A. The Epistle, Gospel and citizenship
“Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for the Savior” (from the epistle).
1. The lessons focus on what it means to be citizens of the kingdom of God, and how this heavenly citizenship relates to the temporary political arrangements of this world. The epistle was written to Christians in the city of Philippi. Philippi was a Roman military colony, full of retired and proud soldiers. An air of Roman patriotism filled the city. The various Caesars had been given the title, “savior of the world” because of the relative peace that prevailed under their rule. Against, this background, St. Paul is reminding the Philippian Christians that there are citizens of another country who are waiting for the true savior of the world to come.
2. While St. Paul confronted Roman patriotism, Jesus spoke to a Jewish audience that was more hostile to Caesar. The test about taxes was meant to create a dilemma. If Jesus said it was okay to pay taxes, he would be seen as legitimizing the despised Roman rule. If he said it was not okay to pay taxes to Rome, he would risk arrest as a political agitator. His answer put the two kingdoms in their proper perspective. The coin bore Caesar’s image and likeness. Thus, it is right to give it to Caesar to pay taxes. But human beings bear the image and likeness of God. Thus, it is right to give our entire selves, souls and bodies to God in worship and service. The early Christians paid taxes, but when Caesar demanded worship they refused and chose martyrdom instead.
3. We are familiar with the two passions our lessons aim at. Americans are patriotic, but we also have a history of hostility towards paying taxes to oppressive governments. The danger is the same in both instances. Too much focus either on our positive attachment to the current regime or on our passionate opposition to it takes our focus away from our primary allegiance to the kingdom God.
4. We are not dual citizens in the kingdom of God and the city of man. The Bible describes us as “strangers and pilgrims,” resident aliens in the world (1 Peter 2:11). The Bible exhorts us to be exemplary resident aliens. As St. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13, emphasis added). We are ambassadors for the kingdom of God. We called to represent our homeland well as a matter of foreign policy. But this is not our native country.
B. The difficulty and opportunity for Christians in America.
1. Historically, America has been a comfortable place for Christians. It’s hard to act as strangers and pilgrims when one feels very much at home. This is changing because the moral framework we inherited from the past is giving way to a new and constantly changing moral order. Many Christians feel a sense of angst or anger as they try to figure out how to live in the new, less friendly world.
2. We can discern our future vocation by facing a sobering fact about the past. The decline of Christian influence is a consequence of how comfortable the church has been in the world. We have lived as citizens of earth rather than as citizens of God’s kingdom. Rather than confronting the world with the presence of Christ, the church has come to look more like the world. Thus, the proper response to our new situation is not angst, anger or a desire to return to some former glory. The proper response is repentance and a renewed commitment to being citizens of the heavenly kingdom.
3. Our current situation presents an opportunity to embrace the biblical model of being resident aliens in this world. The church does not fare well when it enjoys political power. As a persecuted minority, the church must depend upon God and turn to him constantly in prayer. When the church gains political power, it tends to shift its focus towards temporal goals; it depends more on politics than on God. This is precisely what St. Paul is warning against. He is saying, “We are not citizens of earth looking for Caesar to save us or give us benefits. We are citizens of the heavenly city, eagerly waiting for our savior to come and complete his work in us.”
4. When we take our eyes off of Christ and the promise of his coming, eternal goals are replaced with temporal ones. Thus, for the last few generations, cutting edge Christianity has been eager to show how the kingdom of God can have a positive, practical impact on this world. The result of this earthbound focus is that Christian faith has not had much impact at all—or it has been seen as failure because it did not produce some desired, temporal result. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity, 134)
C. The kingdom of God and the interior life
1. The failed secularized and politicized Christianity is preoccupied with problems “out there.” Thus, there is a constant push for some new system, or some new law, or some new candidate that will bring the desired change. However, our faith teaches us that the root problem is not “out there;” the root problem is inside each of us. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). Unless we deal with our interior problem of sin first, we possess nothing and have nothing to offer to the world.
2. This does not mean to put our heads in the sand with regard to the problems in the world. You have a vocation to represent Christ as an ambassador in your home, in your work, in your politics and in your leisure. But you can only represent Christ if you know him and live in relationship with him. You can only be a good ambassador if the goals of being a faithful witness for Christ and working for the larger concerns of the kingdom of God transcend all of your temporal goals. If your advocacy for some temporal cause is characterized by anger and hatred; if you will compromise your faith to achieve some political goal in time, your faith will have no impact on the world—or its impact will be negative.
4. God is changing the world from the bottom up and from the inside out. His work began with one man born in Bethlehem and spread outward from there. It continues in each of our lives through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ lives in each of us, and he is working to change us into his image. When his work is done, we will be like Christ. We will live as God’s new people, in new and glorified bodies, in God’s new creation. This is the answer to the problems of this fallen world. This is what we bear witness to. Whatever we do in time in this world must reflect this overarching hope. As St. Paul reminds us,
Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.