Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2019
Philippians 3:17-4:1 Commentary
We generally think of citizenship as, for instance, American, Canadian or whichever geographic country we call “home”. That citizenship not only identifies us but also shapes at least some of our attitudes and behavior.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, is not about national, but heavenly citizenship. That citizenship too, writes Paul, defines not only our identity, but also our behavior. So like what shape does that citizenship take?
Interestingly, and perhaps puzzlingly, Paul says that heavenly citizenship looks a lot like his lifestyle, like his “example” (17). Yet such a claim may make those who proclaim this passage wince. Few of us, after all, have enough courage to claim to be role models for other people.
Of course, others may choose to imitate us. I’ve read that Johan Sebastian Bach watched and listened very carefully to the organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach’s many trips to Buxtehude’s church deeply influenced his own music’s style and vitality. Nothing, however, suggests that Buxtehude actually told Bach to imitate him.
So what’s going on when Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to follow his example? It perhaps helps to remember that “many enemies of the cross of Christ” (18) surround his readers. As Earl Palmer (The Lectionary Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001, 363) to whom I’m indebted for many of this Commentary’s insights, notes earlier, Paul had warned against the legalism of the Judaizers. These enemies of the cross taught that all Christians had to follow the Law of Moses. Here, however, the apostle warns of an opposite danger. Enemies of the cross who call themselves Christians seem to be allowing their Christian freedom to justify any behavior they desire.
As Fred Craddock (Philippians, John Knox Press, 1985, 66) notes, Paul probably wrote to the Philippians around the time of the beginning of the heresy that is Gnosticism. Gnostics taught that the body isn’t important because people have a purely spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. They thought that they were so spiritual that God didn’t care what they did with their bodies.
When Paul calls the Philippian Christians to imitate him, he knows that many people surround them are Gnostics or others who don’t follow Jesus Christ. As a result, while they have many potential role models, Paul is one of the few who’s a disciple of Jesus. That’s why the apostle writes that instead of patterning their lives after various enemies of the cross, the Philippians should imitate him.
Enemies of the cross’ fate, after all, is destruction, not the resurrection. Their desire is to satisfy their own desires, not share in Christ’s sufferings. Their glory is in their own shame, not in God’s work in Christ.
The 21st century certainly has its own share of enemies of the cross of Christ. Some are legalists who assume they must somehow earn God’s approval. Others are hedonists who think God doesn’t care about what they do, as long as they don’t harm anyone else.
God’s grief over such enemies of the cross shapes God’s adopted sons and daughters’ own thoughts about and actions towards them. Instead of merely loudly criticizing them, we weep for them. Instead of summarily condemning enemies of the cross to hell, you and I pray they would allow the Spirit to make them citizens of heaven.
Christians long for all people to live as citizens of heaven. After all, heaven is a kind of municipality that holds our citizenship papers. In other words, it holds our primary loyalty. Of course, the idea of heavenly citizenship may sound completely otherworldly. We might assume citizens of heaven are those who “speak of pie-in-the-sky and take no thought for present realities.” However, those whose citizenship is in heaven are simply those whom God rules from that realm. We are those whose rights, responsibilities and resulting lifestyle God shapes.
Of course, Christian citizens of heaven are also citizens of the communities and nations in which we live. The Scriptures, in fact, talk about the shape of good citizenship, challenging us to pray for and respect those God has put in authority over us. The Scriptures also at least imply that heaven’s citizens must call our various leaders to leadership that advances the well-being of all people.
God’s beloved people live on this earth, in this time and place. So when our nations’ laws don’t conflict with God’s law, we obey them. However, our primary values, commitments, loyalties and allegiances always lie in heaven, with God’s will. So while we’re appropriately loyal to our earthly government, our true home, our true Ruler, our true citizenship, is elsewhere.
As Palmer (ibid) points out, these two citizenships in some ways overlap each other. If we live as good citizens of heaven by, for example, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we fulfill many of our responsibilities as citizens of our home countries. If, on the other hand, we’re irresponsible citizens here and now, we may not be responsible citizens of heaven.
Americans used to think that Christian and American citizenships completely overlapped. We assumed that because we’re relatively free citizens of a republic, we have no problems with our country. Increasingly, however, American Christians sense that something’s wrong with our country and culture. Our loyalties to heaven and its Ruler increasingly conflict with our loyalties to our countries and their leaders.
Our countries, after all, want to make us good and decent citizens. Jesus Christ wants to make us disciples. Our culture wants us to be successful and powerful. Jesus Christ wants us to be servants. The world calls us to sacrifice everything to the gods that are money, sexual fulfillment, power and prestige. God calls us to sacrifice everything to follow Jesus Christ.
That means that God’s beloved children’s relationship with this world, even with its countries of which you and I are citizens, will always be a troubled one. Our loyalties may conflict over issues like our countries’ use of military power and treatment of the poor.
Will Willimon suggests that history gives us many examples of how it’s easier to be a citizen of a particular country than of heaven. Much of the German church, for instance, found it easier to be a citizen of Nazi Germany than of heaven. That left it unwilling to see things like the Holocaust clearly and call it by its proper name. Instead many German Christians, including most of their most prominent leaders, were all too eager to let the Nazis brutalize Europe.
Some Christians, however, though they didn’t always know what to do, at least retained the vision to say what was true. Some members of what we call the Confessing Church looked at Hitler and said “No!” In a time of great compromise, some brave Christian citizens of Germany still remembered that they were citizens of heaven.
Karl Barth wrote the “The Barmen Declaration” that tried to help the Confessing Church see things clearly. While most German Christians were listening to Adolph Hitler, he wrote, “Jesus Christ . . . is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
The Germans, however, certainly didn’t have a monopoly on comfort with being citizens of some realm other than heaven. The American church far too so long either condoned or remained silent about the evils that were slavery and segregation. We also stood largely silent while we decimated our Native American population.
Many voices have competed and still compete with Jesus Christ for our attention and loyalty. God’s people don’t naturally listen to Jesus any more closely than most German Christians did. We naturally listen to voices that glorify wealth, power and prestige, as well as exult military might and political power.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this second Sunday in Lent reminds us that we are citizens of heaven. It invites God’s children to seek to serve and worship Jesus Christ in all things. Citizens of heaven try, as Jesus did, to be honest, faithful to our promises, loving toward our enemies. We honor the poor, suffer for righteousness’ sake and, so, point to God’s amazing power to create a loving community.
Yet the cross of Jesus is a chilling reminder of the world’s hostility toward citizens of heaven. It’s a sign of what happens when Christians view reality the way God, not the world, views things. The cross is a sign of what may happen when we obey the demands of our heavenly citizenship more than we obey the demands of our nations.
Yet citizens of heaven can involve ourselves fully in living as God’s servants, as Jesus’ disciples, in this world that’s so scarred by sin. After all, we know where, if not exactly when, the “finish line” will come. We know that when Jesus Christ returns, he’ll complete the good work he has begun in us. When he returns, he will remake us to be fully citizens of heaven who so closely resemble him.
We spend much of our lives reaching for our various passports of this world. You and I sometimes look at them to remind us of what it means to be citizens of this world. In worship, however, we reach for our true passport as citizens of heaven.
In worship God reminds us of our ultimate values and commitments. In worship, we remember to whom and what we’re most loyal. In worship we remember that being a citizen of heaven makes all the difference for how citizens live on earth.
A civil disturbance broke out in a country an American pastor was visiting. His tour guide reassured his group as it huddled in a hotel lobby, “Remember, you are American citizens. You are protected by the American government.” The pastor says the sense of that protection impressed him.
But even more, this pastor/tourist remembers his guide adding, “Remember, you must behave like citizens from a law-abiding democracy. You are Americans.” That impressed the pastor even more. His tour guide was, after all, saying that their American citizenship not only defined their identity, but also shaped their actions and reactions.
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