FOURTH SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT
Citizens of Heaven
Philippians 3.19 They are proud of what
they should be ashamed of, and they think only of things which belong to
The leaders of early
Christianity, in the days before there was a Church as we now know it,
viewed reality in a way foreign to many people today. Their negative
perception about the natural world has greatly distorted the Christian
vision in modern times.
Essentially, they thought of reality as
spread across a spectrum. Part of that spectrum was invisible to human
beings. It was rather like the light spectrum of which we humans can
sense only a small part. Other animals are far more aware of the marvel
of light than are we. Similarly, they thought of godly people as those
able to see a spiritual light not visible to ordinary people.
other, unseen world is the world of God the Emperor of all, and of his
myriads of subjects whose main job is to praise him. It would today be
rather like a parliament or senate applauding and cheering a national
hero. Only the citizens of heaven do it all the time, unceasingly, night
It's hard for us to fully appreciate the impact this way of
seeing the world had on teaching about how to be a good Christian. For
if there are two worlds (so to speak), and if one world is godly and the
other has been invaded by Satan, then those who "think only of this
world" are obviously not godly.
In turn, godliness becomes the
capacity to put this world aside and to focus on the world to come. The
struggle to survive and prosper is a curse upon humanity, a punishment
for rebelling against God the Holy Emperor. The godly person's back must
therefore be turned on the world. Prayer, meditation and worship become
signs of a holy rejection of things like sex and money-making. The
latter are things to be ashamed of.
In short, to be citizens of heaven
we must first give up our citizenship of this world. John Bunyan's
Pilgrim reached the heavenly city only after having made his way through
a myriad of gross temptations.
This way of looking at the world has
now changed radically. It's true that many - perhaps the majority -
still retain the ancient world view. Many more tend to compartmentalise
their lives. Part is given over to godliness as rejecting the things of
this world; and part deals happily with the grubby realities of earning
a crust and bringing up the kids.
But the truth is that a rapidly
increasing number of people recognise two things which turn the ancient
Christian teaching about godliness on its back.
First, they know deep
down in their hearts that God's world is good. They accept that the
Creator knew what he (or she) was doing when volcanoes, earthquakes,
spring blossoms, chocolate cake and death were made. Suffering is a
puzzle and human evil a curse. But who would change this world for
another, and who would prefer a bland existence without struggle and
Second, there is a growing awareness that God's world is both
good and one. That is, we are part of a total unity. The world can't be
split into separate parts. We humans are part of a greater whole which
we can help to make or break. Every part of our world is linked to every
other part. To ignore this is to damage the environment and to reduce
people to the status of objects to be used instead of living beings to
be grown to maturity.
Christianity uses metaphors to help make sense
of the swarming, buzzing complexity of God's creation. One such is the
image of the heavenly city, of which godly people are citizens -
provided they reject this world. It will no longer do.
A new image has
to be lived out now. Perhaps it is something like a dance or carnival, a
hugely complex pattern in which everyone is bit player and without whom
the whole would cease or degrade into chaos.
Or, to put it another
way, to be citizens of heaven we have first to be citizens of earth.