“Citizenship in Heaven”
Sunday 17 March 2019
Maybe today, or maybe in the next few days, Australia’s population will reach 25 million. It is only three years, almost to the day, since the population reached 24 million. And the significant fact is that the greater contributor to the increase is migration, not births. And most of those migrants will seek citizenship in the normal course of events.
If you have ever been to a citizenship ceremony, or seen one televised, you have to be impressed by the delight of those people who are receiving citizenship status. There are obviously many different stories behind their pathways to citizenship, but reaching the goal seems to be incredibly important and joyous for all who go down that road.
Citizenship became fairly important to Saul of Tarsus, Saint Paul. In the dangerous and courageous life he lived as he spread the gospel around the towns and villages of the then Roman Empire, Roman citizenship became a significant reality for him.
In chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles, we read the account of Paul and Silas in Philippi being thrown into prison because the owners of a slave girl who earned them money complained to the authorities because Paul had freed her of the evil spirit that was the source of her curiosity to people. The apostles were miraculously freed from the prison, but did not escape, but rather brought the jailer and his household to Jesus. In the morning, the authorities sent word to have them released, but Paul demanded that they come and release them themselves so that they would be shamed for having treated Roman citizens in such a way.
Paul says: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not. Let them come and take us out themselves.”
In chapter 22 of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul incites a crowd in Jerusalem, the tribune orders him to be brought into the barracks to be flogged. Paul asks the centurion given the task: “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” The centurion passed the information on to the tribune who then dealt differently with the matter.
And in chapter 25, when the new governor Festus looks like he will appease the Jew leaders who had come to Caesarea demanding to take Paul back to Jerusalem for trial, Paul appealed, as was his right as a Roman citizen, to have his case heard by the emperor.
So when, in the letter to Philippians, Paul writes: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ”, we can expect that the notion of citizenship that he is using is based on the citizenship that is most obvious to him, Roman citizenship.
So, what did Roman citizenship mean? In terms of its times, the Roman Empire was probably the greatest empire in the history of the world. As it established itself further and further away from Rome, it gave the opportunity to conquered peoples to become citizens, either by purchasing citizenship, or as a gift of the Emperor to an individual and his family for services rendered.
In Paul’s case, it is most likely that he was born a citizen as a result of his father buying citizenship as a wealthy Jew in Tarsus. But what did this citizenship mean to someone who lived in the far flung corners of this huge Empire? Did Roman citizens expect that they would eventually move to live in Rome? That’s the reason why people become citizens today – so they can live freely in the country whose citizenship they acquire. Did the Romans expect that they would have this vast number of people from all over the Empire descend upon them and live in the city of Rome? Well, no.
So why did the Romans provide the opportunity for people throughout the Empire to become citizens? The reason was that they wanted people throughout the vast Empire to promote Roman culture, Roman values, Roman governance in their local towns and cities.
The city of Philippi is in fact a very good example of this. There were many retired Roman soldiers living there. Many, if not most of these would have had citizenship. Their presence ensured that Philippi, distant from Rome as it was, still had the aura of Roman cultural values. Philippi was a prosperous town on a main Roman trade route and there were many others in Philippi who were Roman citizens. People like Lydia, the purple cloth trader who hailed from Thyatira, across the waters in Asia Minor. She, as a woman in those days, probably only felt the liberty to move around the Empire as she had done because of her Roman citizenship.
Of course, it is fair to assume that amongst the gentile audience that Paul had in Philippi were citizens of Rome. And so, when he reminds them that their citizenship is in heaven, they would not think: “Oh, I better go and head off to heaven.” Just as they would not think that as Roman citizens they should up stakes and head off to Rome.
No, they would think that he is reminding them to live by God’s values, the values of heaven, even though they are living in Philippi, on earth. Paul’s call to remember where their citizenship lies is not a call to turn their back on the world. It is in fact the opposite. It is a call to engage more with the world, bringing their heavenly values with them; their God like values; their Jesus Christ values.
And Paul reinforces the point by saying: “from there (heaven) we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” So, it is not that we are to abandon the earth. Jesus will come to us. In fact, Paul writes: “He (Jesus) will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
So this short passage from the Letter to the Philippians reminds us that although we are the bearers of the values and teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are not meant to turn our back on the society around us, not meant to escape off into some sphere of religiosity. We are meant to engage with the world. We are meant to be the signs to it of another set of values – heavenly values; God values.
And, of course, we never have to do this on our own. Jesus is present with us always by the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of our hearts by virtue of our Baptism into the body of Christ.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen