Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2016 || Lent 2C || Philippians 3:17–4:1
Last fall, I had to renew my passport before my trip to Haiti with Tim Evers. I had originally gotten my passport in advance of a choir trip to England back in college in 2003, and that first document was still valid when Leah and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon in 2011. But they’re only good ten years, so in the fall of 2015, I found myself stapling an unsmiling picture to an application I picked up at the post office. I filled in all the information – name, address, social security number. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen,” dropped the package in the mail with the processing fee, and a few weeks later, received my new passport.
The trip back and forth to Haiti went swimmingly. The government agents stamped my shiny new document and welcomed me to Port-au-Prince and New York City, respectively. All was well until this week when I read the lessons for today. All was well until I realized that I lied on my passport paperwork. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen.” I checked that box because I was born in the great state of Maine, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. But the Apostle Paul claims something else for me: “Our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven.”
Reading those words this week knocked my socks off. Our citizenship is in heaven. Not some time in the future. Not after we die. Paul doesn’t say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” No. Our citizenship is in heaven. Take a few breaths to let that sink in.
If we believe our passports our wrong; if we believe we are citizens of heaven, then we can take this imagery one of two ways. First, we can extend the metaphor and claim to be resident aliens here on earth. We have green cards, but this isn’t really our home. Our home is in heaven, and we’ll get there someday and be reunited with those we love who have gone home before us. This idea of heaven brings comfort and hope and peace, especially when life here on earth lurches towards the intolerable.
This idea of heaven finds expression in so many African-American spirituals, which have their roots in the horror of slavery. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan.” “I’m goin’ home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.” “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” What better way to combat the misery of enslavement than to sing about one’s true home, a home that can never be bought or sold or taken away? What a sense of power enslaved people must have felt to be able to claim citizenship in heaven?
This legacy of hope and consolation – this balm in Gilead, so to speak – is the positive side of thinking of heaven as a home we are heading towards. But there is a negative side, as well. During the Industrial Revolution, the notion of heavenly citizenship began meandering down a long path towards environmental apathy. “We don’t really belong here on this planet,” this thinking goes, “so we need not take care of it.” This poor judgment had little effect on the environment until we got really good at polluting. But now the idea of heavenly citizenship is oftentimes weighed down by indifference for the earth and for generations yet to come. This is especially true in the United States where heavenly citizenship and American individualism collide.
Both the positive balm in Gilead and the negative environmental apathy find their roots in the idea of heaven as somewhere else. Somewhere better and new, and often “up.” Along with this idea of heaven as a home over Jordan, we can also think of our heavenly citizenship in another way. Here we must think of heaven not as a place, not as a location, but as the full and all-encompassing presence of God.
Now suddenly heaven is not just somewhere we go when we die; heaven is the kingdom of God breaking into this reality. Heaven is the name for the reality we strive for when we pray the Lord’s prayer, a prayer that is decidedly about now, today. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be down, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, “May thy reign, O Lord, be so present and so participatory that we can’t tell the difference between heaven and earth.” This is our prayer, and we pray it everyday to remember where our citizenship lives: in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. That’s our true home.
And that home is here. The full and all-encompassing presence of God is all around us, within us, permeating and sustaining creation. You may have felt this presence in your life. You may have stumbled into it one day when you least expected it and needed it most. You may have encountered this presence and not known what to name it. Its name is heaven, and it happens more than we realize.
When you see someone in need, and your heart trembles, urging you to reach out with open arms, then heaven is close by, the presence of God is calling you home – this home that is not up or away, but deeper in. Deeper in relationship. Deeper in solidarity. Deeper in love.
When you look out at an eagle in flight, and for a moment you are struck by the incredible closeness of your son who has passed away, then heaven is close by. Your loved one is awash in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. And for an elusive minute you realize you are there, too. And so you two are close again, and the barrier of death seems ever so flimsy.
When you fall to your knees in thanksgiving or in fear or in mourning or in joy, and your soul whispers to you that you are not alone and that you are loved beyond measure, then heaven is close by. It’s only our frail and limited perception that keeps us from seeing the home of our true citizenship breaking in all around us.
Living into our heavenly citizenship combines these two understandings of heaven: first our hope of future consummation and bliss in our home across the Jordan, and second our awareness of the immediate presence of God, which through us, continues to bring heaven closer to earth. There will never be true heaven on earth until all people and all things are fully reconciled to God. Put another way, there is no way for some of us to experience true heaven in the here and now. Either everyone does or no one does. If there is even one person living in hell on earth, then heaven is not fully realized this side of the Jordan.
These may seem like abstractions, like pie-in-the-sky theology that will never, ever in a million years become a reality. And yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live each day with the willing expectation that heaven on earth will come to fruition. And in so doing, we make it more real. We live our heavenly citizenship. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We pray this daily because we are a people of hope.
And if there’s one thing I hope for more than any thing else, it is this. That every person on this planet, when their earthly journeys are done, might swim across the Jordan, back home to the full and all-encompassing presence of God, and have this one thought on their minds: “I think I’ve been here before.”