"The Citizenship of a Christian" - Pentecost 9B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
July 22, 2018 at 10:15 AM
Central Passage
Ephesians 2:8-22
Subject
Pentecost 9B
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: July 22, 2018 – Pentecost 9B

Ephesians 2:8-22

 

Citizenship and the Christian

 

              In the year 410 A.D., many upstanding Roman citizens thought the world was coming to an end. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe led by the warlord Alaric, entered the city on August 24th and proceeded to rape, pillage, and destroy. They devastated the populace, capturing a number of Roman citizens, including the Emperor’s sister, Galla Placidia. They ransomed some, sold others into slavery, and raped and murdered the rest. Three long days of terror passed. Afterward, Alaric and his men left the city with their valuable hostage, Galla Placidia, and their loot in tow.

 

              The long-term effects of the sack were devastating, not just physically and economically, but also psychologically and spiritually. While Rome had lessened in political importance with the rise of Constantinople a century before, Rome was still a spiritual center of the Empire. People were in shock. As refugees streamed from the city, St. Jerome, the great translator of Scripture, remarked in grief, Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of nations had become also their tomb…that we should every day be receiving…men and women who once were noble and abounding in every kind of wealth but are now reduced to poverty? We cannot relieve these sufferers: all we can do is to sympathize with them, and unite our tears with theirs….Who would have believed that mighty Rome, with its careless security of wealth, would be reduced to such extremities as to need shelter, food, and clothing? And yet, some are so hard-hearted and cruel that, instead of showing compassion, they break up the rags and bundles of the captives, and expect to find gold about those who are nothing than prisoners.[1]

 

              It didn’t take long for fingers to start pointing. Followers of the old Roman gods thought that the Empire had declined ever since Christianity became the preferred religion. They believed that the old gods had either actively punished or abandoned the city for turning away from them to Christ. In response, St. Augustine of Hippo – perhaps Luther’s greatest influence after the apostle Paul – wrote a long, complex, and brilliant treatise entitled The City of God, defending the Christian faith. In this work, Augustine both refuted the arguments of the pagans and comforted Christians with the assertion that God’s reign would finally triumph, no matter what happened to the Empire. The citizenship of the Christian was, ultimately, in the city of God, not in the city of the world.

 

              I mention this snippet of history because, perhaps, it has something to do with the crossroads we find ourselves at now as American Christians. Ever since the church began, there’s been a conflict between focusing on the eternal – the kingdom of God; and the immediate – our situation right now, in this world. All of us are dual citizens. We are citizens of the United States on this planet, and we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, the community of God’s people that stretches throughout time and space without regard for race, ethnicity, or national origin.

 

              In decades past, a common criticism of Christians was that “they can be so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.” It was often a critique of Christians that neglected the acts of mercy that Jesus commands in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, sick, and lonely. But I wonder if the tables have turned. I wonder if many Christians are now completely concerned about this world to the exclusion of God’s reign – but not in the sense of showing mercy to others. I wonder if some Christians are so focused being in power here; on enacting their own ideology here; on exercising dominion here; that they forget the good news of Jesus Christ for all people, which was enacted not by brute force but by self-giving love.

 

              This temptation for Christians to seize earthly power goes back to Satan’s temptation of Jesus. “All these kingdoms could be yours, if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus refused the bait, but Christians through the centuries have not. Only sixty years ago, mainline Protestant congregations like ours held a lot of power in American society. Since the late 1960s, that power has slowly waned. The next to reach for the ring of power were Evangelical Protestant Christians, like the Christian Coalition or the Moral Majority. And time after time, Christians have looked away from Christ and to the political leader du jour to be their messiah. We want someone to take to reigns of secular power, lead America out of its “long national nightmare” (to use Gerald Ford’s phrase), and to lead us into the promised land.

 

              Such a misplaced focus on a secular leader or political ideology is bound to divide us into sharply-defined camps. Like the Jews and Gentiles Paul mentions, there is a dividing wall of hatred among us. And this wall of hatred keeps being built, brick by brick by those forces that seek to divide and exploit us for their own gain. And this wall is far more destructive than any kind of physical barrier. The big wall of division is the one that has been built in our hearts, that refuses to see other people not like us as children of God.

 

              But Jesus knows our hard-heartedness. He knows our fears. He knows our desire for power and our need for security and peace. And in him, we find peace. Jesus is the one who gives us citizenship in the kingdom of God, a place in God’s household, out of nothing but sheer grace. Think about that for a moment. Citizenship in this country comes with certain protections, privileges, and responsibilities. The same goes for the kingdom of God – but on an infinitely deeper level. In Christ, we are no longer strangers and aliens to each other or to God, but beloved children and friends. In Christ, we are no longer divided by our petty hatreds but united by a common destiny and a common belonging. In short, Christ is our security and peace – our only security and peace. Whatever happens to our dear Republic in the days, weeks, months, or years ahead, Christ is the rock on which we stand. He is the cornerstone on which we are built, along with the great heroes and heroines of the faith (including those who passed the faith on to us). He is our hope – our only hope – in a world where every single earthly government eventually comes to an end. That is frightening, but also reassuring. Because our hope is in the eternal One, the One who has been set above all other earthly power.

 

Our responsibility, then, as citizens of the city of God, is to live lives that mirror the justice, peace, and reconciliation of Christ among different peoples, remembering that God ultimately saves by grace and not by anything we do. We are no messiahs. No political leader is either. We are all simply citizens – friends – of the One who is our ultimate hope.

 

Augustine was right 1600 years ago. He is right today. Our hope has never been in the city of this world – though we certainly have a responsibility to live in it as representatives of the Christ we serve. Our hope is in the city of God, our true homeland. And that city’s gates, Revelation tells us, are “never shut by day, and there will be no night there.” Why? Because, as Revelation continues to tell us, “Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is vile and deceitful, but only those who are registered in the Lamb’s scroll of life.Our true citizenship, security, and hope is in the eternal city, safe from all danger, yet open to all in Christ.  

 

© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.q 

 

 

[1] Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel: Book 3; from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Wace and Schaff (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), 499-500.