This sermon was preached by Rev Sue on Sunday 13 March. Here it is for you again:
I have recently renewed my passport. I some ways, it’s one of the most important things I own. Without it, I can’t travel abroad, or, much worse, if I am abroad, come home. If it is stolen, then what we call identity theft might occur – someone impersonating me, using my name and details for their own purposes. The passport is indeed part and parcel of my very identity, as it confirms me as a British citizen.
It confers both rights and responsibilities. The rights to free treatment from the NHS, free education (for those under 18), the right to work and the right to vote, or even stand for parliament. With it come responsibilities as well – paying taxes and doing jury service for example.
Abraham came from a time before passports, citizenship or even cities in the modern sense. He lived a nomadic lifestyle, the head of an extended family that travelled with slaves and flocks searching out grazing for the animals. One night he was gazing at the stars. Imagine the night sky, not with the haze of traffic emissions and the distraction of light pollution which we get in cities, but crystal clear, with millions of stars, both bright and faintly distant, and the sweep of distant galaxies all visible to the naked eye. The effect is breath taking. Suddenly he hears God’s voice. “Count the stars if you can“. Abraham does not reply. “You will have this many descendants”, God tells him “And they will live in the land I give them”. And Abraham believed him. Many generations later, after famine, slavery, flight and battles, the descendants of Abraham did settle down in the Promised Land. And the great King David founded a city Jerusalem, and his son Solomon built a magnificent temple there. The nomads had become citizens.
Fast forward to the gospel reading and Jesus is lamenting for that same city Jerusalem. He sadly remembers the way that it has historically rejected and killed the prophets that God had sent. In John’s gospel we learn that as he came close to the city, he wept for it. It is by Jesus‘ time a shadow of its former self, an occupied city, and its people are no longer free. They bitterly resent the Roman symbols imposed on the temple itself, the heart of their religion, and they are forced to pay taxes, not for the good of their own community, but to pay the wages of an occupying army. The descendants of Abraham resented this deeply and longed for freedom to live according to God’s laws in the land he had promised them. In AD 70, a few decades after Jesus’ death, the simmering discontent became a full scale rebellion, which was stamped on decisively by Rome. By the time that Luke had written the words we heard today, both Jerusalem and its temple were completely destroyed.
A few years after the events of the gospels, Paul is preaching in the Roman colony of Philippi. It’s a large city with a garrison and Roman soldiers are very visible on the streets. People respond to Paul’s message, and a Christian community forms, living on the fringe of city life. Paul goes on his way, to preach in other cities. But one day a letter comes back to the Christians in Philippi, telling them that they are “citizens of heaven”.
Paul’s own background is interesting. He is a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, but he wasn’t born in the promised land. He comes from another Roman city, Tarsus. And he has the distinction of being a Roman citizen, a privileged status that gave him the full protection of Roman law. It gave him the freedom to travel throughout the empire, from city to city, spreading the good news of Jesus even to the heart of the empire, Rome itself.
For Paul being a citizen of heaven most definitely did not mean withdrawing from the world. Nor did his heavenly citizenship entitle him to a trouble-free journey through life. In fact, he was writing the letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison where he had been sent for proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
And the good news about Jesus is that he didn’t just lament over his own beloved city of Jerusalem. Nor did he save the descendants of Abraham from the oppression of the Romans. But through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has created a new kingdom, founded on faith, centred not on the temple, but on Jesus himself. It is an inclusive nation. It transcends all national boundaries, and is open to everyone, wherever they were born and whatever the status of their parents.
So, we have dual nationality. Our faith is our second passport. We, like Paul, can travel as ambassadors for Christ. Our journey through life may not take us far from the places we were born and grew up, but wherever we are we have the privilege of being representatives of Jesus. In his name we are charged with insisting that wherever we find ourselves the people and institutions we encounter should practise justice, respect freedom, and that we should be allowed to sow the seeds of peace. As good citizens, we cannot close our eyes when around us we see things happening that fall short of the way that God would have us treat each other and the planet.
My British passport asks, ‘in the name of her Majesty, to allow the bearer to pass freely’. My Christian passport, says the same, but in the name of Jesus. It confers on me the right to speak the words the Holy Spirit gives me to say, and the responsibility to share the good news.