Monday, October 29, 2012

Christian Citizenship 101

Whenever I address the subject of the kingdom of God with almost-Christians, I realize most of our countrymen are not even remotely aware that Jesus’ central teaching was about God’s kingdom: “ ‘The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Change direction and believe this good news!’” (Mark 1:15). If they are aware of the concept, they seem completely oblivious to how crucial the kingdom of God is for ordering their lives. Instead, they repeat a dubious mantra that goes something like one of these: “We have to be active in voting and campaigning to keep our nation Christian,” or “We need to take our nation back for God,” or “It is our responsibility to be good citizens.” I agree with this last point, but ask this: where does our citizenship lie? This is not an idle question, but crucial for serious followers of Jesus.

“Our citizenship is in heaven,” writes the apostle Paul to the Philippians, “and we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). The word Paul uses that we translate “citizenship” in English (politeuma in Greek) had a very proud and stark meaning for the city of Philippi. When the Romans invaded Greece 60 BCE, the Philippians betrayed their fellow Greeks by aiding the Romans in a quick occupation of their country. As a reward, everyone born in the city of Philippi was considered the same as if they had been born in Rome itself, with all the rights and privileges that go along with being a Roman citizen. It is hard to overstate what a privilege it was to be born in Philipi. They lived in Greece, but their citizenship, their politeuma, was in Rome. Being born in Philippi was like winning the lottery. Being born in the United States is a lot like winning the lottery, too. We, too, have a lot to treasure in being citizens of the United States. But…

When Paul tells the Philippian followers of Jesus that their citizenship is in heaven, he is simply noting what happened to New Testament Christians when they were baptized into Jesus: they died to this world kingdom—and to their obligation to it—and they were given new life as citizens of the kingdom of God. This is what it means to claim, “Jesus is my Lord.” It means you recognize Him as king of kings, and you recognize your exclusive loyalty is to Him as king by submitting to His rule, His authority, His kingdom.

As a result, to become a follower of Jesus should really cost something in America, as it did in Philippi. We should subordinate our American citizenship to our kingdom obligation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” and our primary loyalty has shifted to King Jesus. Once we really get this, we begin to understand why Christians from everywhere else consider our pledge of allegiance to the flag to sound like a form of idolatry. That is not easy for me to write as an Eagle Scout. But, as a devoted follower of Jesus I recognize that I am a citizen of a different kingdom.

What then is the civic responsibility of followers of Jesus in our country? Because we are Kingdom citizens, our role here is as ambassadors to America: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20). If you read the preceding verses in that chapter, Kingdom Christians’ role here is not to “keep America Christian” or “to take America back for God,” but to appeal to our countrymen that they be reconciled to God prior to his return, the second coming of Jesus. When He returns—the Scriptures repeat again and again—the opportunity to be reconciled to Him will be past. Our job, now and urgently, is to make an appeal as ambassadors from our homeland in heaven, from where our savior is coming soon.

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate His rule with trembling” (Psalm 2:10-11).