Below is an excerpt from a sermon preached on 08 October 2017, on Philippians 3:14-21. It has been edited to better fit a print format.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” – Philippians 3:20-21(ESV)
What does it mean to be a citizen?
To be a citizen is to belong to a community – to be an integral member of a body of people. Citizenship affords the citizen the right to be defended by the ruler – to have assurance that their lives and livelihoods will be protected so long as the nation stands. In a well-run State, the citizen is provided for in order to preserve the social order and ensure the continued well-ordered function of society. A citizen is also disciplined, and restricted by laws that place bounds on what it is acceptable for the individual to do.
It is for these reasons that Paul depicts our life in Christ as citizens of Heaven. When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I immediately know that I am joined to the body of believers that makes up the Body of Christ. When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand that I rely on God for protection, just as in my civic life – if I am a good citizen dwelling in a just society – I rely on the instruments of the government to defend my life and livelihood. When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand most completely that I am not a citizen of this world – that I am a sojourner among a strange people, a wanderer that is making his way home.
We, like Paul, are refugees fleeing the tyranny of Death. Imagine the worst regime you could live under or be threatened by, and the one who seeks to oppress us is worse, and indeed the orchestrator of all of them. We, like Paul, have been granted asylum, and not just asylum, but naturalization; indeed, we will be made as if we had been born within the bounds of Heaven from the beginning, reckoned as natural-born citizens of the Kingdom.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that Paul is moved to tears by those who “walk as enemies of the Cross”? They are just as oppressed as we were, they enjoy no more favorable status than we do, though it may look that way on the outside. And yet, they have chosen the blasted warzone for their home, though green pastures and quiet waters were a few steps away. They choose to rebuild the shanty that has been blown down over and over, and will be blown down once more, when a house with a sure foundation is just a little further inland. They are the prisoner in a camp who is given a modicum of sham authority to berate and degrade their fellow prisoners, when in the end the Oppressor will kill them along with those in bondage with them.
It would not do justice to Paul’s analogy to turn this into a discussion of “good” versus “bad” citizenship – he doesn’t leave room for there to be a “bad” citizen. His contrast is between those who are citizens and those who are not. Those who are await a Savior from Heaven who will change us from being naturalized asylum seekers to being natural-born citizens of Heaven. Those who are not citizens pledge allegiance to a power that uses them up and affords them no benefits or quarter or justice. We who will recite the Nicene Creed in a few moments pledge allegiance to a powerful God who sustains and builds us up, raising us to life, providing shelter from the enemy, and affording us the justness of His mercy in the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we are Citizens, we are part of the community of Believers. Each of us contributes to the building up of the congregation, each voice lends its distinct note to our common refrain. We are protected from the perils assaulting the soul and the spirit, that the roving lion who is our enemy is kept at bay from inflicting true harm. We may be killed in the body, or struck with illness, or have our minds clouded in age, but we will be made new, and will never depart the presence of our God, and will not fear the tribulation and woes promised to the earth and the waters.
As Citizens, we are expected to perform certain duties – a citizen of the United States pays taxes, follows laws, and in some cases, answers the call of the Nation to come to its aid and defense. Citizens of Heaven laboring on Earth are called to sacrifice to God and the Church, our time, talents and treasure; to remain Holy, as our Father in Heaven is Holy; and to stand against the power of the Enemy, relying on God for our salvation in battle against the oppressor.
The character of God throughout Scripture is to value the broken and contrite heart above all other offerings. Unlike an earthly tax imposed by a State, which serves to sustain the daily operation of the government, our contributions are neither imposed nor are they for sustaining either God or Church. God made everything we would give him, and the Church at times has subsisted in the desert. Instead, our free offerings are the fruits of our appreciation in being granted asylum; we give gifts not out of obligation or because we want continued favor, but because our King gave us gifts, and we want to be like Him. Practically, we accomplish this when we pledge a portion of our income, give sacrificially to support the ministries around us, and volunteer our time in the liturgical life of the church. In these sacrifices, our citizenship is realized in the emulation of our Ruler.
Earthly nation-states have codes of laws governing the acceptability and suitability of the actions of the citizens under their rule. These laws define the standard of conduct for citizens to follow, and set the bar for everyday interaction between citizen and community. In the Heavenly State, the standard is Holiness, which is more than perfect action in accordance with God’s commandments – it is recognizing that I, having been granted asylum, am no longer bound by the clamor within me that beckons me to overindulge in food and drink, to put off work I can do during the week for when I have more time on Sunday, to lust and covet after what I don’t have, or to forego my prayer time because I want to get out the door for work just a little bit earlier. Holiness, simply put, is refusing to cede ground from the height that God has called me to, lest I sink into the sinful mire that the world around me tells me is normal because it is “human nature.” Our citizenship is confirmed in the Holy Spirit urging us toward right conduct and turning our hearts away from our “nature” and toward our Savior.
It is true that in most countries, only a few citizens are called on to defend the nation by force of arms. In America, our military is staffed by an all-volunteer force, and only a few of them are called to active combat roles. In contrast, we citizens of Heaven who labor on earth are not citizens who wait in the homeland for the army to return; we are that Army, undertaking missions and campaigns to advance the Kingdom in daily lives by seeking the welfare of others, even those who would be our enemies. All of us are called to stand against the Enemy in our daily lives, whether he assaults us in our personal struggles with addiction, habits, and the various temptations of our mortal bodies, or whether he assaults us from others’ unreasoned hatred of someone who is different from them or us. We are not expected to defeat the Enemy, because Satan is too much for us to beat finally – but we resist his call and his lures and seek to break his hold over others by showing them another way. In following the banner of the Cross wherever it leads, we daily lay claim to our citizenship.
It should be clear that Paul’s vision of citizenship is an inherently active one. Because of this, it should be no surprise that when he says “we await a Savior” he likewise intends an active waiting.
We wait for Heaven to send a Savior, not as someone who sits and waits, but like someone who is walking on a road, waiting for their friend to come and join them. Part of this walk, and this waiting, is ensuring that our daily life looks like that of our Godly examples given us both in Scripture and by Providence in our lives. This includes living out the commands and practical advice given by Paul and the other Apostles, as well as heeding the words of those God has placed in our daily lives as examples and authorities. God has placed spiritually mature brothers and sisters among His people who have seen similar struggles to ours and whom God has blessed with an opportunity to witness to us. In the Tradition of the Church, he has raised up Apostolic witnesses in our Bishops and Priests to provide voices from authority when we need more clear words of comfort and discipline.
Keeping our walk in this way is not only for our benefit, but for those who will come after us, so that we may be those spiritually mature siblings to the next generation of Christians, both physical and spiritual little children. Going back to the Army metaphor from a little earlier, we watch our mature brothers and sisters in Christ like a new recruit watching seasoned veterans and learning the courtesies and customs of the army we march in. In turn, we walk as those veterans for the benefit of the ones looking to our example.
Continue to meditate on this idea of “citizenship of Heaven,” and what it means to await our Savior as citizens. Examine your walk, and consciously live your lives to be held up as an example for those that come after you.
“Our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior.” Lord come quickly, and change us from asylum seekers and naturalized aliens to natural born citizens under you. Amen.