Citizenship in Heaven
Paul’s Letter to Woods, Part 2
Paul, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, writing to God’s chosen at Woods Church: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today I should like to speak with you about the matter of your citizenship in the realm of God. All of us hold some status of earthly citizenship, and usually of some community and some nation. I myself was born a citizen of Tarsus, one of the great cities of Cilicia, in the land you now know as Turkey. But I was also born a Jew, and so I was a citizen of the Hebrew Nation, in the tribe of Benjamin. But perhaps most importantly, because my father was a citizen of Rome, I was also able to claim that honorable status for myself. You might remember how in the book of Acts that played an important part in the story of my arrest and transfer to Rome for adjudication of my case. Each of these types of citizenship meant something a little different to me.
All of you are citizens of somewhere, mostly, I am sure, of the great nation you call home, and as well, of the state and towns where you reside. And although you may have widely differing ideas about how things should be done in your country, I suspect you could all agree on a few matters of what good citizenship is all about—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example, or the various rights and responsibilities which come to you. But when we cast our lot with Jesus Christ, and choose to join ourselves to his body in the church, we become citizens of another realm. As I wrote to the Philippians, “…our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now I hasten to add, this spiritual citizenship does not mean we give up our civic rights and responsibilities; far from it! As I just stated, I was proud of both my Hebrew heritage and my Roman citizenship, and was not afraid to use either if it could aid me in my ministry. Again, when I was imprisoned, I demanded my right as a Roman citizen of a trial before the emperor, which in turn provided me the opportunity to visit and preach in Rome. But what our citizenship in heaven does demand of us is that we view all our rights and responsibilities through the lens of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, and our membership in the Body of Christ.
Let me try to explain what I mean. Part of my reason for writing to the Philippians was to warn them about the teachings of an influential group of Christians with a Jewish background who argued that followers of Jesus—including both Gentiles and Jews—needed to adhere to the full spectrum of Hebrew law and ritual—and in particular, the practice of circumcision. But I maintained that we Christians don’t put our trust in rituals performed on the body or in the observance of dietary laws or other regulations. True righteousness comes not from what we do, but from what Christ does on the cross. Anyone who teaches otherwise—those who substitute rituals and acts of the law for faith in Christ—is an enemy of the cross. I say this not because I object to Jewish law and ritual, or to any Christian who wants to observe them, but because I am dedicated to resisting anything that will rob the cross of its power to save, by forcing believers in Jesus to follow a path other than faith in Christ’s saving death.
So how is this relevant for you? Because what was troublesome in the early days of the church has remained a question for this day, namely: what has religious ritual and observance of laws and regulations to do with our relationship with God in Jesus Christ? It’s always been a criticism of the church, that it’s all rules and rituals, and it still is a criticism today. In this holy season, you might have wondered if “giving up” something for Lent will help draw you closer to Christ. To the extent that this sacrifice helps you to focus on Christ’s sacrifice, that can be a good thing. But it can never substitute for Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross. You don’t earn points toward salvation by giving up chocolate for six weeks.
We often teach that reading the Bible, going to church, even regular prayer, should help you to understand God’s ways and become a more faithful follower of Christ. But they cannot substitute for your trust in the salvation won on the Cross of Calvary. Making a monetary contribution, going on a mission trip, volunteering for a service program, all these are valid expressions of your faith in what God has done for you; but they are not to be seen as deposits in the savings bank of salvation, that you may redeem for the careless words or unkind thoughts of your life, because, God has already redeemed them in the suffering of Jesus. Why is all of this important? Because it lifts up a basic premise of the Christian faith, the faith we must claim, and that is that we cannot earn salvation, we cannot buy God’s love. We can only accept it as a gift. All the gifts we give, the rituals we observe, the practices we follow, are in response to a gift we can never claim on the basis of our own virtue. I say again, those who teach that salvation comes from what we say or do or believe are “enemies of the cross who have their minds…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.
And this is my main point: just as one’s worldly citizenship tells us much about who they are and what they believe in this world, so also our citizenship in heaven endows us as Christian believers with our basic identity. It tells us who we are, and where we have come from, and to whom we belong. We are more than the flesh and blood in which our consciousness is housed; we are made in God’s image, God has breathed the breath of life into us, and so it is to God as revealed in Christ that we look to find out who we are and what we are to do. In contrast to those whose minds are set on earthly things—and by that I mean such earthly signs as religious ritual, adherence to doctrine, things we do to prove faith—our focus is to be on the One whom God has sent. It is our faith that salvation comes from God, from heaven, in the person of Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is that which gives us our identity, tells us who we are: we are those who are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Does this mean that what we say and do doesn’t matter? Does this mean that our actions have no consequence, that matters of faith and doctrine have no meaning? Certainly not! Just the opposite! It means instead that each moment is endowed with meaning, for it is an opportunity to respond to God’s grace anew. Every action has the potential for us to embody God’s love in the world. Every relationship is a gift from God in which we may allow God’s Spirit to move in us and through us to enable us to become who God has created us to be. Rituals and doctrines are not edicts enforced upon us—“accept and obey or else!” Instead, they are bridges and paths by which we may draw nearer to God. They are gardens and parks to explore, to learn more of God’s love and will for the world.
Indeed as we recognize our citizenship in heaven, we find that it bears its own set of rights and responsibilities. As we live life in this holy realm, as we discover our deep connection with God, we find we are blessed with the freedom that comes from knowing that death is not the last word, and that we belong to a realm in which we look at life through spiritual eyes. We realize each day that we are drawn into loving community by the grace of God, and not by anything we have done to earn it. In turn, we are called to embody that grace for others; we have the responsibility to use our God-given gifts in service to others; we are entrusted with loving one another as we have been loved, of loving neighbor as self, of loving so completely that we will lay down our very life, not to mention possessions and other worldly values—for others.
In fact, as citizens of heaven, the whole of our lives, all of our relationships, the sum of our actions, our triumphs and struggles, all become the arena in which God’s spirit is revealed, where Christ’s work is done, and where human life is transformed. Just as the cross of Christ and his empty grave become the scenes of the greatest reversal in all of human history, so each Christian life can become the setting for God’s ongoing transformation of the world. As I wrote to the Philippians, 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.
And here is the greatest blessing of being a citizen of heaven: God transforms us to be more like God, and here I think I know what I’m talking about. Remember, friends, I wrote the Letter to the Philippians while I was in jail. But because I believe that my citizenship is in heaven, the humiliation of being imprisoned for my faith has been transformed into an opportunity for the glory of God to be revealed.
To be a citizen of heaven is to find oneself in the story of God’s transformation of human life; the amazing changes that occur in human spirits when they are joined to the holy spirit. And so I close with the same words I wrote to those Philippians: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. Citizens of heaven, indeed, stand firm.