Monday, May 23, 2011

on heavenly citizenship

When I was writing my Master's thesis on 1 Peter, one of the things that most impressed me about that letter was the language of "aliens and foreigners" at key points in the text (1.1, 17; 2.11). Paul exhibits a similar idea in a text that Tim Gombis cites in his discussion of the "cruciformity" (or "cross-shaped-ness") of Paul's ethical instructions (see Gombis's Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed [T&T Clark International, 2010], 73):
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so 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. (Phil. 3.20–21)

While I don't have a problem with Paul's point here, I really don't like the way we in the church often read this idea of "citizenship in heaven." We often think a Christian worldview denigrates or diminishes the value of this world—and the pains it inflicts—by way of realizing our citizenship is in heaven. Are you struggling in this world? Don't worry; our citizenship is in heaven. Wondering why good people suffer? It doesn't matter; our citizenship is in heaven. You're hungry or thirsty or naked or forsaken? Silver and gold I do not have, but our citizenship is in heaven.

I think neither God nor Jesus nor Paul would have accepted such an idea. Tim Gombis, however, has helpfully framed Paul's point in Philippians 3 and the idea that we live as subjects of God's kingdom. Gombis writes, "Just as the humiliation of Jesus led to exaltation and glorification, so believers' humiliation for the sake of Christ will result in exaltation and glory" (73–74). This is the actual point at play here: Jesus was exalted to God's right hand and enthroned in the heavens because he sought out and served the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised from Temple or Council or Legion. Seeking and serving the poor, however, led to the cross; it did not lead to recognition as a prophet or even as a philanthropist. And Christ en route to Calvary calls his own to take up their crosses and follow him. But beware. If you take up your cross, you will find yourself nailed to it one day.

Why would anyone take up their cross? Why would anyone lay down their life to help others find theirs? What makes this transaction attractive? Enter our heavenly citizenship. Status as citizens of heaven, of God's kingdom, enables me to serve this world and not just endure it. Heavenly citizenship doesn't denigrate this world; it elevates this world as the object of God's care and concern and call us to enter into and live out of the same care and concern.

This world matters gravely to God, and we the Church must recognize its importance. In those moments when we do recognize this world's value as the work of God's hands, we come alongside the hurting, the hungry, the homeless, the weak. We enter into their pain and disenfranchisement. And we apply to their wounds the balm of God's Spirit. And the kingdom of God, of which we are citizens advances against the ruler of this age.


Sean said...

Hey Rafael, totally off topic, but I'm currently preparing for postgrad research on 1 Peter, and I was wondering what your topic was in 1 Peter? Any chance I could get a copy? I'm interested in all things Petrine!

Rafael said...

My thesis, "Social Creativity in 1 Peter: Symbolic Universe and Identity Construction," is catalogued by TREN (Theological Research Exchange Network). I'm fairly certain they can make a copy available; if I still had electronic copies I would gladly send it to you.

I read 1 Peter looking for how the Petrine author mapped Jewish identity onto his gentile readers and encouraged them to live in the tension between cultural assimilation (meant to diminish hardship in a hostile environment) and alienation (meant to insulate from hardship). My major conversation partners were J. H. Elliott (of course) and Paul Achtemeier.

I had a lot of fun in 1 Peter and only accidentally turned to Jesus and the Gospels afterward. 1 Peter's a fantastic text to which I hope one day to return. Best of luck. I'd love to hear what you're working on, as you do.

All best.

Don said...

Great sermon, Rafael! Thanks for posting this.

My Visual Bookshelf