I don’t know if you were with us for the Last Night of the Proms concert at the beginning of June but it was brilliant, “the crowd pleaser of the decade,” I said to Elaine, our Director of Music. All the singing and flag waving made one thing very clear to me, deep down in my heart of hearts I am still very British. A lot of teasing goes on between Dr. Stirling and I about our English and Irish heritages but we are much closer than you think. My family origins derive from the Ulster Scots in the northeast of Ireland and my formative years were spent in Belfast where British ties are drummed into people from birth. Those ties have been more than evident in the Euro 2016 Football Championship. Whereas each time Wales (a country within the United Kingdom) have played, the Welsh fans and players have gloried in their own heritage by belting out the Welsh national anthem. When Northern Ireland played, however, the crowd and team lift their voices unashamedly to “God Save The Queen.” Ulster Scots take their British ties seriously and we were brought up with, among other things, the BBC and the BBC’s annual, Last Night of the Proms. So in my youth that music got into my soul and it was quite a rush to be singing Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory here at TEMC. It was clear that my emotional connection to Britain is still strong.
Yet forty years ago my family left that sometimes troubled part of the world and emigrated to Canada. I fell in love with Canada immediately. I was struck initially by simple things: the frequency of blue skies, the variation in temperatures, the Fall colours, greater spaces, bigger cars, re-runs of Leave it to Beaver (though not Canadian), the reasonableness of the Canadian character, and peace – the peace that seems to pervade this great land. Almost immediately Canada became home and some six or seven years later each member of my family became Canadian citizens.
The citizenship process was interesting. We were educated in the rights and responsibilities of a Canadian citizen. We had to prove that we had been residents for at least three years, that we were able to communicate in one of the official languages, and we had to read up on Canadian history and geography and gain knowledge of Canadian institutions and the political system. We were quizzed by an examiner and when judged worthy we attended a citizenship ceremony in which we took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that we would faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill our duties as a Canadian citizens. Becoming Canadians required something of us but we were happy to do it and align ourselves fully with our chosen homeland. We may still sing Rule Britannia with enthusiasm, but we sing O Canada with as much pride on this weekend that marks the 149th anniversary of Confederation. It is good to be a Canadian.
The apostle Paul must also have felt the pull of varying allegiances, he had a few of his own. He had already set out his Jewish heritage to the Philippians: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil.3:5).” His predicament in prison while writing the letter, however, had something to do with the fact that he was also a Roman citizen. Paul had Roman citizenship by birth. He had been born in the Roman city of Tarsus in modern day Turkey and had all of the rights and privileges of a Roman. When faced with flogging in Jerusalem, all he had to say was, “Is it lawful to flog a Roman citizen?” And the “Roman” soldiers, most of whom would not have been citizens, stepped aside in fear. When he was later in danger of being shipped back to Jerusalem for trial, he exercised his right to appeal to Caesar but that left him in custody for a further two or three years and it was from there that he wrote to the Philippians.
Paul, however, had a third and even greater allegiance in his heart, an allegiance to God through Jesus Christ. In our reading today, Paul is contrasting the Philippian believers to others in the Church who were really enemies of Christ. He says, “their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven (Phil.3:20).” If you read Philippians contextually, it is this citizenship that trumps everything else. The Christian’s citizenship in heaven comes first. The way Christians are, the way they think, the way they act, first and foremost ought reflect citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Let’s explore that a little bit. We know what it means more or less to be Canadian citizens. What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven?
Paul’s first clue to this question is in the negative. He speaks of those in the Church who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. “Their end is destruction;” he writes, “their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things (v.18ff.).” We’re not exactly sure who these people were but we know from elsewhere that people came into the church with their own preconceived thoughts and ideas. Some of these were early Gnostic ideas (Gnostic is from the Greek word meaning “knowledge”). One of the basic tenets of Gnostic thought was that there was a great separation between God and humanity, between heavenly and earthly, between spirit and body. The Gnostic deemed that the flesh was evil and the spirit good and one of the outgrowths of this was that some thought that it didn’t matter what a person did with their body, it was evil anyway, as long as that person had the right knowledge (gnosis) in their spirit about heavenly things, they would find heaven. And so, a person could live in any way he/she pleased. They could be gluttonous, they could be immoral, they could be violent. It didn’t matter in the eternal realm as long as they had gnosis.
There were thoughts within the Church that almost aligned with this. There were those who made so much of God’s grace that it really didn’t matter what a person did in the flesh, God’s grace was sufficient. Forget about controlling it! And there’s still a lot of that thinking around today as individuals and even clergy, at times, have elevated the grace of God so much that it’s very hard not to get into heaven. Some have gone even farther today suggesting that it doesn’t really matter what you believe or what you do, as long as you don’t hurt anyone. The focus is on the self, what pleases “me” here and now - “their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,” says the apostle. How a person lives is important to God and here Paul says something quite astonishing to help the Philippians live as true Christians. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me (3:17).” “Imitate me!” I don’t know too many preachers these days who would dare to say, “if you want to be a good citizen of heaven, imitate me. Walk as I walk.” More would prefer to say, “Do as I say, rather than, do as I do.”
Paul’s statement, however, may not be as bold and outlandish as it may seem. It was common practice in ancient times for students to learn much simply by watching their teacher. We have to recall that in Paul’s day there was no Bible. The Church in Philippi may have had one or two sacred scrolls from what we call now the Older Testament but little else. It was an oral culture and the gospel was passed on by word of mouth and by the example of those who had known Jesus. So Paul is not being boastful here, he is simply trying to help the Philippian Christians live out their lives as citizens of the kingdom of heaven in a situation in which they had little else to go on save their teacher’s words and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, too, Paul was trying to say something like he said in a fuller form to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Where there was no Bible, the gospel is a living word.
Thankfully now as we attempt to live Christian lives we have access to God’s Word. Bibles are widely printed, the best seller every year, and in them we have the Gospels that contain the words and actions of Jesus himself. One of the things I found in my doctoral work, however, is that Scripture engagement by people in the United Church and other denominations is at a very low ebb. Few Christians read the Bible any more. It leaves me wondering how we truly know the ways of heaven, today, let alone live them. In these days we face a barrage of advertising, viewpoints, propaganda, and ways of life coming toward us from various media forms. It is all influencing our actions and thinking. Should we not do something to get our minds beyond earthly things, at least a little, if we are to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Think about what it takes to become a Canadian citizen. You have to live in the land for a while, imbibe Canadian culture and values, speak one of the languages, and have a general knowledge of Canada. Likewise, perhaps, true citizens of God’s kingdom need to live in the spiritual realm for a while, imbibe the culture of heaven and its values, speak the language of prayer. We can do that through God’s word but there is even more to it than that.
If you watch PBS, you may have seen Sister Wendy Beckett on your television. Sister Wendy is a Carmelite nun who spends most of each day in prayer and contemplation but for two or three hours each day she allows herself to dabble in art history and interpretation. She began using post cards and pictures that were available to her in books. Over time, Sister Wendy began to correspond with curators and experts in the art field, asking for their opinions on various works. No one of them had ever met her but because of her correspondence, she became a known name in the art community. In the early ‘90s someone at the BBC came across her and had the idea that sending her on a tour of great art museums, filming her as she encountered original works for the first time might be on interest. It was an intriguing experiment. Sister Wendy, dressed in full habit and with a frumpy look that many thought would not immediately appeal to television audiences, became a media sensation. Her books about art became best-sellers. The New York Times described her as "a sometime hermit who is fast on her way to becoming the most unlikely and famous art critic in the history of television.”
Sister Wendy lives in a tiny trailer within the Carmelite compound. She devotes eight to ten hours each day to contemplative prayer. Broadcasters were amazed to discover that she did not have a television and read no newspapers. “They would interfere with my prayers,” she explained. She preferred to spend her time focussing on God, not the outside world. One writer says of her, “I have watched Sister Wendy’s programs and it almost seems that she looks at art, especially religious art, with two different eyes. Her left eye sees the brush strokes on canvas, the stylistic arrangements, the use of colour and design. Her right eye sees further to the aesthetic and spiritual meaning, the hidden intent of the artist. Untold hours of prayer have trained her to look beyond the surface. Angels, characters from the Bible, the Holy Trinity – she knows these subjects intimately, and their depiction in art is a gateway to another reality in which she feels equally at home.”
When Paul sets true Christians off from others - “But we are citizens of heaven” - he is inferring that Christians will have a similar “stereoscopic vision” to that of Sister Wendy. While we may live in this world, we have a strong familiarity with another.
Now, perhaps we cannot all live the monastic type of life that Sister Wendy Beckett lives in. It is hardly feasible to spend eight or ten hours a day in prayer and contemplation of God when one must do the laundry, pick up after the children, take the dog out, clean the washroom, go to work, mow the lawn or any one of a host of other things. We do, however, need some familiarity with God and heaven if we are to be true citizens of heaven. We do need to spend some time, even a little time, with God regularly. Besides the word of God, there’s a spiritual aspect to Christianity that many are missing. We need to “walk in that land,” so to speak, as well as this one.
A friend of mine has been teaching for years at Asbury Theological Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in North America. He was here for a conference a few years ago and over lunch I recall him telling me of the value of a quiet time with God every day. He shared about his own practice. An early riser, each day he wanders into a room that overlooks a reasonable scenic back yard. He brings a cup of coffee and his Bible or some other devotional material. He would read a little and pray and sit with God for fifteen or twenty minutes and in recent years on several mornings each week he would post a prayer, a thought for the day, on Facebook. They’re always simple but always meaningful. Last Wednesday’s went like this: “O Lord, loving Spirit, help me be resolute, disciplined, determined, and undeterred in my devotion and my Christian walk today. Strengthen my will to do your will as I trust fully in the power of Jesus in my life, I pray. Amen.” My friend spends time with God, he “lives in the land,” he is in touch with the spiritual world, and because of that he is all the more able to live for God here in this land. He is a citizen of heaven.
It’s so important for all of us who would be true citizens of heaven to take time for God. It is so important that we get beyond mere earthly things and uncover, as Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever, is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,” we are to think about these things and live them says Paul (Phil. 4:7f.). Howard has found a niche for spirituality in his daily life. We all need to find a niche in our lives too if we are to be true citizens of heaven.