But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)
Americans are pretty avid in their love for country. Star-spangled banners can be found flying from houses, not just government buildings. And people still even take off their baseball caps and put their hands over their hearts when the national anthem is sung at ball games. In fact, many churches have made national holidays sacred occasions they mark in their own worship.
But there is a line we can cross when patriotism turns into idolatry. St Paul reminds us that our true citizenship is heavenly. Christ is our King of Kings, and we wait in hopeful longing for that day when we risen from the dead as he already is. Because that will mark the moment in which his kingdom will come to full consummation and his eternal reign of perfect love and justice and mercy will become a reality one earth as it is in heaven. The same power that brought Jesus up from the grave will make all things subject to that same Jesus.
The Apostle Paul should know. He was a Roman citizen. He knew the privileges of having Roman legal protections and rights in his day. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles outlines how he deftly maneuvered his earthly Roman citizenship as a means to gain a hearing before Caesar himself to bear witness to the Gospel. You see, Paul knew his earthly citizenship was at the service of a highly citizenship—a heavenly one. If following Christ and gaining him required abdicating his Roman citizen status, he would gladly give it up. As it was, he uses it as a means to an end—his Roman citizenship served his heavenly status as a child of God.
Perhaps, the real sticking point isn’t about considering your Christian identity as superior to your American identity. Perhaps, instead, the issue is more about the reality of Christ’s resurrection power. Or maybe for you the real problem is looking for Jesus to return and reign at the end of history as more millenarian fervor than you can stomach for all the rapture-seeking doomsday preachers over the past century and a half or so. Whether it’s doubting the supernatural or being wary of overzealous, misguided end-times predictions, the fact is Christ is risen and Christ is coming again. Elsewhere, Paul decries Corinthians who denied the resurrection, saying, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Why? Because that means there is no basis to claim our sins are forgiven. It would mean Jesus is still dead, just another in a lined of failed, well-intentioned holy teachers who made impossible claims. Without Christ’s resurrection, we have no reason to keep following him.
But Christ is risen. And if he is risen, it is not unreasonable to believe his promise that he will return. We don’t need to get weird about it, trying to guess which political events or national figures might “fulfill” a symbolic expression in the Revelation or spell the end of human history as we know it. And we shouldn’t be looking for an eject button from the real suffering of this world by look for some “rapture”. We should embrace that sharing in Christ’s sufferings is a privilege, not a curse. Our rescue is that we will be raised up and transformed in the perfect image of Christ at his return, not that we’ll “fly away” and hang out in some disembodied vapor for eternity.
As we close our foray into Paul’s third chapter of Philippians, take a moment to see where your heavenly citizenship stands. Are you joyfully looking forward to Christ’s reign? Are you expectant for the day when you be raised up? Or do you let earthly commitments and identities take precedence over who (and whose) you are in Christ Jesus? What ways can you use your earthly identity to spread the Good News of Jesus to others?
Lord Jesus, thank you for winning us a heavenly citizenship through your mighty resurrection. Pour upon us the fullness of your Spirit that we might look with for the day or your return, and might glorify our Heavenly Father through lives of total commitment to you until that day. This we ask in precious and powerful name. Amen.