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Sunday 13 March 2022: Lent 2

Do I need two passports?
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

By Paul Johns
Methodist local preacher

Context: a Methodist Church in a large village. The church is socially active, strong on lay leadership and pastoral fellowship. The congregation, numbering about 50-60, are mainly middle-aged or older. A high proportion have professional backgrounds

Aim: to offer a way of thinking about Christian citizenship, by finding a thread linking three very different Bible texts in a narrative way

I have a new passport. It says I am a citizen of the UK. But, apparently, according to Paul, I have another citizenship; you too. ‘We are citizens of heaven.’ Meaning what?

Imagine we’re with Abraham, gazing at the stars. Abraham hears God’s voice, clear as the night sky. ‘Count them if you can. You’re going to be the father of a nation as many.’ Abraham is overwhelmed, silent for a minute. Then we hear him say ‘Yes, God. I believe’.

And it happened, more or less. After many ups and downs, many long years, the considerably extended family of Abraham did settle down in the promised land.

Every nation needs a focus, a heart, a capital city. And the heart, the capital of this family nation was Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was not just a capital city. It was also where the nation’s Temple stood, the very place which the God of Promise had chosen to dwell among his people.

It was also the Jerusalem over which, Luke tells us, Jesus wept; just as he wept (John’s gospel tells us) over the death of Lazarus, his friend who symbolized for him the whole nation. Why did Jesus weep over Jerusalem, over the nation, over Abraham’s extended family?

Perhaps the answer is ‘Rome – the Roman occupation’. Temple, Jerusalem, and nation were under the heel of Rome. Roman symbols capped the Temple building; the Roman governor controlled the Temple politically and ensured that Abraham’s great nation family paid heavy taxes to feed imperial Rome.

Abraham’s people naturally resented this deeply. They longed for freedom in the land God had promised them. Rebellion was in the air. But when rebellion came to a head (in AD70) Rome stamped on it decisively. And by the time Luke recorded the remembered words of Jesus weeping, Jerusalem and Temple were destroyed. Abraham’s nation fell apart.

But meanwhile something else had happened, something significant. It affects you and me – and our travel plans.

The Romans were good, often ruthless, at keeping order. In every big city they had a barracks of active soldiers, and sometimes settlements for veterans to call on too. One such city was Philippi, with Roman soldiers very visible on the streets.

Less visible in Philippi was a small community of people, living on the fringe of city life. They were followers of Jesus (who wept over Jerusalem). One day, this little group received a letter, from Paul. Paul had started this community of Jesus followers on a visit. Now he was writing to them telling them ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ Meaning what?

Paul is interesting. Born a descendant of Abraham; he’s one of the stars. But he’s also a Roman citizen, a recognized resident of another Roman city – Tarsus. It’s his Roman citizenship which enables him to do what he feels impelled to do. And that is to travel from city to Roman city, even to Rome itself, the heart of empire, to spread the good news about Jesus.

So for Paul, being a ‘citizen of heaven’ clearly doesn’t mean withdrawal from this world. Nor does it mean a passport to a trouble-free passage through this world. Paul wrote to Philippi from prison, imprisoned for publicly insisting on the good news about Jesus.

And the good news about Jesus is this. Jesus didn’t just lament over Jerusalem. Nor did he save Abraham’s historic family from the Romans. Better than that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God transformed expectations by the creation of a new nation founded on faith, centred not on the Temple, but on Jesus himself – an inclusive nation, transcending national boundaries, with citizenship open to all.

Our faith in Jesus gives us dual citizenship. It is our second passport to travel; to travel, not as tourists, but as ‘ambassadors’ (another metaphor from Paul) for Christ. And with our ambassador credentials we are charged, wherever we go, travelling near or far, to insist, in the name of Jesus, that all ‘empires’ we encounter practise justice, respect freedom, and allow us, in his name, to sow the seeds of peace.

My new UK passport asks ‘in the name of her Majesty, to allow the bearer to pass freely’. My Christian passport says the same, but ‘in the name of Jesus’. I must make good use of it.

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