“If We Are Citizens of Heaven…”

Lent 2

February 21, 2016


Text: Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18


          We live in a nation where a great deal is made of being a citizen. There are still quite a few people who claim our current president holds that office illegitimately because they believe he is not a natural-born US citizen, no matter how much evidence is presented indicating that he is. We have similar questions being raised about one of our current presidential candidates. There are currently politicians questioning the practice of automatically regarding anyone born in the United States to be a US citizen, regardless of the citizenship status of their parents. Much of the debate around immigration also is wrapped up in matters having to do with citizenship, and there is also much debate on whether or not non-US citizens living in this country are entitled to certain rights and benefits.

          We are told in Acts that the Apostle Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire by birth. In ancient times, citizenship was understood much differently than it is today in the USA. In those days political structures were focused on cities rather than nation-states (in fact, the word “citizen” comes from the word “city”, and that is also true in Greek—polites comes from polis, which is also the origin of our word “politics”). Citizenship could be acquired in a number of ways: by birth in a certain locale, by inheritance, by having it bestowed for some service or honor, or by purchase. It was possible to be a citizen of more than one city at the same time. In addition, the Greek word for citizenship has a verb form that has to do with living out one’s obligations to the city to which one belonged.

          Paul told the Philippian Christians and tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. The roots of that citizenship are very old. They go back to the covenant God cut with Abram, later renamed Abraham, when God promised to make Abram a great nation and give them a land in which to live. The use of the word “cut” to describe the making of this agreement between God and Abram is intentional. The ritual and divine appearance in our lesson from Genesis strike us as strange. Cutting animals in half and having God’s presence pass between the pieces comes across to us as a strange way for God to make an agreement with Abram. What is implied in this ritual is this: “If I fail to live up to the agreement I am making with you, may what happened to this animal happen to me.” God staked his very life on the promise he made to Abram. OK, it is true that God, being eternal, cannot die. But a god whose promises cannot be trusted is not worthy of human worship or human loyalty, and is as useless as a dead god.

          Abram was promised a land and many descendants. This land was given not through earthly power, but through divine determination. Although it was an earthly territory, ancient Israel only became a nation because God had declared it must be so.

          Jesus knew his citizenship was in heaven. That is why, when Pharisees warned Jesus that he should leave because King Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus responded, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’” (which is where Jesus was headed at the time). Jesus knew that his ultimate loyalty was to God, and his mission was from God. He was a citizen of heaven from whence he came, and wasn’t about to be intimidated by any mere earthly ruler who was trying to stop him from doing what God had sent him to do. As Jesus told Pilate during his trial, “My kingdom is not from this world.” His kingdom was based in the eternal realm, the heavenly realm, not the principalities and powers of this world. The powers of this world found this to be so threatening that they found it necessary to kill Jesus. But even that failed. The one from heaven did not stay dead. God raised him to life, and made it possible for those who trust in Christ to likewise be citizens of heaven and be raised to life with him.

          The Apostle Paul tells us that because we are citizens of heaven, our lives should be focused on heavenly things. He describes as “enemies of the cross whose end is destruction” people whose “god is the stomach, who take pride in their disgrace because they are focused on earthly things”. The things of earth cannot save us. We may enjoy some of them, to be sure, but they are not eternal. They are here for a time, then gone. Our lives on earth are the same. We are here only for a time and a season, and then the mortal bodies with which we are equipped for earthly life die. But for those who trust in Christ, who rose from death and defeated its power, is the promise of eternal life with God that far surpasses anything this world can offer.

          In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren puts it this way:

          “In California, where I live, many people have moved from other parts of the world to work here, but they keep their citizenship with their home country. They are required to carry a visitor registration card (called a ‘green card’), which allows them to work here even though they aren’t citizens. Christians should carry spiritual green cards to remind us that our citizenship is in heaven. God says his children are to think differently about life from the way unbelievers do.   ‘All they think about is this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.’ Real believers understand that there is far more to life than just the few years we live on this planet.

          “Your identity is in eternity, and your homeland is heaven. When you grasp this truth, you will stop worrying about ‘having it all’ on earth. God is very blunt about the danger of living for the here and now and adopting the values, priorities, and lifestyles of the world around us. When we flirt with the temptations of this world, God calls it spiritual adultery. The Bible says, ‘You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way.’

          If we are citizens of heaven, our loyalty to God and his ways must come ahead of our personal desires. It must come ahead of our human desire for wealth, power, privilege, prestige, or status. It must come ahead of our loyalty to any earthly nation, including the one to which we belong. It must come ahead of our humble opinions (which often are in reality not so humble), no matter how sure we may be that they are right, for even God’s word as contained in Holy Scripture can be interpreted by our limited human minds in more than one way, and the Holy Spirit does not always seem to gift people with the same way of understanding it.

          What is clear to me is that being a citizen of heaven has to do with how we live out God’s values in the world. It’s about such core values as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor, both near and far away, as ourselves. It involves seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness rather than seeking our own advantage. It has to do with loving and serving the people Jesus loved and served, which included people mainstream society rejected and ignored. And it includes understanding that though we endure trial and hardship in this world, we belong to the one who has overcome the world, and who gives us the strength to endure.

          Let us stand firm in the Lord, endeavoring to live as citizens of heaven in all that we do, trusting God to guide us to greater faithfulness until the time comes when our humble bodies are transformed into the glorious likeness of Christ.


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