Grace Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2022, Lent 2C
One has to wonder what Jesus was about in this short reading from Luke’s gospel, when one reads it in isolation like this.
It seems that in the midst of Jesus’s teaching and occasional healing on Jesus’s part, some friendly, or at least not unfriendly, Pharisees (that itself sounds like a contradiction on the surface) are warning Jesus that Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Palestine, was seeking to kill him. In the face of this warning, Jesus … doesn’t really seem to care. He more or less tells those Pharisees to tell Herod to come and get him, or better yet to save his energy as Jesus will be coming to Jerusalem himself. He then turns and launches into a lament, not for his own fate, but for the fate of the city in which he fully expects to meet his death.
This must have seemed strange at the minimum to those Pharisees, if not outright reckless. A petty ruler with little restraint on his power is out to eliminate you, and you’re going to walk right into his home base? Again, Jesus doesn’t seem to care, more interested in lamenting the city’s history of killing off prophets and generally failing to be what God had formed and called it to be.
What does all this tell us about how Jesus sees Herod and his threat? “Irrelevant” isn’t quite the right word, as Herod will play a role in events to come. But in Jesus’s eyes, Herod emphatically is not in charge of those coming events.
Herod is, in modern slang, a tool – one more human with delusions of grandeur who will simply play one small part in the grand design of the final days of Jesus’s earthly ministry, days that culminate in Jesus’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and ultimately resurrection. This is all done in service to Jesus’s role as a part of the kingdom of God; while Herod’s actions will play a role in all of the above, Herod’s reign and authority is, to put it bluntly, irrelevant. Jesus does not care.
This edges us towards a thorny and tangled subject that is addressed in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It takes a moment to get there, though, and there is this strange seeming detour about people whom Paul makes bold to label “enemies of the cross.”
The satirical online “news” site known as The Onion has, like almost any online presence, a shop for merchandise themed around their brand. A recent advertisement that popped up for that shop carried this line, in The Onion’s typical satirical style, that Paul would find too true to be funny, when it comes to these “enemies of the cross”. The ad read:
Our merchandise is suitable for any and all lifestyles that center around empty material possessions.
The Onion is not a thing that Paul would understand at all, but that line? He’d know exactly who it was talking about; it’s a pretty darned apt expression of how those “enemies of the cross” live, all centered on the pleasures of this earthly life and headed toward a disastrous end. The idea of “taking up their cross” and following Jesus was the farthest thing from their minds, even if they were the type to give lip service to being a Christian.
No, it isn’t trying to tear down or destroy or besmirch the cross that makes them enemies, but trying to avoid it at all costs. In Paul’s description, that isn’t what a citizen of heaven does.
Paul has alluded to this concept of “citizenship in heaven” a couple of times already in this letter, and it’s particularly interesting for him to do so in writing to the church in Philippi. That city, you see, was not like most of the other cities to which Paul traveled or wrote. Cities like Ephesus or Colossae would simply have been places conquered and occupied by Rome. Philippi, by contrast, was founded specifically as a Roman imperial city, as a kind of colony for retired Roman soldiers according to some. The whole notion of “citizenship” was more heavily freighted with significance in such a place, and the contrast between being a citizen and not became much more stark and severe.
Back in Acts 22:28 we learn that Paul was in fact born a Roman citizen. We learn this in contrast to a tribune in Jerusalem who had ordered Paul arrested to ward off an angry crowd out to kill Paul. That tribune had ordered Paul flogged to sate the crowd, but Paul questioned whether it was lawful to do such a thing to a Roman citizen who was under no criminal charge. The tribune noted that he had paid a large sum of money to gain his Roman citizenship, to which Paul responds that he was “born a citizen.”
Paul understood citizenship and its benefits. And yet here in Philippians 3, the only citizenship Paul wants to talk about is not Roman. No, here we get confronted with the idea of a citizenship which not only is not bound to any earthly nation but is to be embraced and claimed before any such citizenship.
This is dangerous talk, especially in a Roman imperial city like Philippi. But Paul is unmoved: “our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says, and continues that “it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” – the very figure that had been executed by Roman authority.
Back in verses 12-16 Paul had exulted in “pressing on” towards the goal of “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He now encourages the Philippians not to be sidetracked by earthly pleasures like those “enemies of the cross,” but to keep pressing forward to that goal, offering himself and his fellow laborers as examples to imitate and now introducing this idea of our “citizenship” in heaven as the working out of that goal. For someone living in the Roman Empire, were one was expected to devote full loyalty to that empire and to revere its emperor as a god at least for show, this was a good way to get in bad trouble.
While there have been nations or empires since that time which operated on similar principles to Rome, the conflict of heavenly and earthly citizenship has usually operated differently in the intervening centuries. Nation-states, particularly in the Western world, have instead engaged in appropriation and conflation to negate, supposedly, any such conflict. The old medieval “Holy Roman Empire” was, as the old Saturday Night Live-borrowed-from-Voltaire punchline put it, neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. It was, however, a blatant example of conflating the church and the state. The old British empire had plenty of “God and empire” rhetoric about it. And if you are at all paying attention to the whole idea of “Christian nationalism” in this country, you know it happens here too. Perhaps the most prominent claiming headlines right now might be in Russia, in which the Russian Orthodox Church has been extremely closely attached to the state since the fall of communism.
It’s a subtle temptation, letting its adherents think that by being a good (insert national identity here), they’re being a good Christian. And yet Paul, the Roman citizen by birth, is adamant that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and that all our hope, in the person of Jesus, is there as well. No other citizenship can claim that from us. No other citizenship can be the one for which we “stand firm” the way we are called here to “stand firm in the Lord,” in another of Paul’s infamous ‘therefore‘ phrases.
We are citizens of heaven, of the kingdom of God, and no other ruler can claim what is God’s and God’s alone. Even nowadays that claim is still a good way to get in trouble, and yet that’s what Jesus himself demonstrated not just in today’s reading but throughout the gospels. It’s what Paul saw and urged upon those under his care. And it’s still how we’re called to live and move, and perhaps especially in this time of Lent, when getting back on track and repenting of where we’ve gone wrong is so prominent.
The kingdom of heaven first. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #213, In the Cross of Christ I Glory; #846, Fight the Good Fight