In today’s passage, Paul is speaking to the people of Philippi, which was a prominent Roman colony in the gold-producing region of Macedonia just north of Greece. It was named for Alexander the Great’s father Phillip. Roman colonies were strategically important locations for the empire, usually placed along major trade routes. For Philippi, this was along the Egnatian Way, which was the route serving as Rome’s direct link to its Mediterranean territories. This location and its strategic importance made Philippi prestigious and prosperous. It was a city of dignity and privilege. As a Roman colony, citizens of Philippi were actually legal citizens of Rome, which granted them the same rights and privileged status. And this was something that was celebrated. The citizens of Philippi embraced this connection thoroughly- they wore the Roman dress, spoke the Latin tongue, embraced Roman morals, and used Roman principles of justice. They were proud to be Roman citizens. In fact, it was often implored that the conduct of the citizens of Philippi must match the prestige of its Roman citizenship.
This isn’t uncommon among various countries. Citizenship is often a source of pride; an important part of one’s identity.
The United States is no exception. Many citizens are deeply proud to be a citizen of the United States.
Lee Greenwood even wrote a song about it, right?
And you don’t have to go far to catch a glimpse of an American flag, either waving proudly from a front porch, affixed to the bumper of a car, or emblazoned upon a t shirt or ball-cap.
For many, US citizenship is a source of pride.
It means something.
This wasn’t any different for the Philippians. They were proud of their Roman citizenship and Paul knew this –he too was a Roman citizen so he “got it”–and played to it in his letter.
He knew that being a Roman citizen was cherished, not just because of the benefits and protections, but also because it wasn’t just given to anybody.
To be a Roman citizen you had to be born a Roman citizen, have a parent who was a Roman citizen or be appointed.
Being a US citizen isn’t altogether different.
To automatically be a citizen of the United States, you must have either been born in the United States OR have parents who are citizens.
But in the absence of these criteria, you must apply. And to do this requires a level a commitment. I think in some ways we as Americans might take our citizenship for granted. Maybe we don’t fully appreciate the benefits and opportunities of being an American. But there are 4.4 million people with legal visas awaiting approval. And in addition to all the hoops for which they’ve jumped through have also promised to demonstrate the following:
- good moral character
- a basic knowledge of the United States government
- read, write, and speak basic English (which judging from much of what I see and read on the internet today disqualifies a large majority of our population)
- be well disposed to “the good order and happiness of the United States under the law” – whatever that means.
Thank goodness all current citizens meet these criteria…right?
Obviously, the goal is to help folks seeking citizenship in the United States to understand the responsibility of citizenship.
Learning to be a good citizen is an important part of the fabric of any society. And it’s not always easy. But it’s an expectation that you will live your life in accordance with the values and principles of your country.
Paul leverages this understanding with the people of Philippi; tapping into their deeply felt patriotic pride in hopes of connecting that with the expectations of being a disciple of Christ.
He’s heard rumors of folks in their area living in a way that differs from the expectations of a Christian, and wants to call them out on it. Their behavior might be acceptable as a citizen of Philippi, but it falls far short in what’s acceptable as a citizen of heaven.
So Paul is challenging them to behave in a way that equates their respect for their Roman identities with their heavenly identities. Borrowing patriotic language, Paul contrasts their earthly expectations with their heavenly ones, reminding them their heavenly citizenship always holds priority over their earthly citizenship.
It’s not to say that the laws and norms of the Roman empire are no longer valid-no, Jesus himself spoke to “giving to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s” Paul is making the larger point that your true citizenship is in heaven.
You might live and work and be within the Roman rule, but the ultimate authority is in Christ.
Your behavior might be governed by Rome but your life is governed by God.
The same is true for us today.
Although we might be citizens of the United States, governed by the Constitution and the laws of the land. Our true authority is in Christ and his teachings. This understanding should always dictate our behavior more than anything else.
We might pledge our allegiance to the flag, but may it never supersede your allegiance to Christ and his teachings.
On the surface living as a good Christian seems straight-forward. Even easy.
Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.
Be a good person. Share a little. Go to church. Don’t break the law.
But is this all Paul was after? Is this all Jesus was after?
If living a Christian life in the United States is easy for you, my guess is you’re not doing it right.
Or at least not fully. Because it’s deeply counter-cultural.
It challenges us to step outside of our instincts; step outside our cultural norms, setting our minds not on earthly things, but on heavenly things and letting this drive our choices.
Not breaking the law might be easy. But simply obeying the laws isn’t a demonstration of good citizenship.
Being a citizen of heaven requires you to always be striving to live into the expectation of the Kingdom of God. And that’s a tall order. Jesus used many metaphors to describe the Kingdom of God, and we know from our reading of the Bible that the Kingdom of God is about love, justice, equality, and forgiveness.
Jesus was clear in his ministry that simply following the Law was not the goal. Just following the Ten Commandments isn’t enough (although it’s a good start!) Jesus pushes us to go past the Law and go deeper.
There are lots of things in the United States which are technically legal and acceptable, but not necessarily line with our Christian values. Let us not forget to that at one point in our country’s history, slavery was legal.
Every day we are faced with choices that place our earthly values in competition with our heavenly ones.
Paying your employees bare-bone wages in order to boost profits. Is this heavenly minded?
Buying those shoes you really, really love but you know was made in a sweatshop in some 3rd world country. Is that being heavenly-minded?
suppose a homeless shelter was proposed right next to your house or your place of business.
It would be understandable, especially as a good, upwardly mobile American, to not be crazy about this idea for fear of its impact on your investment value. But I’m not sure opposing it would be consistent with heavenly values.
Millions of personal finance books, DVDs, and podcasts hammer us with messages and lessons rooted in a fear of scarcity – proclaiming that in order to avoid “running out” we must reign in our generosity and keep more of income for ourselves. This is an earthly perspective reinforcing the false narrative that any of it was ever ours to begin with.
Thinking in terms of earthly citizenship rather than heavenly citizenship requires an entire reordering of priorities.
Heavenly citizenship urges more.
Abundance over scarcity.
Trust over fear.
Love over judgment
Minds set boldly on heavenly things.
How does this shift in understanding impact your decisions? your actions? your positions on key issues?
Paul is encouraging us to live our lives in light of a deeper allegiance– an allegiance to Christ.
Of course doing so in no way “earns” you heavenly citizenship.
But there is good news.
We don’t face the same hurdles for heavenly citizenship as someone seeking Roman citizenship or even US citizenship.
No need for a privileged birthright.
No difficult tests to take or rules to memorize.
No years of waiting or thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Our heavenly citizenship was secured for us in the waters of baptism.
But that doesn’t mean we are free of obligation.
Martin Luther wrote, “… we are no longer citizens of earth. The baptized Christian is born a citizen of heaven through baptism. We should be mindful of this fact and walk HERE as if native THERE.”
It’s a call to live differently.
And friends, this citizenship offers us far more benefits than simply life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Among the citizenship promises true freedom, deep joy and contentment, and eternal salvation.
So today, I challenge you to consider your true citizenship– beloved children of God; citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And go forth and act accordingly.
On earth as it is in heaven.