Good morning! I am always humbled at the opportunity to stand in this pulpit, where so many past and present great preachers stand, and I am always grateful to Dean Hill for extending the invitation to be with you again this morning.
The lectionary is a lovely discipline, but it also can be pretty terrifying, especially when your limited preaching schedule is determined by those far above your pay grade. J
The regular rhythms of ordered worship, including regular lectionary preaching, can have as much of the wild movement of the spirit in them as any other form of worship and preaching. Case in point: I recently had an extended conversation with the Dean about my in-progress dissertation on Philippians, and a large part of the conversation focused on the question, “will it preach?” I ask this question because I am concerned with ethics just as much as history; that is, I would like to do history ethically but I am also concerned about the ethical implications of our shared Christian histories. I am concerned with communities long gone just as much as those living and moving and having their being today; that is, I take the communion of the saints both in heaven and on earth seriously. Our fraught, fragile, humanity is entangled in its own histories, and the past is no more dead than the present is alive; that is, the gospel is both good and news because it is and has been told, retold, studied, shared, spoken, preached, taught, written, shared, translated, and lived not in a vacuum, but by real people.
So I felt a sense of the spirit, or at least of Deanly intervention, when I found my annual preaching assignment falling on this Second Sunday of Lent, where our epistle lesson is from Philippians. And lo and behold, it’s a text I have studiously avoided dealing with in my dissertation! So here I am, dealing with it this morning, in sermonic form.
Knowing that, my sisters and brothers, I ask for your indulgence to let me lay aside, for today, Luke’s lament for Jerusalem, to gloss over the courageous question of the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”, and to let me focus instead on Philippians. And, perhaps worse, I’m not even going to deal with our whole reading today, but instead focus on a single clause, “our citizenship is in heaven.” [This by the way, is how people write whole dissertations about a single, four-chapter letter.]
So I invite you to meditate with me this morning upon “A Heavenly Citizenship”
The best way I can get at what it means to have citizenship in heaven is to think about the koinōnia of the gospel, the commonwealth of the gospel, which is, I think, the central theme of this letter. In other letters to other communities, Paul calls them ekklēsiai, assemblies, churches, but here, in Philippians, in a letter full of love, imitation, friendship, and calls to like-mindedness, Paul claims that he and this beloved community are in a koinōnia in the gospel.
Koinōnia is far too frequently translated as fellowship today, a term which calls to mind at once our beloved coffee hour and some sort of men’s glee club meeting, but our community is not only our coffee hours and our hymn singing. My best way to describe a koinōnia is as a joint venture. Paul and the Philippians, and you and I and the whole of the community of faith, we are in a joint venture in the gospel together.
This might make you a little squeamish because it sounds a little business-y, doesn’t it? And, actually, it is really an economic sort of term. In antiquity, people used this term, koinōnia, venture, in all sorts of business transactions. From land-leases, to marriage contracts, to joint investments in flax-seeds businesses, this terms springs up again and again in ancient papyri and epigraphy, little scraps of ancient paper and scratchings in stone. When there is a sharing of both risk and reward, there you have a koinōnia. And that, beloved, is what I think Paul means by modelling the community of faith as a koinōnia, a venture. For together we take on the risk and reward of the gospel.
If this were my dissertation (it’s not), I’d share with you some ancient inscriptions to help illustrate my point, but I’ll spare you here. I think I can explain this with a more contemporary example.
Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate student, I stole a BU mattress. Technically, I didn’t actually steal a mattress, but the university thought I did, and I ended up paying exactly 1/3 the cost of a bright-blue, fire-retardant, twin X-long mattress, $90, which to the university is basically the same thing as acknowledging that I stole a mattress.
How the heck did this all happen? My freshman year, I won, or thought I won, the housing lottery. Instead of a crowded, stinky large dormitory, with its shared bathrooms and cinderblock walls, I was placed in a triple in a brownstone on Bay State Road. I was destined for wall sconces, a non-working fireplace, wood paneling, and other features that suggested a classier college experience. Imagine my and my roommates’ surprise, when, moving in, we found ourselves in what can only be described as one of the smallest triples on campus. Two of us slept a mere 2 feet apart from one another perpendicular to the wall, and the third had to set up her mattress against the wall apart from us. To squeeze between the space left in the middle of the room, you had to turn sideways and shimmy, or you’d bang your legs against the metal bedframes. Somehow, we also squeezed three dressers, and three desks into this oddly shaped room. The windows looked out, not over Bay State Road, but the alley, including the delivery entrance for Sargent, where they deliver the cadavers for the Human Gross Anatomy Lab. The rest of the building had spacious doubles and triples, but we, we were clearly in the worst room in the place.
The three of us made do for the year, but when room selection time rolled around, we began to eye the room across the hall. None of us really wanted to be in a triple again, but we weren’t confident we could get a lottery number high enough to snag a double or single. So, we entered a pact to move together as a triple, and we managed to get the room across the hall. The following year, we would be moving into a giant triple, facing the trees of bay state road. We had room to bring in a futon in addition to the BU furniture, and there would still be room to move about. There were 11 windows, We would have a large walk-in closet, and each of us would have a large corner of the room. With proper dresser positioning, we could each even have some modicum of privacy.
Except, that summer, we each received notice that one of the mattresses from the tiny triple was missing upon final inspection of the rooms. Before our accounts could be settled, before we could move in, before we could reach the promised land across the hallway, each one of us would need to pay for 1/3 of the mattress, that is unless one of us fessed up to taking the mattress. At first, vague accusations and mistrust flew. Who had checked out last, anyway? (We couldn’t remember.) Was one of us lying? After all, how well did we know one another anyway? Perhaps it was the impossibly chic roommate from Paris who had landed a hostessing job through charm and charisma. She was always staying out late for fascinating parties, poetry readings, gallery openings; maybe she took it for a lark or an art project. Or perhaps it was the roommate who had just gotten her first college boyfriend a few weeks ago. He had been hanging around quite a bit lately, and college students do things with mattresses all the time. Or maybe it was the quiet one who didn’t spend as much time with the other two. Who knew what she was thinking? None of this, of course, got us anywhere, because none of us had actually done anything with the mattress in question. Somehow, through bureaucratic red tape or facilities error, or other great mystery, we were all on the hook for this single, solitary mattress.
So, to reach the promised land across the green carpet and the original hardwood, we all eventually ponied up $90.
Beloved, my roommates and I were in a koinōnia; we shared together the risk, the hardship, and the reward, and we all shared in the joint cost of that mattress.
So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is chock full of financial language, including this central theme of a koinōnia in the gospel. This koinōnia, this venture, is not only how we relate to one another, but it is part of a much larger divine economy. Unlike my college roommate story, our koinonia is under God’s supervision; thus Paul writes in Philippians 1:6 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Our gospel venture is not worked out in a vacuum, but in the confidence of faith we know that God has begun a good work in us and is able to bring it to completion. In a divine economy, God’s oikonomia, God’s house-rules, our relationship to one another is a joint venture, but this joint venture has God as its ultimate investor and site supervisor.
And now, to return to what it means to consider “A heavenly citizenship.”
Too often, when we read this passage, we imagine heavenly citizenship as endorsing an outlook that is solely otherworldly. Our heavenly citizenship is used to comfort us in suffering, our heavenly citizenships overlooks our human frailty in this life in hopes of the world to come. This is not necessarily bad theology, and it might sometimes be good pastoral care, but it is not a complete picture of our heavenly citizenship. Or heavenly citizenship is used to wash our hands of the troubles and challenges of this world. We invoke a kind of quietism because the world is just too messed up, too mired in sin to have any hope. Our denomination takes 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on LGBTQ inclusion. Our American political rhetoric has descended to a nadir of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and division. Our personal, student, and national debt seems too overwhelmingly large to ever possibly address, so we just keep putting off payments. Too often we throw our hands up, or wash our hands of these matters, despairing of this world, looking to our heavenly citizenship, to a long moral arc of the universe without any willingness to ask whether we or the universe need to be bending just a little, right now, to participate and move toward that long moral arc.
Too often we think of our heavenly citizenship as our passport. As Christians, we’ve got this little blue book which we can show upon arrival on the far shores of the stormy Jordan. No trouble with our border crossing, no wall to cross, we’re bound for the promised land, because we have our heavenly citizenship.
But passports aren’t the only part of citizenship. Citizenship comes with a participation in the bigger system, in the divine economy, and with that comes some obligations. Citizenship is not only about the benefits you get out of it, and that’s as true today as it was when Paul exhorted these Christ-communities in Philippi that they and we have a citizenship that is in heaven. Rome wasn’t exactly known as a tax-free haven, and the empire had significant judicial, financial, and bureaucratic systems that affected citizens and non-citizens alike. Paul couldn’t have conceived of any form of citizenship that didn’t also have participatory obligations attached to it, so I’m surprised when Christians think of heavenly citizenship as simply a “get out of hell free card.”
Perhaps as Protestants this makes us nervous because it sounds a little too much like works righteousness, but I don’t think that an expansive view of our participation in the broader divine economy in anyway contradicts a reliance upon God’s grace for salvation. As citizens of heaven we are in a koinōnia in the gospel under God’s supervision, and it is only by the grace of God that we are participants in this joint venture. This is how Paul can write that despite his current imprisonment, he and we can be confident that we are all shareholders in God’s grace. (Phil 1:7) We didn’t and we can’t earn those shares, they are a gift freely given, but our larger participation as a result of that grace demands our use of those gifts in full participation of our venture in the gospel.
I realize these are deep, and perhaps swirling, theological waters that might be crashing over your head, and probably mine, too, right now, so I’ll offer another more contemporary example.
The other day I came home from a productive meeting with my advisor after a short day of teaching to find Soren sitting on the couch, surrounded by a 6-foot radius of piles of paper. He had begun filling out our taxes. Soren has always done our taxes, but this year they are extra complicated, because we purchased a home in Portland last year and have been renting it on AirBnb. Asking him how it was going, he gave me the kind of look that communicates that I didn’t even have to ask. He told me that because of our AirBnb rental and because we are married, we are declaring ourselves a “qualified joint venture,” which means for tax purposes we would split all of the cost deductions and all of the profits equally. “That’s awesome!” I said, “Do you know what this means? In the eyes of the federal government, we’re in a koinōnia!” Soren was less thrilled, because he still has to do our taxes, but he did share my enthusiasm for a brief moment.
Beloved, our heavenly citizenship means that we participate with one another in God’s economy, and that participation is not without risk, reward, and obligation. Perhaps a theological orientation that is more wholistic, less self-oriented, and, I think, makes more sense, is to ask not what your heavenly citizenship can do for you, but what you can do for your heavenly citizenship.
And I think meditating on that sort of question is an excellent practice for Lent. Do not ask what heaven can do for you, but what you can do for heaven. I think this letter, this line of communication back and forth, binding together Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus and the saints at Philippi, offers a roadmap, an examination of conscience, a way into prayer for you this Lent as you consider your heavenly citizenship. As much as we tend towards the heroization of Paul, he’s a part of a larger community, entangled with one another, bound together in the spirit. We’re a big community here at Marsh Chapel. We’re bound to one another across the vast expanses of time and distance, and we are together entangled in these moments of ordered worship that overcome these distances.
So, as a Lenten practice, I invite you to imagine Paul and Timothy writing, perhaps Epaphroditus carrying and reading aloud, and these named and unnamed saints listening to these words:
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full discernment to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Do you pray with joy, and thank God for those whom your remember in prayer? Are you confident that God is at work in you and that God will bring that work to completion? Do you hold one another in your hearts? Do you share in God’s grace with one another? Are you confident in your share in that grace no matter what your current circumstances? Do you long for better connection with those around you? Do you pray for others? Do you pray for their love to overflow more and more? Do you pray for them to have knowledge and full discernment? Do you help one another produce a harvest of righteousness for the glory and praise of God?
If, as the hymn says, I am bound for the promised land, where do my possessions lie? Where do I invest my wealth, my time, my energy, my life, and my very self? Do I invest myself in that which is most lasting, most true? Do I invest myself in other people, in their growth in faith and faithfulness?
And if I am bound for the promised land, whom do I invite to go with me? For, beloved, we are together in a koinōnia in the gospel.
We are, together, citizens of heaven.
For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.
For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.