Citizens of heaven

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2019. Earlier this weekend, a white terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, killing at least 50 people at prayer and injuring scores more. Jesus wept.

Our citizenship is in heaven, writes Paul (Philippians 4:20). You may well imagine that as someone who has lived as a native, an alien, an expatriate, an immigrant, and a so-called naturalized citizen in a few different nations on three very different continents that Paul’s words hold particular meaning for me, and you would be right. Some of you feel the same resonance in your gut, in your heart. Paul’s own journey and life was profoundly and inescapably affected by the tension between his religion, his conversion, and his citizenship of Rome.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and Jesus is our Lord. It is a promise that has sustained more wretched wanderers than I have been, protected as I am by privilege. Our citizenship is in heaven, whisper the refugee and the asylum seeker, the trafficked and the traveller, the dispossessed and the disoriented, drawn to the image of a God who shelters all of her children under her multi-feathered wings, a Christ who draws all people to himself.

Our citizenship is in heaven, declare the confident and the confused, the helpless and the hopeful, in every language invented under the Word of God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand, says Jesus.

A couple of years ago I participated in a Martin Luther King, Jr Day commemoration and celebration at arguably one of the more astonishingly diverse institutions in Cleveland. I was to read from the Bible. The man next to me was to read from the Qur’an. We fell into conversation waiting for the program to begin. He was also an immigrant and had lived in the US for a similar length of time as me. We talked about his work as a pediatric specialist, how he met some of his patients within an hour of their birth, how he accompanied some of them throughout the duration of their young lives, how close he became to their families, their parents, how his work was a ministry of love.

We moved on to talking about our own families. Like me and my spouse, he and his wife had raised their own children in greater Cleveland. Like us, they had discovered that once that happens, despite the strong bonds and heartbreak of elderly parents and relatives back in the old country, we have no choice but to follow our children’s futures, and to throw in our lot with them. We raised our children in America; that’s how we became American.

We are very different people, this man and me, yet arriving at the same destination. And in our hands, between us, we held the words of our holy scriptures, the certificates of our citizenship in heaven. There are very real, significant, and undeniable differences between our religions, but there is one God who calls us each by name, with whose image we are indelibly stamped.

There are real and significant differences between our religious rites and doctrines, but there is one God, who revealed Godself to Adam, to Abraham, and to the prophets. At a vigil on Friday evening, speaking for the Christian community, a representative of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland mourned the murders in the mosques, houses, he said, where “the true and living God is worshipped.” There is one God who is worshipped by those who died and those who weep and pray in Emmanuel church in Charleston, and in the synagogues of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, and in the mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand. They are all our fellow citizens, since God’s realm is without borders. More than that, they are our family.

After Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that too many there were living as enemies of the cross of Christ, his words were most unfortunately used and abused through centuries of Christianity to slander those of other religions. For the longest time, the season of Lent, and especially Holy Week was particularly dangerous for those of Jewish descent and religion. Anti-semitism has deep roots in western Christian culture. We have much of which to repent.

Many, Paul wrote, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. He writes with tears, he tells his audience, he weeps for those whose end is destruction, who set their minds on earthly things and forget their citizenship, their covenant with the crucified and risen Christ, the king of heaven. What a shame, he mourns for them. And how his words have been twisted to bring pain and persecution upon those of another faith. And yet it seems likely that it is the very church at Philippi, and that it is us as their descendants that Paul weeps for, our shame at which he shakes his head. For we have much of which to repent.

Most of Paul’s audience in Philippi were citizens of Rome,* which assessed itself as the greatest empire on the earth, with some reason. But your status in the empires of this world will not save you, Paul warns. It is from heaven that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was not a Roman citizen, nor a member of the Greek elite, but a wandering Jewish rabbi from the outback,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, [when he was] born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:6-7)

That claim of the Incarnation of Christ, the form of God who loved us so much as to be born into our midst, so close that he could gather us into God’s arms like a hen who shelters her chicks beneath her wings, that naming of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, that is, it seems to me, the defining difference between Christianity and other forms of faith. Understanding that the birth and life and shameful death of Jesus undermined all expectations of power, pomp, status, citizenship, and ceremony should surely protect us from any sense of superiority or supremacy over those around us who also bear the image of God, whom God created out of love and whom God loves as much as God loves us.

Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ are not those to whom God has spoken by another prophet, but rather those who deny that God may speak to whomever God chooses. Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ, as Paul puts it, are those of any religion or of none who denigrate or even seek to destroy that image of God in the neighbours and the strangers whom the Christ of the cross commands us to love as ourselves; those whose end is destruction. They live as enemies of the cross who seek to divide God’s family of faith as the soldiers drew lots to divide Christ’s clothing. Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ are those (please excuse me) who would burn it even as they claim to follow it.

The lies of sectarianism, colonialism, and their cousins, white supremacy and Christian nationalism, touted by the internet trolls and others whose end is destruction, are routed by the Incarnation of Jesus as the Word of God, the Christ, taking the form of a slave when he was born in human likeness, the child of a dispossessed state; whose citizenship was in heaven; whose religion was the most perfect practice of the love of God.

Our citizenship is in heaven, declare the confident and the confused, the helpless and the hopeful, in every language invented under the Word of God; and the kingdom of heaven is at hand, says Jesus, where love is unwavering and indiscriminate; where death is defeated by the stubborn and resilient love of God, and the hope of heaven.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

(Prayer 3: For the Human Family, Book of Common Prayer, 815)

* New Oxford Annotated BibleThird Edition, Carol A. Newsom, Marc Z. Brettler, Michael D. Coogan, Pheme Perkins, eds (Oxford University Press, 2001), text notes

Further reading:

Michael Lodahl, Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side (Brazos Press, 2010)

Barbara Brown Taylor, “My Holy Envy” in The Christian Century, Vol. 136 No. 6, March 13, 2019

Nicholas E. Wagner, “Paul and Cynicism in Philippians 3:2,”, August 31, 2011, accessed March 14-17, 2019

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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