What does it mean to have spiritual citizenship? This question underscores today’s lectionary-based message from Philippians 3:17 – 4:1.
In the Old Testament, the Bible repeatedly suggests that God chose the Jews/Hebrews only, with whom he made an almighty covenant yielding preferential treatment. It all began with Abraham, when his great faith ushered the agreement whereby God gave him and his descendants unique access. The Jews savored their exclusivity as God provided them salvation (albeit through the harsh Law and sacrifices), liberated them from Egypt, and helped them occupy Palestine and expand their mini-empire. Through their exclusive adoption by God, anyone born Jewish auto-magically inherited the benefits denied to others.
Prejudice and discrimination invariably arose, destroying hopes of universal justice and equity. The covenant was weakening, rotting from the inside-out. The death-knell came when those ancient Israelites didn’t keep their end of the bargain. Rule-based religion didn’t work, and was doomed to failure then as now. Birthright privilege was no longer an excuse. The hundreds of fear-based commands irreparably collapsed into a pile of muck. In response God sent jaw-jarring judgements and powerful preaching prophets, but the Law could not be revived. The end finally came hundreds of years later with Jesus’ arrival, culminating in a transformed salvation for both Jew and non-Jew.
Jesus changed everything. As the promised Messiah he ushered a new era of salvation, transitioning and reinterpreting the Old Testament legal requirements under a new summarizing commandment: love God and love others. You and I are now citizen members of a spiritual community, not one limited to a single ethnicity. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20 NRSV).
Jesus emphasized father Abraham’s true descendants, those who kept the spiritual promises rather than those who simply tried to create, follow, and enforce rules and traditions. The toxic Old Testament experiment with ethnic privilege had ended, and thereafter God altered the spiritual universe. No longer was being born into the right family a straight or certain path to God. True, Jesus shared the good news of his Gospel to liberate first his Jewish brethren. But thereafter Jesus’ followers pressed the message to all humans with missionary zeal right up to now, with you and me proclaiming the same Gospel of love. Smug ethnic identification is a dead-end. Gone are the days of free passes to heaven simply because of birthright and slavish rule-following. No more does any one group hold the key or justify themselves in denying God’s forgiveness to derided outsiders.
Jesus provides a Gospel message of redemption through forgiveness and restoration. We follow God’s desire that we receive and share love and truth with all humanity. This is Jesus’ new covenant which liberates us for unlimited possibilities. We serve God despite who or what we were prior to our spiritual awakening. No longer are we damned by anything outside our control, not our ethnicity, race, color, or birth status (or anything else save our own refusal). We share the responsibility and privilege to hear and respond to God’s call. Once redeemed, our citizenship becomes heavenly. The emphasis is on relationship over religion. We are elevated not by genetics or inheritance but by awakening and cleansing. Spirituality turns not on our heritage but on our hearts, not on our ancestry but on our acceptance.
It’s easy for those of us who don’t possess strong ethnic or racial identification to feel left out, especially as other societies huddle and hug based on color, language, or on a smorgasbord of cultural curiosities. What Jesus and other true followers of God seek is a spiritual fellowship surpassing any lesser group. It functions on how we receive and share God’s love. We are faith partners, children of God uniting in a church destined to do work in God’s name. We now choose to be an active part of God’s kingdom. With our newly-forged spiritual identity we surpass all weaker earthly groups with which we may have previously sought advantage. God deplores a church eroding into yet another elitist social club, one comprised of people celebrating insiders’ status. Now, everyone gets invited to the party.
You are not alone; you are not forgotten. God loves you and wants you to be a citizen in the kingdom of heaven no matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your relatives originated, etc. The family of faith in God’s kingdom is vast and diverse and includes people of all ages, wages and stages. We shall not fabricate an artificial unity but together we create a splendid consensus. We populate the church not based on peoples’ similarity to us but on the shared vision of discipleship and outreach (the two pillars of any church). We are uniting in Christ, not disuniting in chaos. Everything gives way to love, stretching across time and space transcending all human-imposed boundaries.
We know better than to trust in human privilege. We prepare for an eternal partnership, not a psychodrama of death and destruction. God’s love enlivens us in the here-and-now despite our origins and weaknesses. We are spiritual brothers and sisters, sharing familial ties through a living, dynamic God offering soul-enriching joy. We therefore proclaim a new way for a new day. Let’s celebrate our new covenant, creative and evolving as it may be. Join us in inviting anyone and everyone to strengthen our church and ultimately ourselves. The local church will grow and thrive inasmuch as we partner with God to make it happen. Choose wisely; choose God. –Reverend Larry Hoxey