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Citizens of Heaven

There is always a degree of tension between loyalty to God and involvement in the affairs of the world. Paul called the Christians at Philippi 'citizens of heaven'. It was an illustration they could easily understand because they were living in a Roman colony where at least some people would, like Paul himself, have had the rights of a citizen of Rome. So our true homeland is not here where we live. It is where our Lord is:

As we saw last week in reference to the temptations, it is a question of allegiance, of whose kingdom we belong to, of where our ultimate loyalty is placed. We look to heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the key: we need to look to the source of our salvation and avoid putting our trust in other causes.

It was well enough known to the ancient people of God whose loyalty was always being tested, and who were indeed unfaithful to him many times even though he continually sought them out. That became the whole point of their life and worship: to acknowledge the one true Lord (as Jesus replied to Satan during his temptations):-

Which he took from the law in Deuteronomy:

That was the worship offered in the Psalms:

{146:1} Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! {2} I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. {3} Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. {4} When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. {5} Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, {6} who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; {7} who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; {8} the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. {9} The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. {10} The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD! -- Psalms 146

Loyalty and justice

You will see that this loyalty is not an escape from the things of the earth, to live unsullied by the world; for he to whom we look, {6} who made heaven and earth, is also the one,

Here in these promised victories over the enemies of humankind you see the signs of the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed in word and deed. It is same set of promises that Mary saw realized in the coming of her child:

So when we say our citizenship is in heaven, we do not ignore injustice in the earth, we look to the place of our Lord, where we belong, for the power to change what is wrong, for the power to heal, to help and to save; it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Competition of other causes and false hopes

If we are loyal to Christ, if we trust and follow him, if we do things in his name, that is, if we act in his cause, we are joined with him in the mission he undertook. But once we see that, we are immediately in danger of committing ourselves to changing things according to our limited vision of his mission and of choosing between alternatives offered by the world, even to the point of aligning ourselves with causes which have an agenda that will come into conflict with Christ.

There is always the temptation to idealize human causes and human interests, to give a romantic glow to the pursuit to sectional interests; so one class of society might be set over against another and an ideology of class conflict constructed, which can substitute for the faith itself. It is tempting to do that when we see how much Jesus was on the side of the poor and the outsider. Or, the same endowment of moral imperatives in the name of humanity might be given to an ideology of individual rights, of personal fulfilment, or of entrepreneurial success and rewards. Or, there might be an appeal to nationalism, to sacrifice in the name of blood and soil, of home and hearth, in memory of the glorious achievements of our ancestors and our sacred duty to generations yet unborn. There seems to be no limit to worthy causes which can claim the hearts and minds of humanity, and history has proven how easy it is to align the cause of Christ in human minds with the popular causes of a particular time and place. So citizenship of heaven is mistakenly made to exchange with citizenship in a nation or membership of one group or another.

Alienation

It was not always so, but in Western society in recent times there is an almost natural tendency towards alienation, to feel not quite at home in the world as it is. In one sense it is a genuine insight into the spiritual nature of human beings to see that their true home is not here, that they are destined for another place and, as John's gospel had it, they have the potential to become the children of God [John 1:12]. Sadly that is not the way alienation is experienced. The sense of not being at home is clear enough, even perhaps some distant sense of not being in touch spiritually. What is lacking here is the sense of belonging in which people can look to heaven in anticipation and loyalty. Their potential to become children of God is not seen and people are left with an uneasy feeling that something is wrong:

Ah love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits - and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

[Edward Fitzgerald, The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyám (Ed. 1. lxxiii).]

Ironically, that bit of romantic escapism was, perhaps understandingly, popular in the terror of the trenches during the First World War. It represents such a degree of alienation that it becomes entirely fatalistic, without hope, justifying a grab for the dregs of life before its all gone:

The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one. [Ed. 4. viii]

Ah take the cash and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum! [Ed. 4. xiii]

The worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns to ashes - or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty face,
Lighting a little hour or two - is gone. [Ed. 1. xiv]

Of course there is plenty in the Bible about worldly hopes turning to ashes, and Fitzgerald might even have shared his disillusionment with the psalmist, or the Old Testament wisdom writers, when he lamented:

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my credit in this World much wrong:
Have drowned my Honour in a Shallow Cup
And sold my Reputation for a Song. [Ed. 1. lxix]

Sad as it is, that is where the idols of nationalism ended, fallen in the mud of Flanders, and where the nihilism of the twentieth century gained its popular impetus.

One moment in Annihilation's waste,
One moment, of the Well of Life to taste -
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing - Oh, make haste! [Ed. 1. xxxviii]

It is a great song of unbelief, and now three generations later, the grab for the dregs of life goes on as the sorry spectacle of alienation and atheism winds down to its own nothingness. One ism is discredited, another flourishes for a while - socialism, feminism, capitalism, environmentalism - perhaps accomplishing a little here and there, but as causes worthy of the human spirit, capable of retaining ultimate loyalty of the whole human race to the end, they are poor imitations of the Kingdom of God.

The competition of earthly idols

But the most common reaction to the 'dawn of nothingness' is not some elaborate ideology with its self-justifying theories of social action: for most people are more pragmatic and distrust such things; it is more likely that the simple old gods of money and sex will gain allegiance. This is what Paul was talking about when he warned about the enemies of the cross of Christ. [v.18]:

Paul's concern about some of his people being bad examples as they made an idol of their bodily desires is a concern about loyalty to Christ. It is not about moral laws so much as personal loyalty. The frequent references to avoiding fornication in the early church and their general concern with sexual morality are about the fact that for believers we in our earthly body are related to Christ.

It is again a matter of loyalty, of allegiance 'to him to whom we now belong'. Marriage, which expresses the same faithfulness and mutual support of one another, is a means of grace in which our growth in relationship to God is nurtured. Celibacy, in which a person is self sufficient and unencumbered with other commitments, can make one free to live in service to God. Other relationships instead of building up our relationship to God can undermine and destroy it. So fornication is wrong, not as a simple matter of disobeying moral laws, but because of its affect on our spiritual relationships and development. Allegiance to Christ means that we are called to honour God in our bodies, not because there is something wrong with our bodies but because they are important to us and can take on the ultimate importance that belongs only to God. Again, it is a question of loyalty.

There is an unfortunate dichotomy in Christian witness between concern with personal morality and concern with social justice. Some in the church concentrate on one and some on the other, and each party tends to look with suspicion and fear on the other, but both personal morality and social justice are expressions of the gospel. Loyalty to Christ demands both. And in both personal morality and social justice it is necessary to support the victims while standing with Christ against the powers which make them victims.

Loyalty in opposition to the enemies of Christ

The gospel is not only about the cup of water given in the name of the Lord or binding up the wounds of the fallen; it is also about conquest over the powers of this world. There are battles to be won and in the end Christ will be seen to be the victor. Those who, like the editorial writers for some of our leading newspapers, would relegate the church to the role of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when a fence needs to be built at the top are taking the side of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Wherever there is injustice, proclamation of the Gospel will inevitably bring Christians into conflict with the powers that be. If it is an affront to any opinion leaders of our secular communities for Church leaders to get into power games on behalf of the powerless, then they should know that that is exactly what Jesus did. It is what brought about his death. He was not killed because he told people to do what the Good Samaritan did, but because he posed a threat to the ruling powers.

When we take social and political action we run risks. We might sometimes get it wrong. Prophets are not always right, but as a matter of principle we cannot avoid confrontation. In Australia today, as in most countries, there have been significant changes in matters of economic justice. The rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming increasingly. There is an ideology of exploitation that is being propagated without shame, and it must be challenged in the name of Christ. That is a matter of loyalty and of faith.

Belief in the transforming power of the Saviour

By speaking out in the cause of the poor and weak we are dealing with the messy business of involvement in this world. It must be done, and we can make mistakes. Yet, it is the kind of proclamation that must always be made for it is a matter of faith that Christ can take the stuff of this worldly life and remake it into the things of God.

When we act in faith, in loyalty to Christ in the things of this world, we act in the believe that he is able change things. Our looking to heaven links us with a power which can transform earthly lives. It is a slow process, moving on towards fulfilment of the promise of the gospel.

It is the heavenly vision that we catch, and our hope is in Christ who will meet us there. At the same time, the transformation of this earthly life in response to the gospel proclaims his glory - by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

The way of humble service

That is no reason for arrogance our part. If we follow him, we follow him on the way that led to the cross. We must be ready to weep with him in his lament over Jerusalem:

That is a wonderful feminine image of nurture. It reminds us of the way he eventually rode into the city, with the welcoming shouts of the people fulfilling the prophecy:

He arrived on an donkey rather than a war-horse. So we who follow him are called to empty ourselves of all human pride and false allegiances. It is in joining in his sacrifice that we are raised to eternal life, as it is through humble service that the world is transformed and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of the Lord.

So, our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. -- Philippians 3:20

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