A sermon on Philippians 3:17-4:1 preached in a military chapel consisting of both active duty and retired military personnel.
Respecting the Colors
I want to focus for a few minutes on one little part of this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In verse 20, Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
Our citizenship is in heaven. Every Sunday morning when I enter this chapel, I look around at the many flags that surround us. I see the flags of several states that have been my home over the years: the state where I was born and where my extended family still lives; the state where I moved when I was 14 and where I went to school; the state where I moved when I was 25, married and began my life as an ordained minister (and where I now pay taxes). Then there are the state flags of the places I’ve been stationed over the last 22 years of military service. These places have all been my home, but Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven.
Then there are the beautiful national colors behind me. I entered the Army and reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course in January 1991, just as Operation Desert Storm was beginning. I remember the first time that I went to the movie theater at Fort Monmouth and discovered the strange custom we have of standing for the national anthem before the movie begins. I heard the anthem as I never had before, now wearing my nation’s uniform in time of war. Every morning, I salute the colors as reveille sounds, and in the evening I salute them again during retreat. And on very sad occasions, I salute them as they cover the caskets of our honored dead. I love this flag, but our citizenship is in heaven.
Future and Present
Paul, of course, is referring at least in part to the fact that “we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
But I think that Paul means more than that. Paul doesn’t say that we will be citizens of heaven, but that we are. For you grammarians, the verb is present tense, indicative mood, a present reality. What might that mean?
Philippi was a Colony of Rome
It might be helpful to know some of the background behind Paul’s words. The church to which Paul was writing was in the city of Philippi. Although the city was located in eastern Macedonia – part of modern day Greece – the city was more Roman than Greek. It was, in fact, a town largely populated by Roman military retirees and their descendants.
In 42 BC, a civil war raged in Rome between the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar and the man who would later be known as Augustus Caesar. A major battle took place near Philippi, and Augustus emerged as the victor. Augustus gave the city to his soldiers as a place to live in their retirement. In Rome, when soldiers retired, they did not receive life-long pensions. They received a land. There are many cities dotted across the Mediterranean region that were established as communities for retired soldiers. Over time, Rome settled additional retirees in Philippi, and the town was given the status of a Roman city. So even though Philippi was located far from the city of Rome, it always saw itself as more Roman than Greek. It was Rome away from Rome, a Roman colony with deep military roots.
Soldiers living in foreign lands always establish a little bit of home wherever they go. That hasn’t changed in 2000 years. At Army bases abroad, you’ll find Burger King and Subway. There’s a PX with American goods and a commissary with American food. We gather together to watch fireworks on Independence Day and eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Our host nations are wonderful places with wonderful people, but they never quite feel like home – and how we long for a taste of home from time to time. These American outposts give us that.
I’m sure that it was the same for the Philippians. The people of Philippi were citizens of Rome, and that was important to them, and not just for the legal privileges that accompanied that status. They were Romans, and Philippi was a Roman city. From the food that they ate to the customs they practiced in their homes, Philippi felt like home in a way that the neighboring cities of Greece did not.
The Church is an Outpost of Heaven
When Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven, I think that he’s building on the experience of the Roman-minded Christians who lived in Philippi. If the people of Philippi saw themselves through the eyes of their Roman citizenship, how much more should Christians see themselves through the eyes of their citizenship in the kingdom of God?
Let me state as clearly as I can what I think Paul is telling us: the church is an outpost of heaven, a colony of God’s kingdom situated in a foreign land.
The Strange Story of the People of God
Every Sunday, we recite the Apostle’s Creed. In very concise terms, it reminds us who we are as citizens of the kingdom. God created this beautiful world, but we human beings have horribly messed it up. The story of God’s salvation begins with Abraham’s family. His family grew to be the Hebrew people, who were enslaved in Egypt. God liberated them, and led to them to the land of promise. In time, the tribes of Israel coalesced into a kingdom, with prophets and priests and kings. Jesus brings that story to its fulfillment – Jesus, who is our prophet and priest and king. He died and died and rose again to open the door to God’s eternal kingdom to all who believe. And he will come again, to bring all things under his rule.
The unbelievers among whom we live don’t understand the story, and some of them have terrible things to say about it. But it’s that story that makes us who we are. We are part of that story – with the family of Abraham and the people of Israel as our forebears, and the saints of God from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne of God in our future. And between these two poles we now live as the church of God. But it’s all one story and all one people. From the time of Abraham’s call to the day of Christ’s appearing, God’s people are citizens of heaven.
Our Strange Customs
Like every other people, we have some strange customs that the foreigners among whom we live do not understand.
We come in this place every week and recite the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. We sing songs that sound different than those you hear on the radio. We read strange stories from this strange book. We gather together to pray, and we find ways to serve. We regularly gather around this table to eat bread and drink wine, and on occasion we bring outsiders to the baptismal font to make them one of us. This is what citizens of the kingdom do.
Those outside don’t really understand our ways, but it is at least partly through our customs that we remain citizens of the kingdom in this ungodly world. It is the most natural thing in the world for us to absorb the identity and the values of the nations around us. Without our customs, the colony of heaven would not long endure. At the very least, it would cease to be heavenly.
The Purpose of a Colony
If the church is an outpost of heaven and a colony of the kingdom that God has placed in the midst of the world, why does it exist? Why do kings and empires establish outposts on the frontiers?
When I was stationed in Germany, I visited places like Ladenburg, Mainz and Trier, towns that had been established as military outposts on the frontiers of Rome two thousand years ago. And here in San Antonio, we know the story of the presidio and the missions established by Spain. In both cases, the empires established colonies to accomplish their purposes and extend their influence beyond the borders of their natural control. Part of the purpose was military, but Rome’s social, religious and economic presence was just as important. Rome spread by planting itself where it did not previously exist, as did the empires that followed it.
The church exists as an outpost of the kingdom for the same reason, to establish the king’s presence and extend the king’s influence. We exist to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. Neither military power nor economic coercion is part of the plan. We don’t extend the kingdom by brute force. Rather, we serve as the visible evidence of God’s kingdom in the world. The people of the world come to know what life in God’s kingdom is like by looking at us.
Life within the Colony
Our citizenship is in heaven. The church is a colony of heaven planted in the world. We are an outpost of the kingdom of God. But if that is true, it is of utmost importance that we actually live like citizens of the kingdom. The only thing that the nations will know of King Jesus and his reign is what they learn from us.
Enemies of the Cross
There is a problem when the church does not accurately represent its king in the world. In verse 18, Paul talks about those who live as enemies of the cross. There are certainly enemies of the cross outside the church, but Paul seems to be speaking here about insiders. And while one could think of many things that might make one an enemy of the cross, Paul’s only other specific reference to the cross in this letter is found in Philippians 2:3-8.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8)
Citizens of the kingdom do not live for themselves alone. They live the same kind of self-giving life that Jesus lived. They look to the interests of their brothers and sisters in the faith. They humble themselves in service to others. They obey God. They lay down their lives.
In the first verse of chapter 4, Paul also calls on the church to stand firm. This is the second time in this short letter that Paul made this appeal. As Christians living in a town steeped in military history and culture, Pau’s audience likely hears these words in military terms.
Roman soldiers did not fight as individuals, but as a cohort. They stood side-by-side in the line of battle, advancing as one and standing firm against the enemy as one. I watched a demonstration of Roman defensive formations during the annual Bread and Circuses festival in Trier several years ago. With their shields raised, the company forms a defensive shell – a “turtle” – that is impenetrable from the above, front and sides. Each soldier plays a role in enabling the entire formation to stand firm in the face of the enemy.
When Paul calls heaven’s citizens to stand firm, he is not speaking to them just as individuals, but collectively. All Christians are in this together. The world is not benign. It is hostile to our king and his kingdom. It is absolutely essential that we stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Most of you know that the holy season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, about 10 days ago. Lent began many centuries ago as a period of pre-baptismal preparation for new Christians. It was a time to teach new Christians the basics of the faith, but it also was a time to pray over the new Christians and ask God to drive the demonic influences of the pagan world out of their hearts and minds.
The new converts had been so immersed in the pagan world that they needed to get their heads straight. They needed to see the world with new eyes. In Christ, they had a new identity, a new set of allegiances and a new way of looking at the world. In other words, they needed to start seeing themselves more as citizens of heaven than as citizens of Rome, or members of a certain family, race, group, profession or social class. They needed to look at everything in their life through a new lens, and they had to break old allegiances and habits to do so.
Eventually, the church came to see that even long-time Christians needed the same thing. It is so easy to take our identity, our world view, our values and our self-understanding from the world around us. We drift into practical paganism. We become assimilated into the dying world and its way of life. Lent reminds us that our citizenship – our primary allegiance – is not in the dying kingdoms of this world, but in the eternal kingdom of God.
Our citizenship is in heaven. Paul’s word “our” refers to all who belong to Christ. Those who hear his word and believe his message. Those who by faith have been united to him through the waters of baptism. Those who commune with him and feed on him by faith at the table he has set. Those who follow his example and live faithfully within his church.
To accomplish his purposes, God has instituted us as an outpost of heaven. We are built on the foundation of the patriarchs and prophets and established in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This same Jesus will come again in glory to make all things new.
But even as we wait for that day, God is already at work within those who belong to him. If you look closely, you will see that the church is a sneak preview of heaven. God is already making all things new. Sinners are forgiven and restored. Enemies are reconciled. The broken-hearted are healed. The lowly are lifted up. The wayward are set on right paths. Those separated from God and from their neighbors are brought near. What a wonderful privilege we have to be members of his God’s kingdom.
Our citizenship is in heaven. Even though it sometimes feels as if the world around us will swallow us up and sweep our little outpost of heaven away, don’t lose heart. We have the promise of God that this little seed of the church will someday blossom into something more. God’s little outpost will welcome its king, and he will reign forever and ever. Amen.