Live as Citizens of Heaven

Can you remember the last time you received a letter?  A letter, not an email but a letter? And not a letter from the CRA or your bank, but a personal letter. A letter from a friend, delivered in an envelope, with a stamp by Canada Post?

Seriously, have you ever received a personal letter? They seem to be coming a thing of the past.

We are in the fourth week of our study in Philippians, and so you are probably aware that what we think of as a small book of the bible is actually a letter written by Paul to friends of his in the city of Philippi. And it wasn’t just a form letter. It was a personal letter—a letter that addressed their particular stage in life, a letter that contained words of encouragement. 

I remember when Cornerstone was going through a difficult stage in its life as a church, and I wasn’t sure what the future held, either for the church or for the Guptills. And at just the right time, Angela and I received a letter from Karen Wickwire. 

A letter telling us how much she appreciated us as her pastoral couple, but also encouraging us in the midst of the difficulties and reminding us that she believed in the vision we had for Cornerstone.

It is not a stretch to say that Cornerstone being where and what it is today, may very well owe its very existence to that one-page letter.

That’s what the book of Philippians is. A letter of encouragement that was written during a difficult time, not only in the life of the church but in Paul’s life as well.  Paul is in prison, facing a very uncertain future, but he takes time to write a letter of encouragement to his friends.

The scripture that was read for us earlier begins with these words, Philippians 1:27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, . . .

However, if you are following along in a different translation, you might be scratching your head.  In the New International Version it reads, Philippians 1:27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  And in the New Revised Version it reads, Philippians 1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. . .

And without getting too deep in the weeds of the original language, the essence of this passage hinges on an obscure word in the original Greek, which was the language that Paul used to write this letter.

In the NIV, the word is translated as “conduct yourself,” and in the NRSV, the word is translated as “live your life,” and while those are adequate translations, they don’t convey all the meaning of the original word.

Are you still with me? 

According to William Barclay in the Daily Study Bible, “The word he (Paul) would normally use for to conduct oneself in the ordinary affairs of life is peripatein, which literally means to walk about; here he uses politeuesthai, which means to be a citizen.”  Perry-pa-tain, pol·it·yoo·om·ahee

And while that word might not mean much to us, we must remember that we are reading somebody else’s mail, and it would have meant a great deal to those it was originally intended for.

So, bear with me for a little political science lesson.  Paul is writing from the very centre of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome, where he is under arrest, and Philippi is situated 1300 kms away in a distant part of the empire, what we now call Greece.

But Philippi wasn’t just any city. It was one of 400 Roman Colonies, and Roman colonies were like little islands of Rome, and the residents of those colonies were Roman citizens with all the rights and responsibilities that Roman citizenship brought.

Regardless of what was happening around them, those who lived in Philippi never forgot they were Romans.  They dressed as Romans; they spoke Latin, and they considered themselves to be Romans in every way.  And regardless of how others around them might behave, they were expected to behave as Romans and to obey the laws of Rome.

A modern example of that would be a foreign embassy.  While we were travelling in Europe last year, our tour guides would often point out the Canadian Embassy.

And while those who live and work in those embassies might be living in Germany, Sweden or Estonia, their citizenship and loyalty is to their home country.

And so, Paul tells the believers in Philippi that in much the same way as their colony was a little piece of Rome, they were to consider themselves a little island of heaven on earth.  That as Christ followers, they might be living in Philippi, but their ultimate citizenship is in heaven.

That thought is reiterated in various passages of scripture. Paul tells the believers in Ephesus, Ephesians 2:19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.

Peter reminds his readers in his letter to the early church, 1 Peter 2:11–12 Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls.  Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbours. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honourable behavior, and they will give honour to God when he judges the world.

So, what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven, and what does that mean for us today.  Because ultimately, whenever you hear me preach, or Rob, Deborah or Stefan preach, the question you have is “So What?”

Let’s go back to the scripture that we started with, Philippians 1:27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News.

Because we are citizens of Heaven, We Are Called to be Different.  2000 years ago, those who were citizens of Rome were expected to behave differently than non-Romans.  They were held to a higher standard. And Paul was reminding the Philippian believers that they had an even higher standard as followers of Jesus.

We have discovered that when we travel overseas that people have expectations of us as Canadians. Whether those expectations are warranted or not.

On my first trip to Egypt, most of our ministry obligations happened in the evening, and so we had the days to do the tourist thing.

And I discovered that in most of the tourist sites that we visited, they were very strict about security. 

And before you could enter a museum, church, temple, or synagogue, you often had to put your knapsack through a metal detector or x-ray.  We were visiting the oldest synagogue in Egypt, and I was last in line.  As I was handing the police officer my bag to be sent through the x-ray, he noticed my Canadian hat, and he asked, “You’re Canadian?” When I told him I was, he handed me back my bag without sending it through the machine and said, “So, no bomb.”

I don’t know how many times we’ve heard words to the effect of “We knew you were Canadians because of how polite you are.”  Once, I was told that someone knew I was a Canadian because of my smile. And we are proud of that. I don’t want to be seen as an ugly Canadian.

Whenever I travel abroad, I make sure that I’m wearing a maple leaf, and when I identify myself as a Canadian, I try to act in a way that won’t dishonour our flag. And it hurts when I see another Canadian being rude, or impolite.

In the same way, it disappoints God when as Christians we act in a way that dishonours Christ. I’ve seen people bow their heads to give thanks in public and then be rude to their servers.  Or someone who has a bumper sticker on their vehicle that identifies them as a Christian, and then they drive like a jerk.

But it’s not just in the little things, it’s also in some of the big things, when we allow society to reshape our morals, until there is no difference between what we believe and what the world believes. 

And often we do it in the name of love and acceptance, forgetting that it was because God loves us that he put those guidelines and restrictions in place.  Because he wanted the very best for us.

God’s word reminds us in the book of Romans, Romans 12:2 Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

As believers, we are called to be light, and light is different from darkness.  We are called to be salt, and by its very nature, salt is different than what it’s being added to.  And both salt and light are supposed to make a positive difference. 

Jesus’ brother James warned the early church, James 4:4 Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.

This leads us to the next point. Let’s skip down a couple of verses to Philippians 1:29–30 For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.  We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.

While we are called to be different, We Aren’t Called to be Popular.

It was Beatrice Kaufman who said, “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!”

When I was in school, I was unpopular, and I was popular, and as a teenager, I would have told you that popular is better.  But often, you need to sell out in order to be popular. And that is a price that is too high.

And that doesn’t just apply to teenagers and the social ranking that takes place in middle school and high school.  I’m sure you’ve discovered that a society that preaches tolerance and live and let live isn’t very tolerant toward a biblical worldview.

And the pressure is there to smile and nod and just to go along to get along. And all too often, we move from not expressing or defending what we believe to not even acknowledging that we believe anything. 

And we end up like the guy who owned a mangy old mutt, and someone asked him what type of dog it was, and he replied, “It’s a police dog.”  His friend said, “that doesn’t look like any police dog I’ve ever seen.” To which the first man said, “He’s undercover.”

And there are folks who, unfortunately, come to church on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday, they want to operate undercover. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

Jesus warns us in Matthew 10:33 But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.

I don’t know about you, but I find that a little scary, let’s read it again. Matthew 10:33 But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.

Now, understand this is not about blowing it at school or at work when you have the opportunity to stand up for your faith and you ignore it.

This is when we consistently deny Jesus in our life, in our words, and in our actions. There are times when we don’t do the right thing.  There are times when we are silent when we should speak up.  As I’ve said before, “Silence is golden, but sometimes it’s just plain yellow.”

Edmund Burke has often been quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  

There are times when we are like Simon Peter and we deny our Relationship with Jesus. But the same grace that was offered to Peter is offered to us.  Peter may have denied Christ, but that wasn’t the end of the story, and while we may have denied Jesus, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story for us either.  We just need to stop it.

And maybe you are thinking, “But Denn, it’s tough, and people won’t like me, and they will call me hurtful names and accuse me of being hateful and intolerant. 

And that shouldn’t be surprising; Jesus reminded those who would follow him in John 15:19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. 

Which Paul seems to affirm in this passage when he tells his readers, Philippians 1:29 For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.

But, remember Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:10–12 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.  “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.  Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

There is an interesting verse in Hebrews chapter 11 concerning Noah, and this is what it says, 

Hebrews 11:7 It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.

Listen again to that one line, “By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world.”  Because Noah was righteous, it was proof that others could be righteous. Because Noah was faithful, it was proof that others could be faithful. Because Noah was obedient, it was proof that others could be obedient as well.  When everyone else was making Ds, Noah was making As. He was the curve blower.

It was D.L. Moody who said, “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick alongside it.”

When those who follow Jesus shine bright in the darkness, they show the depth of the darkness.  And Jesus told us in John 3:20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed.

When you live your life as Christ would have you live it, you are shining a light that exposes the evil of the world, and be assured the world won’t celebrate what they see.

Or, to quote that great philosopher, Taylor Swift, “So don’t you worry your pretty little mind.

People throw rocks at things that shine.”

Let’s go back to our scripture. In the face of their persecution, Paul reminds his readers in

Philippians 1:28 Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself.

Because we are citizens of Heaven, There will be a Reward to be Claimed.

Sometimes we forget that this life isn’t all there is, but the promise for the Christian is an eternity with God.  We are reminded in Hebrews 13:14 For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.

Jesus’ promise to those who choose to follow him is given in John 14:1–2 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.  There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?

Let’s go back to the embassy illustration I used at the beginning—eventually, those who represent Canada in an overseas posting return home.  Their stay overseas is only temporary.

There will come a time that they will be called home.

Do you remember that in the early stages of COVID, the Canadian Government worked at bringing Canadian citizens from around the world home to Canada? 

If you are wondering, during the pandemic, there were almost 63,0000 Canadian citizens who were repatriated from 109 countries.

This is a screenshot from the Government of Canada’s website during the pandemic.

It wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t easy, but the message was there.  If you are a Canadian, we want to help you come home.

There will come a time that Christians will be called home, it may be at the time of our death, or it may be when Christ returns for his church, but rest assured, we are abroad, and the time will come for us to go home. 

A week ago today, on his 85th Birthday, our brother Ken Rust was repatriated to heaven.  Those who knew Ken knew that for the last twenty years of his life, Ken had to deal with Parkinson’s disease.  But last Sunday, that was gone. When Ken went home, he left all his suffering behind.

The Bible describes heaven with these words in Revelation 21:4 He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

This is important. Let’s go back to the illustrations about the embassy and repatriation.

When those serving Canada overseas are called home, they may choose to stay in the country they are serving in, and if that country is willing to let them stay, Canada will not force them to come home. It’s their choice.

But I’m sure that while 63,000 were repatriated during COVID, there were many more who choose to stay where they were and take their chance. Again, nobody was forced to come home.

But how do we choose to become citizens of Heaven?  I’m glad you asked. In the book of Acts, the story is told of Paul’s first trip to Philippi, when he founded the church there.

You can read the story in Acts chapter 16.  As part of the story, Paul was asked by Acts 16:29–30 The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.  Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  

And the answer was given in the next verse, Acts 16:29–32 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.”  And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household.

And it’s not just a head knowledge. It’s a heart knowledge.  It is when we acknowledge to God that we have disappointed him, that is, we confess our sins and ask that he forgive us, and we allow Jesus to become Lord of our lives.  If you’ve never done that, there is no time better to do it than today.

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