Perhaps, like me, you have friends who live outside of the United States. Thanks to Social Media we’re able to stay in touch with one another, or at least see what they choose to share. Are any of your overseas friends as involved in the Presidential election here in the States as mine? One might think that because they’re living abroad as missionaries, English teachers, students, etc. they might not be as plugged in to election. Perhaps it’s that Millennials are actually engaging in politics, but my overseas friends are not just in the know about the presidential election but are very vocal about who to vote for as well as how to engage with others in the political process. While they’ll be voting through absentee ballot I’ve no doubt that my friends working and serving in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America will be casting their vote this election.
By voting through absentee ballot these friends are acknowledging their American citizenship from abroad. American citizens have certain privileges, rights and duties that can be exercised from a distance. In truth, it can be a bit refreshing to read their perspectives on American politics because they’re not consuming the same media as we are. Often living in developing or impoverished nations, the distance - geographically, culturally, and economically - gives them a different, and perhaps necessary, perspective
While the city of Philippi was within the borders of the Roman Empire being some 800 miles from the eternal city meant that Philippians would exercise their Roman citizenship from abroad. And exercise it they did. Founded in 356BC by Philip II of Macedonia - Alexander III’s (the Great’s) father - the city was repopulated by Roman Citizens and soldiers in the last century BC. At the time of Paul’s writing, the Philippians would have been proud of their Roman heritage and citizenship. Located a few miles north of the Aegean Sea, Philippi became an important city for the Roman Empire’s trade route. About a century after Paul’s letter to the church the Via Engatia was completed. This was a major highway extending from the Adriatic Sea in the West, through Philippi, and on to Byzantium on the far East side of present day Greece.
Philippians were Romans. They knew this. And the liked this. It afforded them certain rights and privileges. In fact, it was in Philippi that Paul called upon his Roman citizenship as a way to confront the Roman magistrates (Acts 16). Like our friends, Philippians exercised their Roman rights and pledged their allegiance from a great distance. This distance did not prohibit them from practicing this citizenship.
Perhaps because he was writing to Roman in Philippi, Paul likes this word “citizenship,” politeuma. It appears not only in this Sunday’s epistle lection, but in the first chapter of this letter as well. What the NRSV translates as “...live your life (plural) in a manner worthy of the Gospel…” in 1:27 might better be translated as “be worthy citizens of the Gospel.” The word “life” there comes the same Greek word politeuo as 3:20. This was an easily recognizable word for Romans.
Paul’s use of this word would have had a lasting impression for those living a great distance from their polis, from that place where they truly identify. For one there are political and social implications for considering oneself a citizen of heaven. Like Romans and Americans have certain rights and expectations associated with their citizenship, so do Christians have particular responsibilities and expectations associated with their citizenship. As evidenced by Paul’s life, Roman citizens were not to beat and imprison other Roman citizens without a trial. Christians have certain social, and perhaps even political, implications associated with their citizenship.
It would have also struck a nerve with Roman Philippians (as it may with Americans working abroad) because they understand what it meant to practice citizenship from a distance. So do we Christians find our true citizenship in a place that often feels distant, particularly during Lent. Until heaven and earth are finally and ultimately united, we are, as Stanley Hauerwas has noted, Resident Aliens. While permanently on earth, our citizenship, our politeuma, is in the Kingdom of God
As we take on the practices of intentional fastings, praying, and giving; as we walk with Christ through the wilderness to the cross this Lent the presence of the Lord might feel very distant. Our mouths, like our stomachs, might grumble against a God that isn’t as close now as in Christmastide and Epiphany. In a time when we purposefully remember our death the Theophonic baptismal waters may be but a distant memory. As our earth (at least here in Michigan) is cold, dead, and dying, life looks far away.
This Philippian passage may be precisely what we need in this season of barrenness. When God and life are far off, let us be reminded of our citizenship. Let us be reminded that we have a home. Despite the distance we can, we ought, still exercise our heavenly citizenship.
Preacher, remind your people of their true citizenship. Particularly in this election season where tempers flare and words fly. Being a citizen of heaven doesn’t mean that we can’t share in political endeavors, but it does shape HOW we participate.
Remind your people of their true citizenship. In the midst of their personal, relational, social darkness, decay, or death, remind them that they have a home. While it might feel distant for a season it is our home. One day that home will descend and be united with this earth.
Remind your people of their true citizenship. Remind them that our polis will one day be (re)united with creation. We are people of prolepsis; living according to that which will be rather than what is; living according to the coming Kingdom, our heavenly home, now!