2 Lent—Year C/ March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12,17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Today we overhear Paul speaking to the church in Philippi, which is in Northern Greece. About hundred years before Paul writes his letter, in 42 BC, after the death of Julius Caesar, there is a Roman civil war in which generals Mark Antony and Octavian, later to be Augustus Caesar, win a decisive battle in Philippi. After the great victory there is no more fighting to be done so the soldiers are let off from their service, but there’s a problem. If they all return to Rome they will overwhelm the city, so Philippi is made into a Roman colony and the soldiers are given land in and around it. This is a beautiful spot, without all the overcrowding and poverty of Rome. And as a Roman colony they know if barbarian hoards attack, Rome will send its legions to repel the invaders. Now a hundred years later, Philippi is a beautiful, prosperous Roman Colony. So says N T Wright.
Paul has a great affection for this church as he says, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved people”.
And he encourages them to “join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”
So far so good—we get this—he loves them and wants them to continue following the crucified and risen Christ in the same way Paul follows Christ. But then he says something that is often seriously misunderstood. He writes: “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
What does it mean to say “Our citizenship is in heaven?”
Growing up in the protestant south you are taught that being a “citizen of heaven” means you can’t wait to leave this lousy earth and get to heaven as soon as possible. Like an American tourist stranded in a third world country that is having a revolution—get me out of here now!
But this is exactly what Paul does not mean. All those citizens of Rome living in Philippi have no desire to move to Rome which is overcrowded and has economic problems. Rather what they want as Roman citizens is to create the values, culture, language, and beauty of Rome in Philippi.
Likewise, those citizens of heaven living in Philippi are charged by Paul, not to move to heaven, but to create the values, culture, consciousness, and beauty of heaven in Philippi. And they know as well, that one day Christ will show up to bring the fullness of God’s kingdom in Philippi.
In the meantime, however, Paul encourages the small church to stand firm in the Lord, showing their ultimate allegiance to Christ, not to Caesar, bringing the love and peace of Christ into their city.
I might have said, “showing their ultimate faith in Christ”, but a couple of years ago a book appeared with the title: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, by Matthew Bates.
I have only read a sample of the book but in an interview the author says he substitutes the word “allegiance” for the word “faith”, because in our culture faith means something we have in our heads—we make a mental assent to Jesus as God’s Son and we think that’s what it means to have faith.
That turns faith into a thin mental concept that has no power to change lives so they can make visible Christ’s Kingdom. It means on one hand, we can say we have faith in Christ, while, on the other hand, actually serving Caesar.
This explains how some can proclaim to the world with their Bibles flapping in the wind, that they have great faith in Christ, while at the same time working tirelessly to repress the poor, people of color, and followers of other religions.
But the word Allegiance won’t let us get away with thinking one thing in our head and doing something else in our lives. As one reviewer said, “The right response to Jesus is not simply trust or intellectual assent but rather wholehearted allegiance.” Joshua Jipp
Living as a citizen of heaven means our central allegiance is to Christ, and not to whatever country we find ourselves living in. It is a costly allegiance in Philippi because it might mean that if you don’t burn incense in front of the statue of Caesar your livelihood and even your life can be taken away from you by Rome.
In 16th century Japan converts to Christ had to prove their allegiance to the ruling Shogun by stepping and spitting on a picture of Jesus.
Every year in our chapel service we celebrate the 26 Martyrs of Japan who were crucified in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. There is a 2018 movie directed by Martin Scorsese called “Silence”, based on an excellent novel with the same title that depicts the struggle of living as citizens of heaven in a hostile land.
Jesus wants to bring heaven to earth but the Powers that Be are not having it. He cries out: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Notice Jesus’ image for God and for himself is that of a Mother—a Mother Hen protecting her brood under her wings against a fox like Herod and against the values of the world.
Jesus, like a mother, gives his life for the children by revealing the heart of God and true living on the cross. The cross is the central symbol of the Mind of Christ, yet Paul says there are some in Philippi who are enemies of the cross of Christ. They don’t want to live the values of Christ, but the values of the power, wealth, and violence. As a recent example just look at those who used their wealth to illegally get their kids into elite schools—is this the way of Christ or the way of the World?
Paul says: “I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
This worldly mind, in a much more horrible way, is revealed in Christchurch, New Zealand as a white nationalist murders 50 Muslims saying their Friday prayers. It was on a Friday several months ago that a number of us from All Saints’ were in the Chelmsford Mosque, bowing our heads on beautiful carpets as a sign of our allegiance to Christ.
No one is perfectly filled with the Mind of Christ. But the Spirit of Christ is in fact living in each of us and prompts us daily to remember our allegiance to Christ and Christ’s call to bring into the places where we live and work his values, culture, beauty, and consciousness as citizens of the Kingdom of God.