Sermon Text: Philippians 3:12-4:1
To you and me, these are arbitrary numbers. To a junior or senior in high school, these numbers have come to define them. GPA and SAT scores are sometimes written more than their names, or they at least directly follow, as anxiety-ridden high school students fill out endless stacks of applications for college admission boards and scholarship programs.
These are only a few contemporary identities. There are many others.
There is a temptation to be defined by the letters that come either before or after your name, depending on your level of education or the highest degree earned. Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Arts. MD. PhD. Seminary graduates receive a MDiv, i.e. Master of Divinity (a rather pompous title for those who confess that God and related speech can neither be possessed or "mastered").
I can think of a few personal identities:
Inquirer for Ordination.
Father of two.
Who are you?
In an economy and job market that continues to struggle, many of you may have asked this question. As you take a second look at your resume and contemplate an update, you may ponder not only who you are, but also and especially how you are perceived by potential employers. Even more, how are you better qualified than others.
Our identity is also a commodity in a consumer-based culture. Mass media and advertising agencies have developed clever schemes and evangelistic strategies to convince us that if we purchase a particular product a desired image or identity can be attained. This is who you should be? This is who you can be?
This identity quest is a rat race that leaves many of us tired and worn; some have called it a "race to nowhere." We run in place, exhaust ourselves, and often chase an unknown destination. Even worse, we pursue prizes and goals that are said to be important but we are pretty confident they lack any real value.
We may also struggle to define ourselves not only by personal accomplishments, but also mistakes made and maybe past failures that continue to haunt us.
Still more identities...
We are not the first generation to value status and social identity. The first-century, Roman world was also bent on classifications and images.
Worshiper of Caesar.
You knew who you were. You were told who you were. Your social and economic identity determined with whom you could and could not associate, where and when you could travel, and whether you could or could not participate in certain cultural festivities.
Who am I? The question was not one that caused internal and emotional angst like it does today. You were not offered options. You were told. Identity was predetermined by birth- no questions asked.
Then we read Philippians. Paul writes to his "beloved" from the (un)friendly confines of a cold and dark Roman prison cell, captive because he suggested and announced to the Roman world that there was another identity available, one which trumped those imposed by Caesar and his patrons.
Paul illustrates the Philippians, who are sure to be a motley crew and social mosaic, as follows:
Partners in a different gospel (1:3-5).
Followers of Jesus, Son of God, whose name "is above every name" and will one day be confessed by all- even Caesar (2:6-11)?
Children of God (2:15).
Shining stars in the midst of an often dark and crooked world (2:15)
The true "circumcision" (3:3).
Runners in a new kind of race (3:14).
Yet none of Paul's carefully crafted metaphors and identifications carry as much weight as what comes to us in Philippians 3: 20: "But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ."
Jesus as Lord.
What about Rome?
What about Caesar?
What about social status?
What about the race to nowhere?
Paul suggests that only one identity matters: our "in Christ" citizenship within the kingdom of God. A citizenship that is offered and available to all.
There is a temptation to allow this identity, i.e. citizenship in heaven, to be limited to a future anticipation and eternal residence whereby we will all one day go.
Is that it?
N.T. Wright writes about this illustration:
"If someone in Philippi said, 'We are citizens of Rome', they certainly wouldn't mean 'so we're looking forward to going to live there'. Being a colony works the other way around. The last thing emperors wanted was a whole lot of colonists coming back to Rome. The capital was already overcrowded and underemployed [sound familiar?]. No: the task of the Roman citizen in a place like Philippi was to bring Roman culture and rule to northern Greece, to expand Roman influence there...The church is at present a colony of heaven, with the responsibility (as we say in the Lord's Prayer) for bringing the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth" (The Prison Letters 126).
That is who we are. We are in-Christ citizens of the kingdom of God who are called to bring to life in the present world the anticipations of the renewed and resurrected creation yet to come.
Paul says it this way, "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (3:12).
Forget what is behind and live into what is ahead (3:13)
Live as patriots of the colony of heaven.
I love that this text comes to us on World Communion Sunday. Today we celebrate the Church Universal. We are reminded on this day that this colony of heaven knows not national border, denominational affiliation, conservative or liberal agenda, not even rich or poor social status. I can hear Paul say, "you are not a number. You are not your GPA, SAT score, or revamped professional resume. Your allegiance is not paid to a flag and your loyalty resides not in any one institution." Instead, we are united around a table. We come to this table drenched in the waters of our baptism. We are then sent from the sacred table marked as an "in Christ" people who participate in the good news of the gospel. We are on earth colonies of the kingdom of heaven.
There were colonies of Christians scattered throughout a racially segregated nation who believed the church was called to confess Christ by pursuing reconciliation. The result: The Confession of 1967, which served as today’s "Affirmation of Faith.”
There are colonies of “in-Christ” citizens in West Chester. Many worship here, others gather in Methodist and Episcopal, Catholic and Baptist communities around town.
There are colonies in Honduras. Youth there continue to contemplate how they can "design their future under the will of God," maybe in partnership with youth from this congregation? Medical clinics are also constructed in La Entrada by retired dentists and doctors, who then offer their expertise and services to provide healthcare to those in the most rural parts of Central America.
There are colonies in Mexico. The Estado 29 orphanage in Ensenada has seen dreams of new employment opportunities become realities through an internet café, which has then made other dreams of college educations affordable for recent graduates.
There is a colony of believers located in an old Presby church on Broad Street in Philadelphia, where pastors, artists, entrepreneurs, and social service agencies work to alleviate homelessness and offer solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized of the city.
There are colonies in Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.
There are colonies of the kingdom in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1)
We are all citizens of this kingdom, who gather around this sacred and sending table, in anticipation of the day to come when the whole of creation will be transformed and made new.
Until that day, we stand firm and faithful. We quest for opportunities to bear the marks of this kingdom in the present.
Who are we?
We are in-Christ citizens of the kingdom of God. May we be creative and faithful stewards of this identity today and every day. No matter what the cost.
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