Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
But our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our lowliness, made like to the body of his glory, according to the operation whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
Today’s epistle is from St. Paul writing to the Philippians. In contrast to many of his other epistles, which are specifically addressed to dealing with serious problems in the churches that he founded, the overall message of the epistle to the Philippians is one of thanksgiving. St. Paul writes in gratitude from prison of the Philippians’ generosity and support for his ministry. There is the occasional note of warning, such as in the passage we heard today, not to follow those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and mind earthly things. The Philippians are reminded that their true commonwealth is in heaven, from whence they should look for the coming of the Saviour who will at the last judgement transform their lowly bodies into the likeness of his glorious body.
It is important to emphasise that Philippi was a Roman colony. When St. Paul told them that their true commonwealth is in heaven, he was explicitly contrasting the Philippians’ status as a Roman colony with their true status as citizens of the Kingdom of Christ. It is usually rightly emphasised that the focus of St. Paul’s mission as Apostle to the Gentiles was that it was not necessary for them to become circumcised Jews into order to be members of the new covenant people of God, the Body of Christ. But what is less commonly noted is that his message of the Kingdom of Christ was in direct opposition to the claims of the Roman emperor. The cult of the Emperor was still in the early stages of its development in St. Paul’s time, but it was seen as an acknowledgment of the basis on which the civilised world rested. Roman rule may have been brutal at times, but it was recognised as providing stability and order. It therefore seemed reasonable to suppose that the emperor was himself a divinity. In contrast to this St. Paul proclaimed not Kyrios Kaiser, but Kyrios Christos, not Caesar is Lord, but Jesus is Lord. He did not deny that the powers that be were ordained of God in the present age, but he emphatically stated that they were not the ultimate authority. He proclaimed that there was another King, one called Jesus, and in so doing seemed to turn the world upside down (Acts 17). Whereas the pagan subjects of Rome proclaimed that Caesar is Lord and looked on him as their Saviour, St. Paul proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, and that Christians must look to him as their Saviour. For St. Paul and the early Christians faith was not a purely private matter which had no bearing on the public realm. The proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of Christ as the true Lord of the world was in direct opposition to the contemporary pagan cult of the strong leader, the Roman emperor, who viewed himself, and was acclaimed by his subjects as the lord of the world. When the later martyrs were killed for refusing to participate in the imperial cult they were simply following out in their lives what St. Paul had taught, namely that it is Jesus and not Caesar who is the true Lord.
It is also important to note that while St. Paul emphasises that their true commonwealth is in heaven (what St. Augustine later called the city of God in contrast to the city of this world), he emphatically states that the Christian hope is not for the abandonment of the material realm for the spiritual realm. It is rather for the resurrection of the body and indeed for the transformation of the whole created order in a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, not for the abandonment of the material realm for the spiritual realm. The faith of the incarnation was that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and that matter could ultimately be redeemed and sanctified. By this St. Paul did not mean the body in its present fallen state (which he called our lowly bodies), but rather the resurrected body of Christ, whose members Christians had become through the regenerating waters of baptism and whose lives were sustained by feeding in the Eucharist. When Jesus rose from the dead and became the first fruits of them that slept he also opened the gateway to life for all who trusted in him. The sufferings of this present time were not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us, in that day when God will be all in all and our lowly bodies will be transformed into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
The knowledge that our true commonwealth is not in this world, but in the Kingdom of God enables us to look at the whole of life from a different perspective. An early Christian writer (the epistle of Diognetus) put it like this: “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country or language or customs. While they live in cities both Greek and oriental, as falls to the lot of each, and follow the customs of the country in dress, food and general manner of life, they display the remarkable and confessedly surprising status of their citizenship. They live in countries of their own, but as sojourners. They share all things as citizens. They suffer all things as foreigners. Every foreign land is their native place, every native place is foreign… They pass their life on earth, but they are citizens in heaven. They obey the established laws, but they outdo the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are not understood, and condemned. They are put to death, and yet made alive.”
Let us make these rousing words our own today. “Live in the world, but as strangers. Live as strangers, but in the world.”