2nd Sunday in Lent (March 13, 2022)
As the war in the Ukraine wages on into its fourth week, the media is shining a bright light on the extent of destruction in the cities of Ukraine as well as the suffering, displacement and deaths of the Ukrainian citizens. At the same time the media is holding up their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as a true model of a good leader and an inspiring hero to his people. In the face of the overwhelming size and power of the Russian army advancing against them, Zelenskyy is calling on his citizens to stand firm and fight for their sovereignty and homeland. His call is not going unheeded. Even though Zelenskyy made it illegal for all able bodied men to leave the country, most seem quite eager on their own to remain and defend their homeland.
Even though advocates for a one world government decry country citizenship as a cause for all the wars in the world, it’s hard to imagine a world where there is no concept of citizenship. Like being a member of a family, citizenship gives us a sense of belonging and a certain feeling of responsibility and caring for the welfare of our fellows. I know patriotism can sometimes be carried to the extreme causing citizens of one country or nationality to look down upon or even abuse those who are not their fellow citizens, but I’m afraid that if we all just thought of ourselves as being citizens of the world we wouldn’t care for those in our own neighborhoods any more than we tend to do now for those who live on the other side the planet from us. We would become even more self-absorbed and isolated from one another.
In fact, it has been proven over and over again that nations and peoples have flourished where standards of citizenship have been strictly adhered to. Our U.S. citizenship, for example, has always been one of the most precious commodities you and I or anyone else could possibly every have. That is why millions of people try so desperately to come to America each year… some even illegally!
With our citizenship comes all sorts of constitutionally protected privileges, not the least of which is the casting of a ballot for our leaders. We don’t have to put up with dictators. We are blessed to live in a democratic republic and have a say in who will lead us. Our citizenship also entitles us to certain benefits; freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, Social Security, and even a certain level of health care, to name but a few.
But, thanks be to Jesus Christ there is an even greater citizenship available to us. The Apostle Paul is reminding us again today of a citizenship that is beyond this world. He earnestly calls us to “stand firm in the Lord” and the citizenship He has won for us heaven.
Why is standing firm so important? In the spiritual realm, you and I and our fellow citizens of the heavenly kingdom are under attack. The enemies of Christ Jesus and His kingdom are at the gates. They threaten us with every weapon of darkness. Like the Ukrainians who find their strength and courage to face their enemies in their leader’s courage and their citizenship, so do we whose citizenship is in heaven.
Paul exhorts his readers to “stand firm in their citizenship” by “imitating me, and keep(ing) your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” At first hearing this might seem that Paul is being a bit egotistical. Who is Paul to say such a thing? Does he fashion himself to be such a model citizen of heaven that if you and I just become like him we will be citizens of heaven as well? This not only smacks of a big ego but even seems to suggest a kind of works righteousness; that is, if you and I just live in a certain way or do certain things we will ensure ourselves a place in heaven!
The previous context helps us to see that Paul is saying nothing of the kind. In fact, in the first part of this chapter, Paul actually casts aside all his worldly acts of righteousness as being nothing but garbage (v.8), when it comes to gaining his salvation in Christ. This, of course, is truly something for Paul to admit. After all, as he notes, if anyone among God’s people Israel had reason to take stock in his own “righteous works” and to be confident before God, it would have been him. He said, “(I was) circumcised on the eighth day… of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:4-6).
Paul knew, however, that all such good works were as filthy rags (Isaiah) before the Lord, who demands perfection and holds a person guilty of the whole law even if he fails in but one point of it (James 2:10). Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10) and again to the Galatians, “By the works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16).
Accordingly, Paul acknowledges that his confidence before God… his hope of salvation… the surety of his heavenly citizenship rested solely in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul concludes: “…I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God upon faith…” (3:8b-9).
There is only one path to citizenship in heaven and it is through the cross of Jesus Christ. There all the unrighteousness of us all was put to death. There all sin was atoned for. There God Himself in the flesh of Jesus did the work of earning heaven for all of us, who’s good and great works amount to nothing more than yesterday’s garbage. Only through the cross of Jesus does one become righteous before God. Only through the cross of Jesus does one become a citizen of heaven.
To be imitators of Paul and his associates, then, is simply to be a friend of the cross of Jesus; that is, one who clings to Jesus and His atoning work alone for His salvation, his encouragement, his guidance, his strength just as did Paul and his fellows. It is simply to live as a citizen of heaven even while you are a citizen of earth. Prior to our text Paul states: “Brothers … one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13,14).
Unfortunately, making it rough for you and me to do so is, as Paul laments with tears, there are many in this world who hold a different citizenship. They are not citizens of heaven because they “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). What brought Paul the greatest heartache was that many of these that have no citizenship in heaven were of his very own flesh and blood… his fellow Jews. They were opposing God’s true Messiah (Christ) at every turn, as they had for centuries.
In our Old Testament reading we hear the prophet Jeremiah urging his people to repent of their resistance to the truth of God’s Word that He was proclaiming to them. Instead, they were trying to put Jeremiah to death. Jeremiah warns them, “Know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city(Jerusalem) and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears” (Jer. 26:14).
So we also see, sadly, in our Gospel from Luke. The religious elites of Israel, the Pharisees, in their rejection of Jesus were earning this condemnation from Jesus, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken!” (13:34,35).
In rejecting Jesus the Jews had forfeited their citizenship in heaven. Their fleshly heritage as Jews afforded them no special privilege… no special place in heaven. They were now simply citizens of this world; and like others of this world, they were walking as enemies of the cross of Jesus Christ. They were preferring to put their hope of salvation in the works of their own flesh, like the work of circumcision, rather than in the blood of Jesus.
You and I can also be rightly mournful concerning many people today. Many are likewise living as enemies of the cross of Jesus, and not just today’s Jews. I’m afraid, all too many people the world over, including many of our own fellow American citizens and even some in our own families, are not citizens of heaven. Their citizenship is in the world alone. It’s very apparent. Their mind, as Paul states, is merely on earthly things.
Many have no time for Jesus Christ period! Others despise the cross of Jesus by still trying to justify themselves with their works, like their church attendance record or their decision for Jesus. Still others belittle Jesus’ sacrifice by insisting that all people of any faith or religion will be saved as long as they are sincere. What a clear offense to the crucified One!
What is so sad is that there are grave implications for being merely citizens of the world. Paul writes: Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” A citizen of the world might seem like he has everything going for him: wealth… happiness… ease of life. But in the end, he will only be left with an eternity of pain and suffering.
A citizen of the world can even seem very spiritual even commendably religious, but like his ancestors the Pharisees, he does not have the true God. He worships his stomach; that is, the seat of his own desires, that will one day consume him. The very thing he boasts in, takes confidence in, is actually his eternal shame.
Not so for you who are friends of the cross of Jesus! Your citizenship is in heaven. The implications of such citizenship is eternally comforting for you. In this world that is not your home, you might be assaulted in every way, persecuted, tortured with sickness, hassled by those who despise your faith, weighed down with earthly burdens, but you can live daily in a victorious hope. As a citizen of heaven, you can look forward with great anticipation for your Savior Jesus Christ to return for you as He promised that you may be where He is (Jn. 14:3). Even your beleaguered, beaten, and broken body is comforted knowing that Your Savior, Who has through the death and resurrection of His body, subjected all things to Himself so that when He comes He will change, or transform, your body into the glory of His own body through the working of His power (v. 21).
Dear friend of the cross of Jesus, the comfort of your heavenly citizenship, is not merely a future hope. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ (Ga. 3:27). Your citizenship is secured by the blood of Jesus. No one can deny your place there at the right hand with Jesus. Right now you can joyfully discount your own works and merits as nothing, for you know that Jesus’ works and merits are everything for you. You can truly confess your sins and live daily in repentance in the confidence that Jesus’ blood cleanses you from all sin. You do not need to live in fear and worry if you will be worthy enough to enter heaven. You have assurance that Jesus was put to death for your transgressions and raised for your justification before God (Ro. 4:25). Yes, you, like everyone else in this world were conceived and born in sin, but you also know that you have received new birth into Christ’s death and resurrection through water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5; Romans 6). Yes, you look forward to that eternal banquet with your Savior, but even now Your Good Shepherd sets a table before you in the midst of your enemies (Psalm 23: ) giving you to eat and drink of Him and His salvation through His living body and blood!
Suffice it to say, then, O citizen of heaven, you do not need to fret and stew over the sad, present, political affairs of our present world, nor fall faint from the onslaught of the enemies of the cross who seek to destroy your will, your peace and your faith. Your King of Heaven and Earth has given you heavenly citizenship which is not subject to partisan politics, corrupt leaders, revolutions, wars, inflation, pandemics or upheaval among the masses. He stands in heavenly glory victorious. You can imitate Paul, one of your fellow heavenly citizens who has gone before you, and “forget what lies behind and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called you heavenward in Christ Jesus (3:13,14). He has made the victory yours. Be at peace! Amen.