Sunday, February 28, 2010

our citizenship is in heaven

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 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, 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, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I’d like to begin tonight with a quiz, and if you know the answers, do me a favor and shout them as loud as you can. “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s _____. Capital One: what’s in your _____. Geico: so easy a _____ (can do it). Subway: Eat _____. Taco Bell: think outside the _____. Wheaties: the breakfast of _____.” I’m impressed.

Round 2. Love means never having to say you’re _____. If you scratch my back then I’ll scratch _____. Everything I ever needed to know I learned in _____. Stand up for your _____. Nothing in life is _____. Wow, y’all are good.

Ok, time for the lightning round. For where your treasure is there you’ll find your _____ (heart). The Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord there is _____ (freedom). If you do what I command you then you are my _____ (friends). My God – what happened?

The slogans and proverbs in rounds 1 and 2 reflect values and attitudes that pervade American culture. You never studied them. You didn’t memorize them. But you know them. You’ve internalized them. Your mind has them stored. But round 3? Those come from the Bible and my guess is that even if you got a few of them right they didn’t come to mind as quickly. In other words, unless you’ve disciplined yourself to “set your mind” on the Biblical story – to study it, memorize it, know it, internalize it – you probably did better in the first two rounds.

Our world constantly bombards us with information. The average person consumes 33.8 gigabytes of information and well over a 100,000 words every single day. Here’s what’s fascinating – that doesn’t include school or work. From the moment we’re born until the day we die, billions of messages are sent our way – some subtle, some not so subtle. From parents, peers, preachers, politicians, and advertisers. Through television, the internet, youtube, and text messages. In songs, poems, publications and graffiti. Message after message, day after day, is filling our mind – messages that tell us how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – can be done about it. Message after message. We never studied them. We didn’t memorize them. But we know them. We’ve internalized them. Our mind has them stored. The only problem is – most of these messages are destructive.

In tonight’s epistle Paul warns the Philippians how destructive the world’s message can be and here’s the gist of what he says: “there are a lot of people in the kingdom of the world whose message conflicts with the message of the cross. I’ve told you about them before, and through tears I tell you again – wake up! We are not part of this kingdom. We stand for a different one with a much more powerful king. We aren’t citizens of the world. Our citizenship is in heaven.” In other words, Paul knows the Philippians are constantly bombarded by bad ideas – that message after message is flooding their minds, and so he writes them a letter to remind them that most of these messages are destructive.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.” That is Paul’s message. Another translation of this verse, which I find more intriguing, is “we are a colony of heaven.” A colony of heaven – this metaphor the Philippians would have understood. Philippi was a Roman colony and everyone knew what citizenship meant – it meant embracing a certain message. In fact, it’s not unlikely that these Philippians – Paul’s audience – had become Roman citizens in the last generation or so. You see Philippi was a conquered city and one of the ways that Rome typically avoided revolt was to offer citizenship to newfound colonies. In scholarly circles this is known as “Romanization.” The idea of Romanization is to get the new colony, the conquered people, to conform to Roman ideals. They wanted these conquered people to adopt Rome’s message as their own. And of course, from Rome’s perspective, this was the whole point of colonizing in the first place – to extend Roman influence, to create cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar throughout the entire world – to create a world that lived and breathed the Roman message. Paul’s audience understood this – they were constantly bombarded by the Roman message, and it was seductive. A message that said “give your allegiance to Caesar, live to advance the Kingdom of Rome and your every appetite will be fed, your every need satiated, your every hunger filled.” So Paul writes them a letter. “Hey guys. We have a different King. We stand for a different kingdom. Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Paul’s concern is not with our passport. The great irony is that Paul himself was a Roman citizen. Paul’s concern is the kingdom for which we stand – he’s concerned about the message that’s shaping our hearts – the message we believe about who we are, how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – can be done about it. And I have to give Paul credit – he’s a realist. Paul knows that we can profess Jesus with our lips and still worship Caesar in our hearts – that we can speak about heavenly things and still set our minds on earthly things. That’s what Paul’s getting at in tonight’s reading. He wants us to interpret life – he wants us to be guided – by the right message.

In another letter Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern the will of God – that which is good, acceptable and perfect.” In other words, don’t conform; transform. Don’t set your mind on earthly things; renew your mind with heavenly things. Don’t obliviously play out some script you’ve been handed; discern the will of God – that which is good, acceptable and perfect. After all, our citizenship is in heaven. We are called to be a colony of heaven.

To say that our citizenship is in heaven is to say something fundamental about who we are as a church. Paul’s not talking about how we’re waiting to be snatched up into heaven. He’s talking about heaven invading this earth, and about how Jesus’ reign – in an odd way – begins now. Through us. To say that our citizenship is in heaven is to say that we – the church – are a colony of heaven, that we’re a network of people loyal to Jesus – the true King – and that our job is to create a world of disciples that live and breathe Jesus’ message.

But do you see what that means? If you and I are citizens of heaven – if we live on earth with the values of heaven – then at times we’ll feel like aliens. Our behavior will just seem weird. In a world that says “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” citizens of heaven go out of their way to serve people that can’t pay them back. In a world that stands up for its rights, citizens of heaven stand up for their responsibilities, and for the rights of other people. In a world that teaches that nothing in life is free, citizens of heaven smile because they know that everything is free – that life is grace, that everything’s a gift – and because of that they’re generous with their lives. Citizens of heaven know that love means having to say we’re sorry; that everything we need to know isn’t learned in kindergarten but in the presence of our resurrected rabbi and that learning to be like Jesus is a lifelong process. Citizens of heaven call Jesus their friend. They live a life of freedom. Their treasure is in Jesus’ kingdom and that’s where you’ll find their heart.

I have to say, the irony of this sermon isn’t lost on me. It’s ironic to preach how you’re bombarded by bad information by bombarding you with more information. And so if you’re a little skeptical of tonight’s sermon – that’s cool. But for what it’s worth, here’s your homework for the week – or, more accurately, the homework of our lives. Set your mind on the Biblical story. I don’t mean join a bible study. I mean, set your mind on the Bible. Study it. Memorize it. Know it. Internalize it. All I’m asking is that you give Jesus’ message a fair shot. He’s got great stuff to say about how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – is being done about it. Because whether you realize it or not, people are answering those questions for you every single day. I’ve told you about them before, but now I want to tell you again. Their minds are set on earthy things. But our citizenship is in heaven.

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