A sermon on Philippians 3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 19 December 2021
Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities.
Australian citizens enjoy a tax free threshold of $18 000. Australian citizens can normally travel to 181 different countries without a visa and can return home without hassle. We can’t be deported from Australia for committing a crime and there is often generous financial assistance for education.
But these privileges come with responsibilities. It is compulsory for citizens to obey the laws of the land, to vote in local, state and federal elections, to defend Australia if required, and to serve on a jury when called.
Children born in Australia to an Australian citizen or permanent resident acquire citizenship automatically. Children born outside Australia to an Australian citizen are eligible to apply for citizenship. Foreigners may be given citizenship if they have lived in Australia for 4 years and been a permanent resident for at least 12 months. They must demonstrate proficiency in the English language, pass a citizenship test, and make a pledge in which they commit their loyalty to Australia. Special rules apply to New Zealand citizens who live or were born in Australia, which are too complicated for me to explain. And a fast track to citizenship is offered to foreigners who are gifted and talented, especially if they are likely to win Olympic gold medals.
Citizenship can be taken away from people who fight in a war against Australia or who engage in terrorist activities or who obtained their citizenship deceitfully or illegally.
All in all, citizenship is not a right. It is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. It is given on the assumption of a commitment to Australian values and of obedience to Australian laws.
Philippi was a Roman colony in the north of Greece. It was the site of an important battle in the civil war between the future Emperor Augustus and the assassins of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus. Augustus won that battle and to celebrate his victory, he released some of his veteran soldiers, giving them parcels of land to farm. The city was a miniature Rome in the middle of its conquered territories, administered not by local laws but by the laws of the city of Rome, ruled by governors appointed directly by the senate of Rome.
In Paul’s day, not everyone living in Philippi would have been Roman citizens. The descendants of those soldiers who were the original colonists would have been. But more than half of the population would have been slaves, who would have done all the work in the shops and farms and local gold mines. And local Greeks who moved to the city could have only acquired citizenship under certain strict conditions. For example, a non-citizen could serve in Rome’s armies for twenty years and be granted citizenship on retirement. Any children born to them after that would be citizens by birth.
Roman citizenship had its benefits and its responsibilities. A citizen was exempt from certain taxes. They could vote and run for office. A citizen had the right to a legal trial in a court of law. They couldn’t be whipped or tortured and if found guilty they could appeal to a higher court. But a citizen was also required to obey the laws of Rome, and penalties for disobedience could be harsh.
In chapter 3 verses 18 to 21 the apostle Paul reminded the members of the church in Philippi, a third of whom were probably Roman citizens, the rest of whom either wanted to be or were trying to be Roman citizens, that they were citizens of heaven. He wrote,
For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
It was a call to them to look away from something and to look at something else. Like you might try to get a friend to stop focussing on what they can’t do and to instead to think about what they can do. It was a call to look away from worldly values and worldly ambitions. The money, fame and fortune, the power and prestige that some people have and that the rest what to have. For the world is never happy with what it has and is never happy if other people have it. It demands more and more at the expense of others to fill a bottom pit of need and desire.
So that it was a call to focus instead on heavenly values and heavenly ambitions. Like living the gospel and wanting to share it with their friends. Like making their weekly meeting together a priority to encourage each other and to be encouraged. Like genuine repentance of their sins and genuine forgiveness of other people’s sins. Like trusting in Jesus as our Saviour and waiting for him, longing for him, expecting him to come and put all things right. So that evil and injustice are crushed and righteousness and peace live on earth.
It’s a reminder to us that we too are citizens of heaven. Whatever our nationality, whether we are Australians or permanent residents or dual citizens, if we trust in Christ and follow him in life and death, then we are citizens of heaven. Called to live up to all the privileges and responsibilities of that citizenship.
The privilege of knowing God as our Father, and each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The privilege of prayer and of pouring out our hearts to God.
The privilege of the presence of the Spirit in our lives and of his comfort, encouragement and prompting.
And the privilege of knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, our companion, our guide and our great example.
And the responsibilities of giving Christ our first loyalty in all things and to forsake all things for his sake. Of trusting in him and obeying his law of love and putting it into practice in our attitudes and thoughts and decisions and actions.
It does not mean that we can’t fly the flag. It does not mean that we can’t celebrate Australia Day. But it does mean that we do not love Australia best unless we love Jesus more and serve our neighbours and our community for his sake.
We are citizens of heaven in exile on earth. Like Australians stuck in the UK or in India or in Peru during COVID and longing to come home to be reunited with family and friends. But it means that we have a home in heaven where Jesus is and in following him he is showing us the way home when he will bring everything under his control and transform our lowly bodies so that they are like his glorious body. So that we will be with him and like him. Privileges that no other citizenship on earth can offer.