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Of Citizens and Saints

Philippians 3:17-4:1

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Closing appeal for steadfastness and unity

4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Of Citizens and Saints.

The city of Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia (now the northern part of Greece) , named after Phillip 2 of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the great. A city on the main Roman road to the Eastern provinces, it was in a beautiful area, and was made up mostly of retired Roman soldiers, who if they survived the wars and distinguished themselves, were given the gift of land in the area. They also served as a Roman military presence there, like a bit of an army reserve. It was a city built around army veterans. Noticeably for a Jewish Rabbi such as Paul had been, there were no Old Testament quotes in this letter (which you would normally expect from Paul), perhaps indicating that there was not a very big Jewish community here, (not big enough to support a synagogue) and that Paul was writing to a completely gentile audience.

The majority of the citizens of Philippi dressed like Romans, they acted like Romans, and they spoke Latin. They were very proud of their Roman citizenship. It was a city built on Roman patriotism. They knew who they wanted to imitate in their daily lives. They wanted to be just like Rome.

And so Paul begins to talk to the Christians there about what we would call “discipleship”. And he puts it in these terms: Who is it that you will imitate? Whom do you want to be like? He gives himself and his companions as a possible model as we see in verse 17:

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.

Those who live as we do may have meant Timothy or Epaphroditus, who were other companions of Pauls’.

And so the question for us today is the same one. If we want to be into discipleship as a church, (making disciples), which our guiding principles tell us we want to be doing, then who are we trying to be disciples of? Whom are we trying to imitate? And if the answer is not Jesus, then we have a lot of thinking to do.

You could tell from the way people acted where they thought their citizenship lay. The Philippians were Roman citizens, so they acted and dressed and spoke like Romans. That was only natural.

What seemed to be unnatural though, is that there were people who seemed to act in a different way to what they believed. There were people who were Christian, who acted like they weren’t! They forgot about heavenly things and instead concentrated on earthly things, like food and rich living. Perhaps there was even nothing any more about their lives that would distinguish them from those around who were citizens of Rome. But Paul said they were to act differently, because their citizenship was from a different place! They were citizens of heaven. He wanted them to just be who they were.

And then Paul identified the object of their discipleship. If you want to act like a citizen of heaven, then imitate the one for whose return we wait, who came from heaven!

Be imitators of Jesus Christ!

You may notice that in some of the letters of Paul, he speaks a lot about what you believe. But, it is just as interesting that in the letter to the Philippians, that seems to be missing: Paul does not talk so much about belief, but about the WAY that you live. And if you know anything about Roman Spirituality, this makes sense.

Roman religion did not care what you believed. It cared what you did. What you DID made you a follower of a certain god. It was about who you made sacrifices to, who you prayed to, no-one cared who you professed faith in. People would see you had faith in something if you worshipped or imitated that thing!

This is why the Romans made the early Christians sacrifice to Caesar as a god to prove they were Roman and not “pagan” as they referred to the early Christians. If they refused, they would be executed. As far as they were concerned, If you did the act, you were a devotee. It didn’t matter what you said you believed.

So this became a big question in the early church. Could you believe in Jesus, and make sacrifices to Caesar to save your life? In the end the church decided that you could in deed be forgiven for this, and still be a member of the church.

So in this Roman context of action, not belief, it made sense that if we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we will try to imitate Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that. This will show where our citizenship lies.

And when Paul says not to set our minds on earthly things, but on heavenly things, we have a great example to follow in Jesus, as we can see in our Gospel lesson for today.

Jesus knew not to concentrate on earthly things like the fear of Herod, he was not worried about the threat to his life. He had a mission to accomplish. It reminds me of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Discipleship is a big word these days. But it is not that difficult. It is about trying to be just like Jesus, and failing, and trying again. It is out of this quest for discipleship that the acronym came out years ago WWJD. Do you remember that one? It stood for “What would Jesus do?” In any situation, ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?”

Now it is a bit of a tough question, isn’t it? I think about hypothetical situations like: “what if I am in a boat with someone else and the boat is sinking, and there is only one lifejacket, what would Jesus do?” And the answer is simple, isn’t it? Jesus would walk on water, so he wouldn’t need the lifejacket, problem solved.

What I am getting at is that of course Jesus was God as well as human and could do things that we cannot. So I think a better discipleship question is: “What would Jesus have ME do?” knowing that I can’t walk on water.

And the answer Paul gives us is to live like we are not enemies of Christ. Don’t put so much time and energy into the things of this life like money and toys and property that you lose track of the one to come. Don’t forget where your citizenship lies.

Because you are citizens of heaven. Did you hear that correctly? Not: You will be citizens of heaven, when you die, but rather “You ARE citizens of heaven”. Right now. You may live in another country, but your passport is signed and stamped. Your citizenship was won on a cross on a hill over 2000 years ago, signed in blood, and your passport, well that may look a lot like a baptism certificate, but that says that you belong. One day you will go home.

But we have plenty to do in the meantime.

We are disciples of Jesus Christ.

What would he have us do today?


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