Becoming Citizens of Heaven -- A Lenten Lectionary Reflection
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Becoming Citizens of Heaven
The Lenten journey reminds us that our ultimate allegiance lies beyond family, tribe or nation. It’s an allegiance to the Creator of all things, the one who chooses to make covenants of blessings with us, inviting us to join in the creative process. We can use many terms to describe this relationship of allegiance, but perhaps the words from Paul found in this week’s lectionary readings says it perfectly. We are “Citizens of Heaven.” Now, to be a citizen of heaven doesn’t mean we live with our heads in the clouds, with no concern for this world. Instead, to be a citizen of Heaven is to live out of a different set of values. We live with a divinely given set of values, values that express God’s love, mercy, and justice. We acknowledge this reality each time we say the prayer Jesus taught the disciples, reciting these words: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” To live into this prayer, and affirm its values, means embracing a prophetic mantle that’s not easily taken up. Consider that Jesus took it up, and he died. Martin Luther King took it up, and he died. Dietrich Bonhoeffer took it up, and he died. Am I ready? Are you ready? To take this journey defined by heavenly values?
Our journey begins with the call of Abram, wherein God makes a covenant with Abram. Unlike in Genesis 12, we don’t hear anything about Abram becoming a blessing to the nations, but we do hear a promise that God will make of one who is without children a great nation. It is a story of trust. God says: I’ve called you and I’m going to give you land. Your children will be like the stars in the sky – beyond counting. This version of the covenant story is likely told by the Yahwist, who seems to focus on the question of whether God can be trusted. Abram (Abraham) asks the question we so often ask – how do I know you’ll do this? In Abram’s case, the promise is a legacy, which involves progeny, and he knows very well that he’s childless, and that his heir is the household manager or chief of staff. So, when he dies, it’s over. Why then should he put his trust in God? Ronald Reagan may not be my favorite politician, but he was right about one thing – it’s important to “trust, but verify.” It’s not blind allegiance that we’re invited to give God. We need some evidence – don’t we? God tells Abram that he’ll receive the land where he’s currently dwelling as his own possession, and as a sign of faithfulness, God has Abram offer a sacrifice, and as the sun sets and darkness overwhelms the land, a fiery and smoking flame passes between the animals Abram had offered to God. And then the Yahwist author of this passage writes: “That day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram.” Now, Abram will eventually have a child – in fact he has at least two – one by Hagar and the other by Sarah. But even at death, he hasn’t yet received the land. This doesn’t deter the Yahwist, who has God say: “To your descendants I give this land . . .” Yes, sometimes the promise takes time to reach fulfillment, but the Yahwist makes it clear – God is faithful.
If Genesis 15 reveals the faithfulness of God to the covenant, so that Abram receives his reward, in Philippians 3, Paul encourages us to pursue the “prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” It’s a call to spiritual maturity that involves trusting God’s vision. To do so means living in a particular way – that is living in a manner consistent with the level of our spiritual maturity. We’re on a journey, and we’re at different points along the pathway. But at each checkpoint there are expectations. We should be growing in our maturity of faith, so that our faith reflects our citizenship in heaven. Of course, Paul knows all too well that not everyone is willing to take this path. There are, unfortunately, those whom he deems “enemies of the cross.” These are folks whose attention is taken over by earthly or worldly things. They let their passions rule, and by passions he means the pursuit of things that deny the righteousness or justice of God. He speaks here of people whose god is their stomach. As one who eats more than I need, I can take this in a very guilt-producing way (as can many others like me), but that’s really not the point. The point is – do I live my life with values defined by the pursuit of material things? Do I put things above people? In contrast to this choice, we can instead seek after the ways of God, taking hold of our heavenly citizenship, looking to Christ, who “will transform our humble bodies so that they are like is glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.” In other words this is an invitation to engage the world in ways the transform it, in the image of God’s values. I realize that for some this can be a rather frightening prospect. Too often religious people have imposed a set of values and ideas in ways that are coercive and destructive, but such is not the way of Jesus. His way is non-coercive. His way involves the cross. His way is that of the suffering servant. Like Bonhoeffer and King and many others, we are invited to participate with God in bringing together heaven and earth, so that love and justice might abound.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is busy with his ministry in Galilee. He is teaching and healing and sowing the seeds of God’s reign. In other words, he’s turning over the tables of empire by showing the people a different way of living, one that is free of injustice and full of God’s love and justice. One who seems unhappy with this turn of events is Herod Antipas, the proxy ruler of Galilee. Pharisees, who normally function as opponents, come to Jesus as friends and warn him of Herod’s rage. He wants to kill you, so flee. But Jesus is not deterred. He will not flee. Instead he tells them to report to “that fox” what he’s doing – throwing out demons and healing. In somewhat cryptic language tells them that he’ll be doing this today, tomorrow, and then on the third day (obviously a reference to resurrection). But it’s also a way of saying – my time is not yet up. He’s making an assumption that his death won’t take place in Galilee – it will come when he enters Jerusalem. That is where prophets go to die.
Turning to Jerusalem – at least in attention if not movement toward – Jesus cries out in prayer for a city that kills the prophets and stones those whom God sends. Then in an image that should arrest our attention, Jesus speaks of his love for the city, his desire to bring healing and safety to the city. “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under wings. But you didn’t want that.” It’s important to note the feminine imagery of this passage. It offers us an opportunity to broaden our perspective on the nature of God, which isn’t limited to our traditional masculine imagery, which in an ancient context is overly macho. God is then distant and often warlike, but here God is pictured as a mother hen gathering he chicks, protecting them, caring for them. Jesus is expressing God’s desire to be the protector of the city, only the city must receive this blessing. Too often the city refuses – and to borrow from Augustine, by the city we mean “the city of man,” which Augustine contrasts with the “city of God.” Though the city rejects the embrace, the time will come when the human city embraces the city of God and finds blessing there. It's important to note that in Luke's Gospel, this statement is placed prior to Jesus' movement to Jerusalem. The word concerning blessing seems to foretell the Triumphant Entry, for in Luke's recounting of the statement, Jesus says -- "you won't see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord." There is a bit of prescience here, but Jesus is clearly (in Luke looking forward to his eventual clash with the authorities, who cannot abide the presence of prophets.
Because Jesus expresses concern for Jerusalem, which by the time Luke writes has been destroyed by Rome, perhaps it is appropriate for us to turn our attention to the cities of our world. In our day, many cities, especially in the United States, are places of great despair. There may be pockets of prosperity, but on the margins, especially in older rust-belt cities like Detroit, there is great poverty, fear, and a lack of justice. What vision does Jesus have for our cities and towns? What is our calling as the people of God with regard to the cities? This is a word that applies, perhaps, most directly to those of us who live in the suburbs. We benefit from some of the amenities of the city, but too often we have no real concern for the issues present there. And at the same time, within the city there is often great resentment. This is especially true of Detroit where the racial divide between city and suburbs has long been problematic. So how do we engage? How do we work together for justice? This has been a question on my heart since my arrival in Michigan. I quickly realized that there was tremendous disparity between city and suburb, and that there was great resentment as a result. So how do we partner? How do we live the dream offered our prophets? One of the things we learn about Martin Luther King is that at least by then end of his brief yet powerful ministry, he understood that civil rights was only part of the package. If we are to create what he called the “Beloved Community,” we must seek to bring an end to racial discrimination, poverty, and militarism.” And while he seems to have missed the point of gender equality, we can in fulfillment of that prophetic dream bring to the fore that part of the equation. And today, we understand more fully the need to bring equality for those whose sexual orientation isn’t heterosexual.
Jesus says – you won’t see me until you can say “Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” Now is the time to share the blessings. Now is the time to live into the promise of the heavenly realm. Now is the time to live out of the values of God’s realm, so that justice and peace and love might reign on earth as it does in heaven.