Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.Philippians 3:20
If you ever visited another country, you know how fascinating it can be – Different language, different culture, different sights, different smells, different food. It is all wonderfully interesting. But while there, you are always aware of the fact that you are not from there. And you are not actually living there. You’re just visiting there. In fact, it doesn’t need to be another country for that to be the case. Any trip away from home causes the same feelings. And with most trips away from home, even wonderful vacations, we are usually a little relieved to be home again.
In today’s second reading (Philippians 3:17-4:1), Paul tells us that, as Christians, our whole life is like this. Paul tells us in verse 20 that: “Our citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” As baptized Christians, in other words, we are no longer citizens of earth, but of heaven. We live here on earth; that is true. But we are no longer from here. We are just passing through, on our way home. And our true home is in heaven.
Our Hope Is Not Found on Earth
I suppose we all know that already. But it can be easy to forget. It can be easy to get so caught up in this world that we forget that this is not our forever home. This is not where we are from. And when we forget that our true home is heaven, this life can weigh us down.
When we remember that our citizenship is in heaven, that our forever home is not here on earth, it changes how we live here on earth. Our life here has a hope, a resiliency, a buoyancy, that nothing in this world can weigh down. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal,” as Thomas Moore’s beautiful poem and hymn puts it. Or, as Paul reminds us in First Corinthians: “If it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ, then we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
Our hope is much greater than anything this life can offer, because our citizenship is in heaven. And this gives us a certain lightness to living here. Our sorrows don’t overwhelm us. Our worries don’t depress us. Our possessions don’t possess us. We care about this world and this life, of course, but not in the same possessive way that we would if we were only citizens of this earth, and if we were only living for this life. We know that it is not just about this world, this life. We live in this world, yes. But not of this world. We know that one day we will go home again.
I think we can all agree that we are in the middle of a very challenging time, in our country and in our world. Our worries and concerns seem to grow every week. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the suffering that is taking place there is certainly at the top of the list. But there are other worries and concerns that we have. Even something like rapidly rising gas prices, and supply chain issues. And many of us have personal worries and concerns, too, that don’t make the news, but often keep us awake at night.
All of these things matter. Our life on this earth matters, to us and to God. Why else would God’s Son have joined us here? But our life here isn’t everything. To us, or to God. Because our true citizenship is in heaven.
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles
But what difference does it make, in our daily lives, when we embrace the fact that our citizenship is in heaven? I think that there is a wonderful example of that in the Old Testament. An important time in the life of the Israelites was when they were captured by the Babylonians and sent to live in exile. They were away from their true home, from the promised land, and they weren’t sure what that meant. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to these exiles offering them instructions on how to live faithfully while awaiting their return home. And if you think about us as living in exile, away from our homeland of heaven, then these instructions are also meant for us. From Jeremiah (Jer. 29:4-7):
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
That is what we should be doing, too. We, whose citizenship is in heaven, should be seeking the welfare of this place, of this community. We should pray to the Lord on its behalf. We should recognize that in its welfare, we will find our welfare. But we should do all of this, like the Israelites in Babylon, as people who know this is not our forever home, and who look forward to the home that awaits us.
The Israelites were reminded that they were not Babylonians. And so they were called to live differently from the Babylonians, even while they were living with them, even while they were praying for them and seeking their welfare. And all of that is true for us Christians, too. We live differently because we are Christians. Even as we pray for our community and world, and seek its welfare.
I want to share one more example of what this might look like – what it looks like to live in this world, but not of this world. And this is from a famous letter written back in the second century, called the Letter to Diognetus. This letter reads almost as if it is written by someone from another planet, who is trying to describe this group that they have encountered, called Christians. Listen to an excerpt this this in mind:
Christians display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers …
They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives …
To sum it up – what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world … The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.
We dwell in the world, but we are not of the world. Because we are Christians. Our citizenship is in heaven. Our forever home is not here. We are just passing through.
Imitate Paul, Imitate Christ
This letter also hints at one other way for us to think about what it means to live here as citizens of heaven, which I think is also very important. When you read that letter to Diognetus, it is obvious that Christians then were being observed. People were curious about them, in part because they did live differently. The same could be said for the Israelites living in Babylon. Babylonians were curious about these foreigners. And the same can be said, I believe, for you and me. People who know us, but don’t share our faith, are curious about how our faith changes us. If our faith really matters, then it will really change us. And if it doesn’t change us, then does our faith really matter?
Those who do not share our faith observe us to learn what it means to be Christian. And this calls us to live in a certain way. Paul tells us in verse 17 of this reading that we should join in imitating him, and observe those who live according to the example we have in Paul. Elsewhere, in First Corinthians, Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Why? Because that is how we will teach others about Christianity. As Christians, people are watching us. They are learning from us. Again, it is kind of like when we are traveling, isn’t it? When we visit a new place, people watch us.
I remember, for example, going on a mission trip to Tanzania. We traveled to a pretty remote part of that country. And while we were there, there were a lot of curious people watching our group. They call us “mzungus,” a word which means wanderer. And many of them had never seen a white person before. They were curious to learn about us, and they learned about it by watching us.
The truth is that all Christians are “mzungus”. We are wanderers, on our way to our heavenly home. And while we wander, people watch. Even here. Much of what people know about Christianity, they learn from watching us. Or, to put it another way, which I find helpful, the chances are that for someone you encounter this week, the only Bible that they read will be you – your words, your actions, your life. All they will learn about Christianity this week is going to be learned by watching you, and talking with you. You are their connection to heaven.
No pressure, right? It can be a little intimidating to think about that. But it doesn’t make it less true. But that brings us to the second half of the verse from Philippians that I have been focusing on. The first half of the verse is those five words, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” The next half of the verse is: “And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That’s good to remember, isn’t it? We don’t have to get this citizenship of heaven thing perfect. The pressure really is off, because if heaven means anything, it means that we have a Savior who is dying to forgive us, and who loves us, and who is always ready to help us when we fall.
The world can be a harsh place. And mistakes are not always easily forgiven. But, thankfully, we are not citizens of this harsh place. We are citizens of a very forgiving place, a loving place, a place of amazing grace and eternal forgiveness. That is our home, our true home. This place where we are now? This is just where we currently happen to live. We are just passing through. Mzungus, wanderers, pilgrims on the way home. Heaven awaits us. And how blessed will it be when our Savior returns to bring us to our heavenly home. Amen.