Yesterday’s message …
• Acknowledge that in normal times I’d prefer not to do this series;
• Yet in abnormal times it moves for a GOT TO to a GET TO;
• Gave a brief lesson in the geo-politics of ancient Philippi;
• Landed at this bottom line: Don’t confuse your civics for your citizenship.
Well, it’s true. We’re starting a series called “The Three Don’ts Of Election 2020” and I know some of you. Some of you want me to make sure it includes DON’T VOTE DEMOCRAT. Others want to make sure it includes DON’T VOTE REPUBLICAN. And then still others might secretly or not so secretly hoping DON’T DO THIS AT ALL. And then a few of you are silently urging DO IT, DO IT, DO IT, so that if I veer from your political stance even a little bit, you’ll be sure to let me know about it afterwards.
And in all honesty, I wish I didn’t have to do this series. But I realize that my wants are secondary to this community’s needs, and so I have to – for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of collective sanity, and even for the sake of the unity of this particular body known as Good Shepherd. And realizing the GOT TO of all that makes me see that this series is, at the core, a GET TO. Not an obligation but a privilege. So we gots to get to DON’T #1 of the THREE DON’TS.
Because as I think about it, it really is my CIVIC DUTY to let you know of at least the first of these three, isn’t it? And then you’ll know whether or not you want to hear about the other two. Because you know what your civic duty is, don’t you? It’s like when I pay my quarterly estimated taxes (long story why UMC pastors do NOT get it withheld; we are independent contractors!), that’s my civic duty. When I pay my (exorbitant) property tax bill, that’s my civic duty. When I drive nor more than 40 in a 35, that’s my civic duty. When I drive no more than 25 in the speed trap on Smith Road’s 25 by Rivergate Elementary, that’s my civic duty. When you get a jury summons and actually show up, that’s your civic duty. When you vote on November 3, you guessed it, that’s your civic duty. It’s all those things we do, collectively and individually, to make a given community work. That make it function. It’s why you don’t (or shouldn’t) build a new house without a permit first. Civic duty.
You learn so much of this in Civics Class in high school. And here’s the thing. Throughout the history of the church in the US, there has been a noble is sometimes misguided effort to blur the lines between the “civic” and the “religious.” The “secular” and the “sacred,” at least in the public square. That’s why town council meetings often have an opening prayer, why football games have an invocation, why back in the day there was a devotion at school and even why such broadly, inclusively religious outfits like the Scouts or the Civitan list “reverence” as part of their core beliefs & practices.
Well, here’s the truth. Sometimes when we get really invested in the direction of our “civics” – like, say, lower taxes or tighter gun control or greater health benefits or legality (or not) of same-sex marriage or the role of statues in commemorating history – we can blur the lines between faith and civics even further. In a lot of ways, these are the kinds of things that have brought us to the precipice, the EDGE, of division as a nation, as a region, and even in individual congregations.
It’s kind of funny in these areas – at least, until it’s not funny anymore – how we attribute behavior to character in everyone but ourselves. Like if someone shows up late: she’s lazy. She’s disorganized. If WE’RE late: I was helping the kids. The traffic was bad. If someone talks too loud: They’re insecure. Or obnoxious. If I talk to loud: I need to be heard. The room is loud. Other people behave a certain way because of character defects; we do so because of necessity. Well … move this to politics or to civics. How could you vote BLUE? They’re godless and corrupt! Or how could you vote RED? They’re racist and hypocritical. But what about that time YOU voted Red, son? “Oh he was the best candidate!” See what we do? What is character defects in others is circumstantial wisdom in ourselves. It makes our civics cause so much … confusion & division.
It’s the kind of confusion that I believe the Apostle Paul must have felt in the ancient Greek city of Philippi. Now: to know the connection between ancient words and modern times, can I give you a quick geo-political lesson in the civics of Philippi? I can! Thank you! This afternoon, when people ask you how was church, you can say, “It was GREAT! I got a lesson in the geo-political civics of Philippi!” Your friends will be SO JEALOUS and will INSIST on coming with you next week.
Anyway, Philippi (see map below) was located in what is today Greece, but it had been established as a COLONY of Rome. And its status as a colonial city meant two things, really. First, a good chunk of the people living there were Roman citizens. Their bodies may have been here but their allegiance was THERE. Their homes may have been here but their hearts were THERE. They may have eaten tzatziki and baklava but what they really wanted was some LASAGNA. A good chunk of these RESIDENTS of Philippi who were CITIZENS of Rome were soldiers, put in the colonial city to keep the peace.
The second most populous group in Philippi were slaves. They weren’t citizens of ANYWHERE. They had no rights at all. And get this: no one thought that was WRONG. Some were destined to be Masters; other were destined to be mastered, and there was nothing you could do about it. It was much like the caste system in India; you don’t resist it, you just accept it and move on. There’s a huge level at which that makes historic sense, as many scholars believe that the gods of Hinduism are the sub-continent’s version and adaption of the gods and goddesses of the Greek paganism & Roman mythology. So slavery then and lowest caste now … it’s karma.
And into this milieu, Paul offers a breathtaking claim. To soldiers whose rights and privileges are elsewhere and to slaves for whom they are NOWHERE, he says this in 3:20
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
Oh Lord! That in a sense brings the soldiers DOWN: You mean this being a Roman thing is not the biggest part of who I am? Nope, it’s not. But it lifts the slaves up: You mean I am somebody? I actually have rights and citizenship? YOU BETTER BEIEVE IT! You’ve been bought, resurrected, protected!
And get this, it’s so cool. Having your citizenship in heaven – in Philippi then or the Carolinas now – doesn’t mean that heaven (clouds) is your final destination. It DOES mean that is where your king takes up residence. He has your citizenship! He has a list of his citizens; people who have given their lives to him by faith. And when he returns –
21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
– he will bring your citizenship with him! It’s not pie-in-the-sky, it is a new heavens and a new earth with your name connected to heaven’s king. It’s Paul’s way of reminder solder and slave alike, insider and outsider alike, red state & blue state alike: this here? Not your loyalty because it’s not ruled by your king. You’ve got something bigger & someone better coming.
All that leads to the first DON’T of Election 2020: Don’t confuse your civics with your citizenship. Your civics might be urgent. They’re never ultimate. This election might be important. It will never be eternal. The result of our civics will either be the same or a different Caesar. But never, not once a King. He was never elected and he’ll never need to run for re-election! Our civics get us shaken and stirred while keeping our citizenship on the backburner. Don’t do that. Do all you do, enthusiastically, as an ambassador of the king, knowing he is the one holding the blood bought amnesty of your citizenship. A candidate might get your vote; don’t dare give him your soul. Don’t confuse your civics with your citizenship.
Listen, why would you even want to give your all to your civics? Why would you want it to be the fundamental definer of your identity? Did you know that the Ten Commandments take up 297 words? Psalm 23 takes 118? The Lord’s Prayer just 56? And yet when the Ag Dept. developed a pricing policy for cabbage – CABBAGE! – it took 15,629 words! Who would want that?! Don’t confuse your civics with your citizenship.
It’s instructive to see what happens when Xns and churches DO make that confusion. In the early years of the church, like when Philippians was written, Xnty was an outlaw faith. You could be persecuted, even killed for saying “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar if Lord.” And in that environment, there was explosive growth. But then in 313 AD, the pendulum of civics & citizenship swung to the other extreme. The Roman Emperor Constantine became a Xn and so he did what Emperors do: if it’s good for me; it’s a law for everybody! Xnty was now the official state religion of the RE. It goes from rebel faith to only faith. To be born in the RE made you a Xn. IOW, the only criteria for church membership was a … pulse. And so pretty soon the church didn’t have one.
The legacy of the state church still impacts Western Europe where for years there was a Church of England, Sweden, Germany, & others, where those particular churches were part of the govt. and supported with tax dollars. In other words, a total confusion of civics and citizenship! You know what those nations have in common today? NO ONE GOES TO CHURCH! The enormous cathedrals are now museums … or mosques. It’s the heritage of WW2 as well as the bitterness that people felt and feel about tax dollars used to support state religion. So, sadly, the only religious people in Western Europe these days are Muslim immigrants.
The problem is that Civil Religion – where you assume being a good citizen and being a good Xn are the same – props up civic authorities, even evil ones. It’s why civil religion propped up slavery between 1619 & 1865, Jim Crow in the 1900s – and I’ve lived in a place where Jim Crow was slow to die and people used religion to support their racist views. Not biblical, Philippians faith; civil religion. Any time people are led to think that faith and the tate are the same, well, the state will advance and the kingdom will retreat.
Listen: citizens of heaven demolish what civics props up. That’s how slavery was abolished and how segregation was overturned. It’s why it’s so dangerous for churches or movements or denominations to be too closely connected with any particular candidate or party. Dangerous to both. If you’re a citizen of heaven, I want to remind you of this: civics (party or govt.) will take as much of you as they can. The more you give – time, money, resources, passion – the more they’ll take. Don’t let them do it. Don’t fall for the ultimate confusion. Your loyalty, like your citizenship belongs somewhere and to someone else. Don’t confuse your civics with your citizenship.
So no, don’t confuse your civics with your citizenship. One belongs to, at best, a prince; the other to a king. One blends in, either red or blue; the other is different, strange, peculiar and what? A moment of oddity that shapes our identity as a community. And get this: you share citizenship with people you don’t share civics with. You stand up Scripture with people you don’t stand under candidate with. No one – NO ONE – will be asked at your judgment seat: So … Trump or Biden? No one. It will be instead: What did you do with ME and how did you treat me people? Those are the stakes and that compels the need for clarity, for you and for me: your civics can have a piece of you. Your citizenship demands it all.