Citizens of Heaven

February 20, 2022

Citizens of Heaven

Passage: Philippians 1:27 "Above all, you must live (as citizens of Heaven), conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ."
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In May of 1974, Jan and I boarded an El Al flight in Tel Aviv and headed home. We had lived in Jerusalem since the summer of 1973. During that year we studied the history, explored the land, and gathered for worship with a wide and wonderful assortment of people.

It was a non-stop flight, some 14 hours as I recall. It was the end of the most formative experience of my adult life. I remember everything, to quote John Prine. But in particular, I remember flying into New York and catching a glimpse, for the first time, of the grand lady of American aspirations, the Statue of Liberty. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” the poet wrote. A surge of adrenaline shot through my soul and a stream of teams welled up in my eyes. I was glad to be home. I was glad this is my home.

What did the poet write? “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, ‘This is my own, my native land’?”

I am proud to be an American. I was glad to get home to the United States. Since then, I have traveled to Europe, Africa, and South America. But I saw and felt with Scottish poet, ‘This is my own, my native land.’


Paul had some of this emotion in him. In this little letter to the Philippians, he describes his Jewish identity. From start to finish, from beginning to end, Paul—or Saul, to use his given name—was a Jew, born in Tarsus in modern day Turkey. He moved to Jerusalem, studied Torah, and pursued the way of the Pharisees, then the most bible-focused, law-abiding of all the ways of being a Jew.

Paul had earlier claimed his Roman citizenship. You recall the story. Paul and Silas were arrested for disturbing the peace in Philippi. They were stripped and beaten and thrown into jail, into the inner dungeon, the text says. The next morning, the magistrates sent word for them to be released. But do you recall what Paul said? “No way! They beat us and threw us into jail without a trial. We are Roman citizens. So now they want us to leave secretly? No way! You tell those magistrates to come here personally and make amends.”

Paul was aware of his Jewish heritage, and he embraced his rights as a Roman. More than that, he traveled much of the known world: Judea and Arabia, Asia and Greece, the islands of the Mediterranean, and the capital city itself Rome. He was in many ways a citizen of the world.

But he had a deeper, wider connection with Jesus. He was, he
proudly claimed, a citizen of heaven!! It was this passport that he treasured most; it was this loyalty that shaped his soul and determined his decisions.

He wrote to the churches of Ephesus: “You are no long strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints.” He wrote to these Philippians asserting, “We are citizens of heaven.”

Last Sunday in this very sanctuary we had two guests. One is a Mexican native, the other a Russian native. Both met in the United States and became citizens. Today they work in Kyiv, Ukraine. Between them, they carry four passports. They speak four languages, at least. They are citizens of the world. I admire them greatly.

We need more of that spirit, that connection, that wide-angled way to view the world in our little church. We want to be deeply loyal to our town, to our county, to our state. But we want to be global citizens, alert to what is happening in the world, alarmed at the dangers and dramas in all directions, and engaged through both prayer and action for the redemption of the world and the renewal of all things.

I want to be a member of a church with a global vision, a global ministry, a global membership.


Last week the pastor of the Global Vision Bible Church near Nashville gathered his people under a large revival-style tent and said this: “I’ve got the first and last names of six witches that are in our church. You were sent to destroy us. And you know what’s strange, three of you are in this room right now.”

That pastor is a lunatic, for sure. That kind of nonsense is one reason people are giving up on church, and Jesus, and God. I repudiate it entirely. But I like the name of the church: Global Vision Bible Church.

Yes, I know: a Bible Church is often the most conservative, fundamentalist congregations in the county. Which means they have not read the Bible.

The Bible is a radical book, it is a transformative book, a book that upends our values and our behaviors, that challenges our presuppositions and our prejudices, that calls us to repent, change our ways, and live according to the values of heaven.

The people of Tennessee and Texas and elsewhere are banning books they consider dangerous, books that challenge their social norms, books that poke fun at our prejudiced, self-centered ways. The book they need to ban, according to those criteria, is the Bible!! This book has a radical vision of behavior, of belief, of belonging.

“There is a wideness in God’s mercy,” is the way one hymn writer put it to words even as churches all around him and all around us sing a different chorus, “There is a narrowness to God’s gospel, there is a smallness to God’s circle, there is a tightness to God’s truth.”

I grew up in a long-standing church culture that told the colored folk to sit in the balcony and behave, that told the women folk to sit in the pews and be silent, and that told the gay folk to sit in the closet and stay there. Too often that is what it means to be in a “Bible Church.”

There is a radio broadcast entitled “Back to the Bible.” It is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. For years it featured the teaching and preaching of the late, great Warren Wiersbe (whom I liked very much). That title is premised upon the notion that we have strayed from the Bible, and we need to get back to it. What they mean is, we have grown too liberal, too secular, too inclusive, too ecumenical—we must get back to the Bible, they say, with its tight hold on who is in and who is out, back to the Bible, they say, with its narrow way of loving God and loving each other, back to the Bible, they say, with its closed circle keeping the few in and the many out. That’s what they mean by back to the Bible, and that is what is implied by the name “Bible Church.”

A teacher of mine many years ago said this: “The Bible is so far ahead of us.” We must spend our lives trying to move forward into the world it envisions, into the community, Beloved Community, it describes, into citizenship, the heavenly citizenship, it promises.

The Promised Land is ahead of us, not behind us. Beloved Community is ahead of us, not behind us. The Kingdom of God is ahead of us not behind us. We need to go forward, not back.
Jesus is ahead of us not behind us. “Follow me,” Jesus said, accurately describing where he is and where we are. Jesus is leading us out of the darkness of our prejudice, out of the deepness of our self-deception, and out of the narrowness of our understanding.

Paul was a Jew. Paul was a Roman. But Paul was a citizen of heaven. It was that citizenship that made him famous, successful, controversial, influential, memorable. It was that citizenship that got him arrested, beaten, jailed, and eventually martyred.

Paul floated above his ethnic identity and saw its limitations, its hostilities, its prejudices. “I once persecuted Jesus and those who followed in the Way,” he confessed. “I was full of devout energy and certainty.” But he pushed it aside. Here in this letter, he famously writes, “I once thought these things were valuable but now, I consider them worthless….”

He rose above his Roman race. He knew and shared the Roman values of law and order, of authority and administration, of safety and security, of travel and trade. But his loyalty was not to Rome, but to the Righteous Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, compromised by Jewish friends and crucified by Roman soldiers but raised from the dead.

God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the Good News.


Rome has come and gone, but Jesus is still Lord of heaven and earth, of time and eternity. Jews are still here and there, a respected and dignified people, but in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither gay nor straight, neither rich nor poor, neither black nor white…just people, just humans, just children of God, just citizens of heaven.

For many years our American citizenship and our church membership told us black people are second class and need to work the fields, sit in the back, and stay out of our church. But our heavenly citizenship tells us we were blind to the truth and deaf to the gospel. We did wrong for century after century, and we are still doing wrong.

Some people don’t think Black Lives Matter and they don’t think we need to teach about our despicable history regarding race. Some have not really repented of the past and don’t want the past brought up in the present. But our heavenly citizenship demands that we right some wrongs and mend our ways and speak the truth. I am often ashamed to be a Southerner, but I am never ashamed of the gospel that calls me, in the words of this little letter from Paul, “to stand together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News.”

I am a citizen of heaven.

I think it was the fall of 2004 when Mary Alice Birdwhistell took to the podium as a college freshman at Georgetown College. I was serving as dean of the chapel and professor of religion and sitting on the front row of the chapel. I was astonished at her poise, her skill, her articulate message to a chapel full of potential college students and their parents. Later, in private, I said to her some version of this message, “Have you ever thought about preaching?” She looked shocked, and said something like, “My church would never permit that.” She spoke for many in our day, for most in the history of Christianity.

We have told the women, in the words of the song, “sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you’re rocking the boat.”

The church had pushed a deformed vision of community life upon the whole country: women could not vote, or fight, or judge, or serve, or minister, or preach. They were second class citizens, we told them, and in so doing we were denying our own status as citizens of heaven. We were hiding our heavenly passports and pulling out an earthly passport that declared our membership in what Paul calls in this little letter, “a world full of crooked and perverse people” (chapter two verse 14). The apostle called us, instead, to be “bright lights” in a dark world. We were hiding our light under bushels of prejudice and power.

I’m glad to say that young lady is now senior pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville Kentucky, with degrees from Georgetown, Baylor, and Truett.

The gospel heritage of our wonderful little church includes three women who served as our pastors. I honor them all: Gail, Julie, and Mary. I give thanks for each one: Gail, Julie, and Mary.

Calling out their names reminds me of the overlooked comment buried right there in the story of Paul returning from his missionary travels. Acts chapter 21, and I read: “The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed in the home of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven original deacons. He had four daughters who have the gift of prophecy.” Four daughters who are prophets, preachers, proclaimers of the word and way of God.
Did you ever hear a sermon on that verse of scripture?

Thank God, we are beginning to live according to the ways and means of our heavenly citizenship. Paul writes: “I pray that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.” This is what is happening in the church today—we are growing in knowledge and understanding of the gospel.

Did you ever hear a sermon or study on this part of scripture? Isaiah 56:

“This is what the Lord says,
Be just and fair to all. Do what is right and good.
For I am coming to redeem you and to display my righteousness among you.
Blessed are all those who are careful to do these things….
Don’t let foreigners committed to the Lord say,
“The Lord God of Israel will never let me be a part of God’s people.”
Don’t let the eunuchs say, “I am a dried up tree with no children and no future.”
I will give them—within the walls of my house—a memorial and a name….
I will bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord.…
I will bring others, also, besides my people, Israel.”

This expansive vision of inclusion is the Good News of God.

Religious people were drawing a circle that shut many out, including both foreigners and those unable to have children. But God drew a circle that took them in, that included those the religious people wanted to exclude.

Isaiah the prophet was seeing into the future; he was seeing the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, that heavenly citizenship. And the prophet heard the gospel invitation: “No, come on in. There is room for you. There is room for all. God loves you and so do I, and Jesus died for both of us.”

This book of Isaiah is what lay open on the lap of the Ethiopian diplomat as he traveled home from Jerusalem. The story is told in Acts chapter eight. An angel told Philip to travel a certain road and approach a certain man. “Philip met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was now returning. Seated in his carriage he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.”

He was reading from Isaiah chapter 53, these words: “He was humiliated and received no justice. Who can speak of his descendants? His life was taken from this earth.”

Who was he talking about, the Ethiopian asked?

And I asked, why was he fixated on this text?

That Ethiopian eunuch, like the eunuch in chapter 56 of Isaiah and like the man described here in Isaiah 53 who was killed without justice and without children, was a man excluded from the people of God because he could not have children. He represented a demographic different from the norm, from the majority, unable to produce descendants, living outside the circle. He would, today, be grouped into that demographic we know as LGBTQ. Gallop announced this week that they comprise 7.1% of the American population, by self-selection.

They are a minority misunderstood, misjudged, and mistreated. In the religious communities of both old and new testaments, of Hebrew and Christian faith, they have been misunderstood, misjudged, and mistreated. We drew a circle and shut them out. God drew a circle and drew them in. That is the Gospel, the good news.

Can I ask the questions of Paul? Chapter two, verses one and two.

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ?
Is there any comfort from the love of God?
Is there any fellowship together in the spirit?
Are your hearts tender and compassionate?

“Then make me (Paul and me, your pastor) truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose regardless of race, color, gender, or orientation.”

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”


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