But our citizenship is in heaven.
But our citizenship is in heaven. Our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Paul writes this to the community of new Christians in Philippi, which was under Roman rule. The Philippians were proud of their Roman citizenship, just as most of us are proud to be citizens of Portland. But—as some of you may have noticed—it is hard to be a Christian in Portland! Not difficult the way it was back in the early Philippians’ day. Not it’s-illegal-and-we’ll-burn-you-alive-unless-you-offer-incense-to-our-pagan-gods, but still difficult. We live in an environment that is averse to, and sometimes downright hostile to, organized religion.
Organized religion has a bad name, either for people who grew up in churches that caused them grief, or for people who grew up outside of any faith community and know only what they hear in the media. They hear about communities that call themselves Christian while proclaiming hatred and damnation. Or they hear about Christian leaders caught up in scandals involving sex or greed.
Another thing about organized religion, though—and I keep using that phrase because I’m trying to rescue it from the outermost margins of society—another thing about organized religion that scares people is that any religion worth being part of asks something of us. Through spiritual disciplines, through sharing bread and wine around an altar, through engagement with a community, through financial participation—when we organize around these practices, we commit to all these things. Religion is all about practice, not about getting it right.
When Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven,” he invites us to map our lives onto the life of Jesus, and to take our place in the way of the cross, the way of the gospel.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus models this for us with a large dose of pre-Easter intensity. In chapter 9, verse 51 of the Gospel of Luke, right after the disciples come down off the mountaintop, we read that Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. For the phrase “Set his face” Luke uses a Greek verb not found anywhere else. The best translation is “he went with absolute determination.” This is the Jesus we meet in everything that comes after Luke 9:51.
Jesus is on a mission from God. Just like the Blues Brothers, only more so.
Jesus says Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow. What if our whole lives as practicing Christians are the “today and tomorrow” that Jesus talks about? What if we are to live as he did, doing God’s work?
What? I can’t perform miracles! I don’t know anything about casting our demons or curing people! Who do you think I am, God?
When a group of us started Rahab’s Sisters almost ten years ago, we talked with a guy who had done a lot of work with women traumatized and often nearly destroyed by the sex industry. Many of these women one could describe as being possessed by demons, unable to get out of a life that was killing them and everything good around them. He said: “if you see them, really see them, they will begin to see themselves as you see them. But you’ve got to really see them.” I’ve never forgotten that. When he said that, I thought: that’s how Jesus healed people. By seeing them. Go back and read some of the healing stories. You’ll see that healing comes when Jesus relates to someone in a new way. Being about God’s work is about being with people in their suffering. Not trying to fix them or punish them, not asking them to change in order to be cared for. Attending to them in ways that they have not been attended to before.
When we connect with one another, when we listen patiently, when we care for those in our midst who are suffering, we, too, are casting out demons and performing cures. We don’t think we are, but we are. I know many of you do this in your daily life and work.
If we read this gospel as applying the intensity of Jesus’ last days to your mission and my mission in our time—today, tomorrow, and the next day—what about Jerusalem? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that who are sent to it! For Jesus, Jerusalem is the place of death, the place of the religious establishment. Where is our Jerusalem? I’d like to suggest that Jerusalem represents all the forces in the world and—more to the point—in ourselves that work against God and against our own healing power. We all have those, right? I’m not a good enough person. Or: I don’t have enough of this or that training or education. Or: I’m too busy. Or: I’m too distracted by my envy or distrust of so-and-so to focus on really seeing the person who most needs to be seen by me, right?
Look at how Jesus responds to his enemies, to his time-honored forces of destruction. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…! In effect he is saying to them that they are like little chicks….he is saying “there, there.” What if we said that to all those voices—inner and outer—that work against God’s mission in us? There, there.
During Lent, one of the ways we hope to cast out demons as a community is through the Litany of Penitence. If it sounds familiar, it’s because we pray it every year on Ash Wednesday and then put it away again for another year. My hope is that it will help us to go deeper into prayer about what blocks us from proclaiming God’s reign.
Our mission is to be about God’s mission to cast out demons and to heal. Our today and tomorrow is after the resurrection, however. Unlike this morning’s gospel, where Jesus has not yet been crucified and raised from the dead, we live on the other side of the cross. We live in the time of already and not yet. The resurrection has already happened, the Kingdom is already being proclaimed, and it is not yet here. The world does not yet match the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.
This is why we have each other. This is why we organize ourselves around practices that help us proclaim the Kingdom of God. Our lives are here, now, in this already-not yet place where we live. Our citizenship is in God’s kingdom.