Citizens of Heaven - Lectionary Reflections for Lent 2C (Philippians 3)

Philippians 3:17-4:1 New Revised Standard Version

17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


                It is said of some that they are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good. I know some of these folks. They’re ready to escape this life and take no responsibility for the present world. If Jesus is coming back soon and he’s going to rescue us from this life, why worry about things like climate change or even social justice. Just say yes to Jesus and you’re good. For some of us, that’s not good enough. Whether Jesus is coming back today or a thousand years from now, we have things to do here on earth. There’s a war going on in Ukraine and we don’t know how it will end. People are suffering around the world from disease, climate change, and war. Yes, Ukraine is not the only place where war has broken out, it’s just the most recent expression of the human inclination toward war, and thus the situation for the moment is the direst. So, as we continue our Lenten journey, what should we make of Paul’s message here in the Philippian letter?

                Paul contrasts the enemies of the cross, whose god is their belly and whose way leads to destruction, with those who are citizens of heaven. The former have their minds set on earthly things, while the latter expects a savior, Jesus Christ. I must admit that I struggle with this word from Paul. Not the word about the belly, but the seeming escapist message that denigrates earthly things. Didn’t God say that the created order is good (Gen. 1)?

                This passage has an apocalyptic dimension to it. It lifts up resurrection in that Paul speaks of the transformation of the earthly body of humiliation into the body that will conform to Jesus’ glory (the spiritual body). It is Jesus’ power to accomplish this transformation as an act of salvation, that also empowers him to subject all things to himself. This definitely has an eschatological sense to it. In this passage, Paul has his sights on the coming Day of the Lord when this earth will pass away and something new will emerge. When that day comes all things will be subject to Jesus. So, why not get on the winning team now before it’s too late.   

                As we ponder what Paul has to say here, we ought to remember that he’s in prison. Where he’s imprisoned and when in his ministry this takes place is uncertain, though we have a clue in his reference to the Praetorian Guard. That might put him in Rome, which would put him near the end of his life and ministry (Phil1:13). That reality could color his view of the future. Wherever he’s at, this message begins with Paul’s call for his readers to imitate him and it closes with a call to stand firm in the Lord. So, in the midst of the difficulties of the age, even if you’re in prison, you can stand firm.

                This reference to heavenly citizenship could be taken, perhaps should be taken, as a reminder that as followers of Jesus our ultimate allegiance should be given to God. This allegiance should define how we live in this world. Our calling, as the Lord’s Prayer declares, is to do the will of God as revealed both in heaven and on earth (Cornwall, Ultimate Allegiance).  If we follow this path then we will be in line with God’s future that will eventuate in Jesus submitting all things to himself. If we believe this to be true, then we should also accept the premise that the powers of this world are not ultimate. They may have their day, but in the end, they will face destruction. While they may kill our bodies, the promise of the resurrection assures us that this earthly power is not ultimate.

                The reference to heavenly citizenship might lead one to see Paul’s message as a call to avoid participating in public life. But, that would be an incorrect assumption as this passage has political implications. This is not just a word about personal salvation, it is a word about God’s vision for creation. While the so-called earthly values, which are defined by the belly, demand our loyalty, we have a higher calling. Thus, we should live according to the values of God’s realm. Barbara Lundblad puts it this way:

Paul wants the Philippians to do more than wait for heaven or pray for personal salvation. Instead Paul urges them to live now as though heaven is shaping their lives on earth. The Roman emperor is not the source of their salvation. Jesus Christ, the one who emptied himself, is the true Savior: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (3: 21). The Philippians may live in a Roman colony, often humiliated by imperial powers, but that is not their primary identity. They carry a different passport.  [Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1758-1763)]. 

So, perhaps Paul’s message isn’t a call to be so heavenly-minded that the earth is of no value. The point is, where do we derive our values? What guides us in the way live together. Paul has an eschatological vision. He believes the future realm of God impinges on the present. Some day will exchange these bodies that experience humiliation, something he’s experiencing at that moment as he lives out his imprisonment, knowing that the likelihood is that he will die sooner probably than later.

                The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent takes us to the wilderness where Jesus is tempted to make use of worldly tools to accomplish his goals. He chooses to reject these temptations and embraces the way of heaven, the way of God (Luke 4:1-13). So, as we listen to Paul on this Second Sunday of Lent, we hear a similar call. Let us follow the way of heaven. That is, let us follow the way of God. Let us also remember, as Paul suggests, the way of earthly powers, which is marked by a life dominated by the belly (whatever they might be), simply leads to destruction. We are seeing that course of action taking place before our eyes in Ukraine. It is an action that is being abetted by the religious leadership in Russia. Clearly, this is not the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross. This path also defines what it means to be a citizen of heaven. There is no escape involved in this citizenship.    

 Image Attribution: Heaven - Creation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 6, 2022]. Original source: - jdbodane.


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