might feel helpless as his arms are being nailed to a cross. You see it, right? At the very moment when we do feel helpless, at the very moment when the world is crucified to us and we are crucified to the world, we finally know what it means to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ, an ambassador of the one who was crucified. In this present moment, I don’t know what to do, but I know who we are. We are people who will open wide our hearts and arms to those who are suffering. We are people who, like our Lord Jesus, will willingly bear pain so that others may live. We are people on a mission, and our mission is to make this world like heaven. We are citizens not of any one place or state or government – we are citizens of heaven, ambassadors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One thought on “Citizenship

  1. Thanks Jimmy. Having listened to sermons here for 3 decades , it is so rare that current tragic affairs are part of the sermon . I would wonder why there was relevance usually to our own lives but nothing connected with news that swirled around us and we’d rather not think about . It was as if we lived in a small spiritual bubble which floated around. So I congratulate you on your courage to speak as you did today and earth us to God’s life.

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