Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dual Citizens!

Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida on February 24, 2013

2 Lent – Year C
Philippians 3:17 – 4:1; Ps. 27; Luke 13:31-35
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; 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. But our citizenship is in heaven...
(Philippians 3:18-30)

            There is a great deal of talk about immigration reform in Washington today, and not only in Washington, but throughout much of the country.  Almost everybody, from both parties, recognizes that something needs to be done to address the challenge of the millions of undocumented workers that live in the United States but, coming up with a satisfactory solution is a real problem, especially with the political parties as polarized as they are.  
It will be interesting to see if the two parties can work something out.  Needless to say, it is imperative for us to remember that behind the issue are very real people, human beings, whose dignity our baptismal covenant demands we respect.   It is also important to recognize that many of the undocumented persons in this country came here as young children and have not known any other country but this.  It is a very difficult and complicated issue.  Citizenship, United States citizenship, is a precious thing, a precious thing too many of us who have it take for granted.  We should have some compassion and sympathy for those who so desperately long for it.  After all, it is by grace that many of us were born here.  We won what Warren Buffet famously refers to as “the great ovarian lottery.”[1] 
            While we, as a nation, debate about immigration reform and citizenship in this country, as people of faith, this season of Lent invites us to reflect upon a different kind of citizenship that we also too often take for granted:  our citizenship in heaven.  St. Paul introduced the idea in the reading we heard today from his letter to the Philippians.[2] 
Paul loved the church in Philippi.  It was the westernmost of the churches he had founded, and was located in the Roman colony of Macedonia.[3]  Philippi was a port city.  The letter Paul wrote to the Philippians is, perhaps, the most joyful and personal of all his letters. 
As the introduction to Philippians in The Oxford Annotated Bible notes, “The mutual affection between Paul and the Philippians is evident in the letter and stands in contrast to the problems he had with some other churches.”[4]  That introduction goes on to state, “Paul writes from prison and is uncertain of the outcome for himself.  The themes of opposition and the possibility of death are therefore prominent.  Yet, in the midst of the suffering and uncertainty, the theme of joy emerges quite clearly and quite remarkably.”[5] 
            How you might ask, could Paul be joyful in those circumstances, as he sat in prison, not knowing what the future held in store for him?  Well Paul knew something, something vitally important.  Paul knew his citizenship was in heaven….and because he knew this, was confident in this, he could handle anything….And he did…
 Paul was beaten and imprisoned over and over again as he carried out his ministry, but he remained faithful to the gospel….Faithful, and often joyful, even when things seemed at their darkest.  He knew who he was and what he was about.  He knew whose he was and to whom he owed his true pledge of allegiance…Yes, his citizenship, his true citizenship was in heaven. 
            Now, to be clear, Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire, at least according to the author of Acts of the Apostles.[6]  This was no small thing.  It came with status and privileges, with rights such as the right to a legal trial.  As Acts portrays it, Paul was not shy about declaring his Roman citizenship when he needed to.   He did so in Acts 25, after he had been arrested for stirring up trouble in Jerusalem.
In Acts 25, verse 10, Paul appears before Festus, the Procurator of Judea and says, “If I am in the wrong and have done something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to the charges against me, no one can turn me over to them [meaning the Jewish authorities].  “I appeal to the Emperor”  (Acts 25:11). 
Acts tells us, that Festus conferred with his council and replied, “You have appealed to the Emperor; to the Emperor you shall go”(Acts 25:12).   This meant he was to be brought to Rome to the Emperor’s tribunal, and trial according to Roman law.  Yes, Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship when it was useful, but we need to be clear.  Paul’s identity as a Roman citizen was very much secondary to him. In fact, in his own letters, he never makes reference to it.  Paul’s primary identity was in Christ.  As he wrote to the church in Philippi, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”(Philippians 1:21).  Clearly his citizenship was in heaven.
In a particularly fine book, In Search of Paul:  How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom,[7] well-known biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed use the tools of biblical scholarship and the discoveries and insights of archaeology to ask a very provocative “new” question.  “Where does archaeology uncover most clearly Rome’s imperial theology, which Paul’s Christian theology confronted nonviolently but opposed relentlessly?”[8]  
They remind the readers that, at the time of Paul, Roman Emperors were deemed divine.  Augustus was called “Son of God” “God” and “God of God.”[9]  He was, they write, “Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World.”[10]  As Crossan and Reed observe, “People knew that both verbally from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace and Ovid and visually from coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums; from ports, roads and bridges, and aqueducts; from landscapes transformed and cities established.”[11]  “It was,” Crossan and Reed write, “all around them just like advertising is around us today.”[12] 
They note, quite rightly that “Some scholars of Paul have already emphasized creatively and accurately the confrontation between Pauline Christianity and Roman imperialism,”[13] and state that “that clash” is at the “core” of their book.[14]  But they carry it further. 
“We see it incarnating deeper and even more fundamental strains beneath the surface of human history,”[15] they write. “What is newest about [our] book is its insistence that Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because the empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he [Paul] questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since every civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.”[16]  Wow! That’s a pretty disquieting thought, but it is in keeping with the thoughts of later great Christian thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society[17]
In their book, in Search of Paul, Crossan and Reed argue that, “Paul’s essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy and human rights.”[18]  “The Roman Empire,” they write, “was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or more fully, in faith in the sequence, piety, war, victory and peace.”[19]  In contrast, “Paul, they write, “was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in the world.  [Paul] opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice and peace.”[20] 
Acknowledging that the United States is now the greatest postindustrial civilization in the world as Rome was then the greatest preindustrial one, Crossan and Reed state that a subtext of their book therefore is the question:  “To what extent can America be Christian?”[21]  For Crossan and Reed, this question is what makes Paul’s challenge equally forceful for now as for then, for here as for there, as they write, for Senatus Populusque Romanus as for Senatus Populusque Americanus[22]. 
To what extent can America be Christian?  I believe this question is fundamentally unanswerable, especially given the pluralism of our culture and the diversity of our people.  To me, the more significant question is: To what extent can Americans be Christian?  What does this mean, what does it look like?
            I believe it requires our recognition that we hold dual citizenship and that we further recognize that our first allegiance is with Christ and our primary citizenship is in heaven.   The values that are inherent in Christian identity, values well articulated in the Baptismal Covenant[23] -- a dedication to the Apostles Teaching and Fellowship, a recognition of the reality of evil in the world and sinfulness in our own lives and a commitment to persevere in resisting these;  a duty to proclaim the Gospel of the love of Jesus Christ over and against all lesser and false gospels, a responsibility to seek and serve Christ in all other persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being – these values are our first and primary obligation.  It is through these and our Baptismal identity as members of the body of Christ, that all other commitments and obligations are to be measured and met, including our commitment and obligations as Americans.
This means that when our nation is at its best, and living in to the values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all persons, we as Christians are called to follow St. Paul’s lead as stated in Romans 13, and subject ourselves willingly and cooperatively with the governing authorities.[24] 
            But when the sinfulness of our nation and the evils of society cry out for justice – whether it is because we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, or the highest number of gun deaths in the so-called “civilized world,”  or because an  enormous number of our children live in poverty, or are under-educated, or because the middle class of our nation are being impoverished by an inequitable and unjust  health care system…or by any of a host of other societal ills which mar our common life, then we as Christians must claim our Christian citizenship and critique our society and act, or “act out” not only for the nation’s good, but for the sake of Christ, just as Paul did when he opposed imperialism, and was beaten and arrested so many times.
            If we do not understand that there is something fundamentally unique in our Christian identity, something that distinguishes us in the world, distinguishes us in our behavior and our ethics, then we have to ask if this being Christian means anything at all.   I think it does.  I think it means a lot!
As Christians, we are called to be people of love, a people who insist on the dignity of all other human beings in a world that often degrades and dehumanizes others.   As Christians, we are called to be a people who insist on forgiveness and reconciliation in a world that too often insists on retribution and punishment.  As Christians, we are called to be a people who insist on nonviolence and peace in a world where violence and war have wreaked destruction and havoc time and time again.  As Christians, we are called to be a people who insist on the values of service and sacrifice for the sake of others and for a common good in a world that is dominated by greed, selfish interest, and “me-ism.” 
This is a clear distinction and contrast…It is the contrast of so-called “civilization” with the vision, the dream and the desire of God, for his creation, the vision and dream that constitutes the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven of which we are all called to be citizens.   So which citizenship do you prefer?
            It is the season of Lent.   This is a season for us examine our lives,  to turn away from, detach ourselves from, that which harms us, dehumanizes and destroys us, the seductive idols and idolatries of this world in which we live, and to turn toward the one who gives us life, who calls us into God’s light and love, not only for God, but for one another.  It is a season for us to remember that our citizenship is indeed in heaven and our lives are in Christ.  It is a time for us to reclaim and accept that blessed and holy citizenship with joy and to have our passports stamped with the right country once again!

[1] Buffett has used this term on many occasions.  See, for example, Buffett, Warren “My Philanthropic Pledge” June 16, 2010 on the CNN Money website found at
[2] Philippians 3:17
[3] See the Introduction to the Letter to the Philippians in The New Oxford Annotated Bible – Third Edition – Michael A. Coogan, editor – (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001) 328
[4] The Oxford Annotated Bible, 328
[5] The Oxford Annotated Bible, 328
[6] See Acts 25
[7] Crossan, John Dominic and Reed, Jonathan L  In Search of Paul:  How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York:  HarperSanFrancisco/Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
[8] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[9] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[10] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[11] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[12] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[13] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[14] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[15] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[16] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[17] Niebuhr, Reinhold Moral Man and Immoral Society:  A Study in Ethics and Politics (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 – originally published in 1932).   In this renowned work, Niebuhr wrote:
 “The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellow men as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion.  But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice.  ‘Power,’ said Henry Adams, ‘is poison:; and it is a poison which blinds the eye of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose.  The individual or the group which organizes any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.” (pp. 6-7). 
A few pages later, Niebuhr added:
“The disproportion of power in a complex society which began with the transmutation of the pastoral to the agrarian economy, and which destroyed the simple equalitarian and communism of the hunting and nomadic social organization, has perpetuated social injustice in every form through all the ages.”  (p. 9).
[18] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. xi
[19] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. xi
[20] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. xi
[21] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. xi
[22] Crossan and Reed, “Introduction” p. x
[23] See The Book of Common Prayer – 1979 pp. 304-305
[24] See Romans 13:1ff

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