Citizens of Heaven
Human communities are complicated. Christian communities are complicated. Academic communities are complicated. Paul the Apostle was writing to a very complicated community of new Christians in Philippi. Some were interpreting the radical freedom they had in Christ as giving them complete license to eat, drink, have intimate relationships, and live in any way they wanted. Others were interpreting the Gospel as a binding set of rules, and were stultifyingly strict in what they considered an acceptable diet and lifestyle. They saw in their new faith, more than anything else, a binding set of restrictions on all aspects of life; they made the observance of those restrictions the focus of their faith, and absolutely missed the forest for the trees. Both the libertines and what I’ll call the holier-than-thous worshipped the “god of the belly” – either from gluttony or obsessive abstemiousness. Both sets of people were those whose “glory is in their shame.” They had made their lifestyles – such different ones – the center of their worship, and they were missing the Gospel in the midst of it all. We all must reflect on how our faith should make us live, but those practices, no matter how noble, should not become our worship.
Rather than think any more about what might comprise similar groups in our own life today – the religious overdoers and the profligates (neither of which is, of course, ourselves!) I’d like to think with you about some of the underlying challenges to the life of faith that are addressed by Paul. We are encouraged always to be citizens of heaven, while we are now very much denizens of earth. Here on earth we live with glory and with shame, in hopes of the former and in fear of the latter. Before us at all times should be the cross of Christ – that symbol of all that we should imitate, that symbol of greatest shame. And Christ endured it – a public (facetious) trial, a public flogging, being forced to carry the implement of his execution through the streets, his public execution, his hanging there for hours, the taunts, the piercing desecration of his body, the pilfering of his clothes, his total desertion by all whom he loved but his mom. The cross is the ultimate humiliation, as Paul reminds us, and we must remember that daily as we negotiate our daily humiliation and glory.
A woman is cheated on by her husband, and experiences it as total humiliation. A man is passed over for a promotion at work and told he simply didn’t merit the new position, while all along he knows that he was denied the job because of his sexual orientation, or his race. He lives with the humiliation of knowing that he is not less qualified, but that the power of his supervisor means that he must come to work everyday and live with the insult, or forfeit his family’s well-being by quitting. A student decides, with friends, to be the one who reports an impropriety in their campus organization, and when critics descend, that student is suddenly all alone and humiliated by “friends” who distance themselves as quickly as possible. In our daily lives humiliations are large, and they are small – we know that we are deliberately short-changed by a cashier, misdirected by a public servant, passively refused some kind of service. It hurts, and it makes us mad.
Paul writes to the Philippians, especially those trying to live an authentic faith, about how to be liberated by what humiliates them, in their case, the scorn and reprimands they are receiving from Christians who live differently. It is not about being liberated from what humiliates us, but by what humiliates us. Christ was liberated by his humiliation on the cross, and we are liberated by that cross as well. Paul says that we should let whatever humiliations and mortifications we endure as people of integrity, conscience, and faith become the causal agents of our glorification. The most profound humiliation – the cross – effects the glory of Christ for eternity and over all the universe. How much simpler can be the grist of our own small humiliations for our own liberation into true glory.
Our humiliation can make us deeper Christians. Our humiliation can grow our faith, our integrity, our witness. We pass our humiliations through the cross, which transforms them. We are not always able to redress or receive justice for our humiliations. We give up that effort. We see our humiliations, no matter how small, as the cross we bear. We bear them well, we bear them to the end, and then we lay them at the foot of the cross of Christ, the ultimate humiliation.
Paul differentiates between citizens of earth and citizens of heaven. Those of us who wish to excel on earth set our minds on earthly things – our god is our belly and our glory is in our shame. Our focus is on success now, and by the standards of our societies. Paul writes that, in effect, when our glory is our own self-interest and our social status, our glory is in our shame. Many years ago the radio personality Garrison Keillor spoke at the chapel at the University of Chicago, where I then served. It was not at a service but for the dedication of a new children’s hospital on campus. It was an election year (you will have noticed that we are also in one now!). Visibly aggravated at those American Christian voters who were energetically denying some poorer fellow Americans’ right to health care, a living wage, etc.; Keillor referenced our Philippians passage by saying that “if you are already a citizen of heaven perhaps you have thus forfeited your voting rights on earth.” He was making a theological as well as political point – that when we pursue our own self-interest to the detriment of others, our glory is in our shame.
As citizens of heaven our joy is in the fact that everyone flourishes, and we give away some of our privilege so that that may happen – for the American poor, for the world’s refugees, and more. I’ve said that we are citizens of heaven and denizens of earth, which is to say that we inhabit both realms at the same time. We do. We can’t split them into separate realms, and we shouldn’t try. Our bodies are, for now, irrevocably here, but our souls exist in both. We are not split, for God is the Sovereign of both. With humility, we stand tall on earth so that our heads scrape heaven. Inspired by our citizenship in heaven we do our best to live out its precepts on earth.
To be citizens of heaven who live on earth means that, like Paul, we strive to make our lives worthy of imitation, not out of hubris but of the integrity of trying – trying to imitate the extent to which Christ, especially through his cross, came to serve. Paul points to himself, others, and even us as people to imitate, not because he has his eyes on heroes but on very regular, flawed people like him and us. We’re neither super-pious nor are we libertines; we’re doing the daily hard work of citizenships in two blessed realms created and ruled by God.
And we hold the cross of Christ out before us – this Lent and always. Our humiliations, our challenges, our loves – we funnel them through the cross, the place of ultimate humiliation, challenge and love. There, at the cross, Christ takes everything that we feel subject to and subjects it to himself. We do not endure our trials alone. He makes it possible for all that humiliates us actually to become the vehicle for our spiritual liberation. Our humiliation is metabolized by the cross, the site of Christ’s disfigurement, rejection and death. All of that hideousness is not the end. Thanks be to God and Christ, who always give us the power to be more than conquerors, as we dwell on earth, and also in heaven.
Feasting on the Word, D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, eds., (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2009), pp. 62-67.