Philippians 3:17 – 4:1
When I was a little boy I sometimes wondered what heaven was like. I knew where heaven was – it was “up there” somewhere – way, way, way up high in the sky, so high that no one but Jesus could reach it. And although heaven was way up in outer space or something, heaven looked a lot like our sky down here on Earth, or at least Earth on a nice day. In my mind heaven had bright blue skies and fluffy clouds, and lots of people.
Then I would think about the people in heaven. They were all wearing white choir robes or white togas or something similar, and they all had halos and they were all flying around with big feathery white wings. The people in heaven played harps all the time, and occasionally sprinkled some kind of magic dust around.
And they people in heaven all wore golden slippers. I still remember singing the song “Oh, Them Golden Slippers” in my grandparent’s basement. Heaven had golden streets, you see, and so golden slippers were only the natural thing to wear.
That was the picture I had of heaven when I was a young boy. I don’t think that picture was too unusual. I think that’s the image a lot of people have of heaven, young and old. Even if it’s not that exact picture, I think a lot of people view heaven as something that is just way, way far away, something that they can only dream of, something that they cannot touch at all.
In our reading from Philippians this morning, Paul says that we are citizens of heaven. I think that’s an interesting concept, and I think it really challenges the way that we sometimes think of heaven. We are citizens of heaven. Not “We will be citizens of heaven.” Not “We could be citizens of heaven.” We are citizens of heaven, you and me. We are citizens of that place in the clouds, that place where we will all meet in the great bye-and-bye. We, you and I, are citizens there. We, you and I, are part of heaven right now. So what does that mean for us?
Well, what does it mean to be a citizen? It varies from country to country, but you can become a citizen of the United States by being born in this country or by being naturalized, by choosing to become a citizen. In the Christian faith, we choose to follow Christ, we choose to accept Jesus. There are no natural-born Christians. If we are citizens of heaven, we’re naturalized citizens. We chose to become Christians.
If you’re going to be a naturalized citizen of a country, what do you do? Ideally you take some classes and learn the history of the country, you learn the governmental system, you learn the obligations and the rights that citizens have in that country, in many places you take a test, and then you declare your allegiance to the country. After all the classes and the study and everything, then you make a commitment and become a citizen.
In the Church of the Brethren, at least, that’s how you join the church. We don’t baptize little babies in the Church of the Brethren. We wait until you’re old enough to take some classes. You learn the history of the Christian church in general and the Church of the Brethren in particular. You learn what kind of responsibilities come with church membership, and you are asked to make a commitment to join the church. Many folks are baptized into the church. Others were baptized before in some other place, so they have the option of reaffirming their faith and renewing their commitment in front of the congregation on a Sunday morning.
Now once you’ve become a citizen of a given country you’ve got some responsibilities to meet. Here in the United States you’re expected to follow through on your commitment by voting or by serving on a jury or by obeying the laws or whatever. I just filled out a jury questionnaire this past week.
It’s the same when you join the church. You’re expected to support the church as best as you’re able with your attendance, with your time and money and your gifts. You’re expected to be something of an ambassador as well, not just a citizen. You can reach out and share about this local congregation in particular and about the kingdom of God in general.
And you know what? Even if you don’t fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship, you get most of the benefits. Whether I ever serve on a jury or not, the criminal justice system is in place and I benefit from that. I may never vote, but I can still see the parks, I can still drive on the roads, I can still rely on the safety of most prescription drugs, I can still be defended from attack by a foreign power. Even if I do nothing to fulfill my responsibility as a citizen of the United States, I will enjoy some very important benefits.
That’s true in the church too. A true faith will show itself in how you live your life. A true faith will show itself in how you give and share and work. But I also know that if you accept Christ with honesty and integrity and sincerity, you will receive grace. You will receive the benefits of salvation because we are saved by grace and not by works. When you make an honest commitment to Christ, however you can or cannot follow up on it, you are still a citizen of the Kingdom of heaven.
Now as I’ve been talking and comparing citizenship in a country to citizenship in heaven, you may have noticed something. I started out talking about citizenship in heaven, and then made a shift to genuine membership in the church. You might wonder if I am saying that they’re the same thing. You might wonder if I am saying that this is heaven.
Yes, I am.
What do you mean, Jeff? This is it? This is heaven? When I die and I’m face to face with Jesus I’ll be sitting in a hard pew and wearing my Sunday shoes?
Well, Okay. This isn’t literally heaven, but this is the beginning of what heaven is like. In the Moffat translation of the Bible, James Moffat translated verse 20 of our reading from Philippians this way: “But we are a colony of heaven, and we wait for the Savior who comes from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think that’s a good image. We are a colony of heaven.
If you remember your history from school, you’ll recall that when one nation would set up a colony far away, the people in the colony would try to bring some of their home nation with them to wherever they were. So the British who colonized much of America brought the English language, and powdered wigs in the fancier areas, and a system of justice based on the English Common Law. They tried to bring some of Britain to here, to their colony.
The job of the church is to try to bring a little bit of heaven to this place where we are, to be a colony of heaven. Is this literally heaven right here? No. But can people learn more about God and heaven by being here? Can we live our lives in a way that brings heaven a little closer to people’s lives? Yes, those things we can do. Heaven doesn’t have to be far, far away and out of reach for everybody. Through the way we live our lives and through the work of the church we can begin to make heaven real wherever we are, we can begin to bring heaven closer to people and to make heaven more real for them. We can start to fulfill our commitments as citizens of heaven.
I heard a description of what heaven was like back in elementary school that has stuck with me ever since. Imagine that there are two doors, one labeled “heaven” and one labeled “hell.” When you die you get to pick which door you want to go through, which place you want to live in.
First you open the door to Hell. You want to see if it’s as bad as you’ve always heard. You open the door, and you’re amazed because there’s a banquet going on inside. A huge feast. Tables and tables filled with all your favorite foods – fried shrimp, mashed potatoes with little pools of melted butter, roast beef, corn on the cob, key lime pie, vegetables and fruits fresh with dew, whatever your favorite food is it’s there and it’s wonderful and it’s all you can eat.
The tables are full of people, although there are a few open spots for you to choose from. All these hungry people in front of all this wonderful food. But there’s one problem. Instead of just lying on the table like at home, the silverware is fastened to these people’s hands and arms. The silverware is actually fastened to the hands and the arms and the silverware has long handles that hold your elbow stiff. You can’t bend your elbows.
So all these people have food on the end of their fork or their spoon, but they can’t bend their elbows so they can’t get the food to their mouths. They try and try, but they can only get the food close enough to see it and to smell it. The people in hell never actually get to eat any of this wonderful banquet.
So you close the door to hell and you open the door to heaven. At first glance, heaven looks exactly like hell. Same long tables groaning with the same delicious food, people all around, same utensils attached with the long handles so the people can’t bend their arms.
Ah, but there’s a difference. In hell, everyone was struggling to eat and couldn’t. In heaven, everyone is eating the food. How? In heaven, the people are feeding each other.
As citizens of heaven, as a part of the colony of heaven on earth, we are called to share and to feed and to help those around us as well. No, this church is not heaven exactly, but it can be a little like heaven. We as a church and as individuals can make heaven a place that is real in people’s lives, not way up there so far away that you can’t even imagine it but something that we and our neighbors and our families can start to touch and taste and feel here on earth.
My challenge to you this week is to bring heaven a little closer for someone else. Maybe that means a hug. Maybe that means healing a broken relationship. Maybe that means inviting someone to church. Maybe that means doing a favor for a neighbor or sharing your time and your money. Maybe it means just being nice to someone you don’t really like.
Whatever else it means, bringing heaven closer means doing it in the name of Christ. Doing it for the glory of God. Doing it because it’s what the Spirit leads you to do. We are citizens of heaven. Not just some place in the clouds with angels and wings and harps, but we are citizens of this little colony of heaven right here in Washington. This week let’s try especially to live like it. Amen.