Sunday, February 24, 2013

24 February 2013 -- 2nd Sunday in Lent

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT — 24 February 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.  

Genesis 15:1-12;17-18  |  Psalm 27 |  Phil. 3:17-4:1  |  Luke 13:31-35

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.…their minds are on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

   I think we’re all aware of the distinction we commonly make, specifically in a religious or spiritual context, and even more particularly in a Christian context, between “heaven” and “earth.”  To take perhaps the most obvious example, we pray — not only every Sunday morning but I hope a number of times in every day — in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But what do we mean by that?  Well, there is a variety of things we could mean, and do mean, when we talk about “heaven” and “earth.”  But I suspect that for lots of us lots of the time, the default meaning is something like, “Heaven is ‘up there’ somewhere, and that’s where God lives, and earth is ‘down here’ and this is where we live.  And further, earth is ‘now,’ whereas heaven, at least to the extent that it includes us, is “then,” “someday,” “in the sweet by and by.”

   Perhaps you have already suspected that I suggest that this is not what St. Paul means in today’s Epistle, nor is it what Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God (which are essentially equivalent phrases).  

   You perhaps noticed that the Epistle this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Philippi was a city in northeastern Greece, named after King Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) who founded it in the fourth century B.C.  It languished for a time, but was re-established by Octavian, shortly to become Caesar Augustus, Emperor of the Roman Empire, in the 30’s B.C.  He used it as a colony to settle retired legionnaires — a form of military pension — and part of what made this a good deal for these army veterans was that they all were granted Roman citizenship, a status which had a variety of political, social, and economic advantages, even though they did not actually live in the city of Rome.  Philippi was organized as a “miniature Rome,” a mini-version of the imperial capital, as it were a colony of Rome.

   Well, now, that was a fascinating excursus into ancient history!  (And now let’s move out of Sheldon Cooper mode…)  I think this underlies Paul’s remark to the Philippian Christians, “But our citizenship is in heaven.”  Now for the people of Philippi, “Roman citizenship” was a big deal.  It gave them an important identity, even though they did not live in central Italy but in northeastern Greece.  A major event in the life of one of these Roman colony-cities would be when the Roman Emperor came to visit them.  (Although I can’t find any indication of whether Augustus or any of his successors as Emperor actually did visit this city.)  And we might note that it was not the Emperor’s intention in granting Roman citizenship to the veterans settled in Philippi that they should ever retire back to Rome – he really did not want them to do that! – but to bring Roman culture to northern Greece as Roman colonists.

   But Paul, who had founded the church at Philippi, is now reminding them, “our true citizenship is not from Rome but in heaven, and the savior whose visitation we await is not the Emperor [whose titles routinely included ‘Savior’ and ‘Lord’], but the true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  (We might recall that to say “Jesus is Lord” was not just a pious sentiment, it was treason.)  Our real identity, political or otherwise, is not defined from within this world, but is defined from beyond the limits of the merely human.  This present world is not our ultimate home, and we must beware lest we define ourselves too completely by it.  But we are here now, and we must take seriously our vocation and mandate to be colonists in this world – even subversive colonists – here and now of the life of the Kingdom of God from which we hold our true citizenship.  

   Which means that complacency about our lives, and the values by which we direct our lives, can be a great enemy.  Even the holy city Jerusalem itself was not immune to faithless complacency.  How moving is Jesus’ lament over her:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Jerusalem was not, as it turned out after all, the City of God.

   “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”  We march to the beat of a different drummer.  We are in this world, but we do not belong to this world but to God’s world.  In this world’s eyes we are weird.  Not silly weird stuff, like not going to the movies or dancing or playing cards — some Christians are weird, but often about the wrong issues.  But we are weird because we do not buy into this world’s “sensible,” “practical,” ‘realistic” value system.  Weird because we keep mumbling a little too loudly that anybody who looks at this world and the way it does business — poverty, exploitation, oppression, injustice, war — all rooted in greed and the lust for power — and insists that that’s being “sensible, practical or realistic” obviously doesn’t have both oars in the water.  We are weird because we will not let this world define reality for us, we are weird because we believe (and how absurd and arrogant of us, unless of course it’s true) that it is we who have a definition of a deeper reality to proclaim to this world.  If this world does not think we are weird — if the world thinks we are safe and harmless — then maybe we’d better ask ourselves where our citizenship really is, and where our minds are really set.

   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  Are we the prophets sent to proclaim the word of the Lord and to be colonists for God’s Kingdom?  Or are we Jerusalem?

   (These are the only options.)

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