Citizens of heaven… on a world mission Sunday

‘our citizenship is in heaven….’  Philippians 3:2

World mission – two words that put together can mean lots of different things. We tend, these days I think, to feel more comfortable about world development than world mission. So somehow this can feel like a rather abstract subject – something to think about. Today I really hope, though, that we can regain a deep sense of how the Christian vocation that belongs to all of us is simply to be part of the mission of the God to the world. This is something we can just celebrate together and feel a new freedom to rejoice in. We are part of a world-wide family of God’s people, who belong together and to one another. And we belong to a God who calls us all – as those baptized into Christ – to be citizens of a bigger world than this one. This is about more than missionary societies and development agencies – it’s about our very identity, about where our heart is, who we are and could be.

I have a vivid memory from decades ago of a poster on an Oxford College noticeboard calling me to go a meeting about ‘God’s work abroad’. I giggled as I stood there looking at it, as I recognised that nowhere, for God, is ‘abroad’. God is not British and nowhere for God is ‘abroad’. God belongs to none of us and yet to all of us. ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands!’ And if we belong to God then we belong to the whole world too, or perhaps even that is too small for those who belong to the creator of everything. And remember that St Paul once wrote to a tiny church in back corner of the Roman world…

‘our citizenship is in heaven….’  Philippians 3:2

Which is another way of saying that we don’t exactly belong here, that our national status, our every kind of status, is provisional and not final.  We’re a people who know that we’ll only really be at home somewhere we’ve never been yet – that we are part of a new creation. This is the way that Christians have learned what it means to live upon the earth. Our citizenship is in heaven. Even if we have full democratic rights, a passport and an ID card, even if we own acres of land, even if we have everything our bodies and our minds could need, we know somewhere deep down that we do not entirely belong here – and we are not defined by the things that we get used to listing on forms – gender, age, nationality. We belong, first of all, to Christ.

St Paul was a Roman citizen, and on some occasions  he pointed this out in the hope that it would get him out of a scrape – a bit like holding a British passport in the days of the British Empire. In the end of course it could not save him, and in any case Paul knew that the real commonwealth to which he truly belonged was not based in Rome and had nothing to do with any Caesar. His citizenship, his primary home, was wherever it is that God dwells. He might have been a citizen of Rome, but he was first of all a citizen of God’s eternal city. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has the same conviction and tells us, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14). I think this insight shapes who we are too. We are not British Christians with missions abroad. We are Christians participating in God’s mission to the world God loves, and a world that is not ours..

I have found this letter written at the end of the fourth century, written at a time when Christians were working out what it means for us to belong to God and to be part of God’s mission..  The words come from so long ago, but I think they could have been written for this moment! Right then, Christians were trying to work out whether you had to belong to a particular culture or nation to be a Christian… and they concluded this:

“Christians …do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life..…..With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.  And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country..….They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven”.

And not much later the great Augustine wrote: “We are but travellers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land…’

The United Reformed Church says in our official Statement about who we are – the one we read out at our public occasions –  that we

‘…are servants in the world, as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom..

We are servants in the world, as concerned for other nations as our own, servants of all the world’s people, because first of all we are citizens of God’s eternal kingdom. We are not British Christians interested in ‘abroad’ – we are servants of God’s world, as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.

I remember once having a conversation with the woman who lived next door to me then. She told me that though she loved travelling she didn’t want to go anywhere in Africa. She said that she wouldn’t know where to go or who to turn to, that it would feel too alien, too strange, too far from home. And I could understand the fear of not knowing a language, facing strange food and strange customs, but it struck me immediately that I would know where to go and who to turn to. I would find a church, I would find the places where God is at work and already there, I would find those with whom I could claim solidarity and fellowship as part of the church of Jesus Christ, I would find my brothers and sisters in Christ. I had the experience only last year of visiting Tanzania, as part of a World Council of Churches World Mission Conference. It was striking that there were relatively few Europeans present at the meeting. When they came to put out tables according to continents for an evening of music and dance and sharing, the organisers even forgot to put out tables for Europe! The colonial age, in that sense, has now passed and thought how much has now changed in global Christianity. Now Africa and Asia are not ‘the mission field’, but the places where Christianity if growing and being shaped.. BUT, on the Sunday I was there I was sent to preach in a Pentecostal church in a very poor district – an area where most people live without sanitation or proper roads or electricity. The church was lively, packed and enthusiastic – ready to stay for five hours on a Sunday… they collected me at 6.30am… I discovered that this Pentecostal church was focussing  that year on Acts 2: 42-47 – the very same passage that has shaped the Holy Habits discussions that we have been having right here. They too were exploring what it means to practise prayer, to read the scriptures, to be open in hospitality, to live in gladness and generosity, to break bread together and all the rest! They too were focussing on being disciples of Jesus. And I was greeted like the long lost sister I am. I was family. Together, that church and these churches are being signs and instruments of God’s mission in the world; feeding the poor, rescuing the lost, planting trees, saving souls, and pointing to God’s eternal kingdom. There were many in that congregation who were desperately poor or suffering from addiction or illness or disability. And, just as we do here, the church was giving everyone a vision of a different world, the world of God’s kingdom, a world shaped by the mission of God.

I thought briefly of that poster in Oxford, about God’s work ‘abroad’. And I reflected that I was glad that God is working everywhere in God’s world and that I can be a part of that too, wherever I am. I thought how good it would be to have some of these Christians come to Taunton and show us how they are being signs of God’s mission in God’s world. And I was glad to feel part of their family, part of a global people, beyond the barriers of nation or ethnicity or any other human barrier or division. To think of God’s mission to the world is to be excited by what God is doing here too.

There is something irresistably restless about being a Christian I think. We are never truly settled in any culture or nation. We are never quite at home, because our citizenship is, as Paul writes, in heaven. But one of the things we celebrate in our faith is that God is at home among us – in any culture and place and nation. Christ belongs not to the British or even the Palestinians, but to all nations. He is lovely in ‘ten thousand eyes not his’. In the words of the poet Christopher Smart, God is now, in Christ, ‘a native of the very world he made’. In Jesus, God became a human being with a particular nationhood and people and place… so that all of us, in all our particularity, can be ‘at home’ with God. This is God’s mission to the world. This is the most important world mission, the mission of God, who so loved the world that God came not to condemn the world, but to save it and bless it. Heaven is now threaded through the fabric of the world, the one realm lighting the darkness of the other, the lights of home already shining in the far away land. God’s welcome is here already. We may be citizens of heaven, but we can also be servants of God in the world and part of God’s mission to the people God loves. Thanks be to God, Amen.