The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Two
I began the preamble by asserting that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the defining factor for christians in the public sphere. We then examined two words, religion and politics, and why they carry such negative connotations for us when our human desire to belong becomes idolatrous and leads us away from God’s intentions. Now I want us to delve deeper into where we root ourselves as christians, first-and-foremost.
We are citizens of heaven and Jesus is our King.
In our community we have examined this truth from several different angles, from our Kingdom//Empire series over two years ago, to our vision for this year of “family, living in heavenly reality”, and now in our “Colony” series. The underlying theme in these seasons has been God’s story of making for Himself a people, a new creation; not through any effort of our own, but through the work of Jesus. Indeed, this is a wonderful definition of righteousness and justification – a declaration of our covenant membership in God’s family.
It’s important we recognize that our justification is a declaration based on what God has done through Christ, and not our own efforts (see Romans 3, in particular). This rings incredibly true in our understanding of our new allegiances. Paul says to the little outpost church in Philippi that, “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20); a more specialized translation could be “we are the colony of heaven”. This sits nicely alongside Peter’s encouragement that we to live “as foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) as it paints a picture of what it truly means to be a colony: a people who are fully in the world, yet not of it (John 17:14-19).
When my family moved from Northern Ireland to Michigan in 1989 we experienced quite a few nuanced idiosyncrasies that we had to learn to adapt to, even though both cultures are rooted in an Anglo tradition. We used some different words and phrases, we looked the opposite way when crossing the street, we were introduced to some unfamiliar holidays and traditions, we had differing value systems. It took a few years for us to acclimate, but at no point in our journey towards learning what “being American” meant did our process negate the fact that we were now residents of a new land.
I think of this often as analogous to the christian journey. At the moment we have received salvation we are made citizens of the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn’t mean we inherently know the language and customs found therein. What follows this declaration is a co-conspiring with God to allow our new nationality to be lived out in speech and deed (Phil. 2:12,13). This is why, when christians stumble or sin, it does not mean we have to start all over and “reapply” to the kingdom of heaven. No, we confess and repent and continue the journey. And the goal for any good citizen is to become as a native, fluent in language and custom, and to help others make this new country home.
The contemporary work of Jesus, then, is to help us firmly plant both feet in the ways of the kingdom we already belong to. Through his words and actions, the work of his Spirit in us today, he teaches us how to live grounded in the colony, as resident aliens in the world. He becomes for us the lens through which we perceive everything else, and that is particularly true when it comes to politics.
From a 21st century vantage point it is often hard for us to pick up on the political undertones to much of the gospel story and the letters of the apostles. It is especially difficult nestled in a (theoretically) democratic republic where our leaders are indirectly elected by the people and often have term limits. I remember it being fashionable in the first decade of this century to sport bumpers stickers with unflattering pictures of George W. Bush and the epithet “Not My President”. The system, as it currently stands, allows a certain freedom to make statements like this that resist fully affirming the outcomes. That in itself is democratic. This “personal vote” mode of understanding authority can also lead us to think Jesus is our Lord because we’ve elected him to the position, because we decided that’s what we want.
When we are ignorant to the political underpinnings of the gospel, it can lead us to assume we aren’t meant to have an opinion or get involved, or it may cause us split allegiances. We need a historical lens in place to see the remarkable implications the Kingdom message has for the world when it transcends and informs our politics.
In the 1st century, if one was to use phrases like “so-and-so is Lord”, “he is the prince of peace”, “he is the savior of the world”, “his birth is the good news” (euangelion), and “his kingdom comes”, most people would assume one was referring to Caesar. These were common idioms, spread through the Roman empire, to establish a cult of worship where Rome’s king is the answer to the chaos of the world. When the gospels make the bold declaration that “Jesus is Lord”, the unspoken intimation is “and Caesar is not”. This is why Jesus’ revolution was perceived as such a threat early on in the life of the Church, for it stood in direct opposition to the power structures of the day. By the end of the 1st century persecution of Jesus’ followers was in full swing. In the 2nd century the early theologian Tertullian remarked, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, for it was their joyful resistance to the cult of Caesar for the sake of Christ that led to their deaths, and the subsequent influx of converts who saw their faithfulness to a new way of being in the empire but not of it.
All this dramatically shifted in 313 AD, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion of Rome. The year prior, as the legend goes, Constantine had a mystic vision of the cross before a battle against a rival to the throne. The victory at Melvian Bridge enabled Constantine to unite a divided Roman Empire, and the following year he further sealed his victory by using religion to unite his people. It was a complex historical event, for it did consolidate the Church and establish important statements of belief like the Nicene Creed to combat early heresies, but it also wedded the Church to the State in a way that was never intended. Constantine even received the title “equal-to-the-apostles” for his accomplishment.
The major implication for citizens of the empire was that, now, one is automatically a Christian if one is subject to the Roman empire; no real transformative encounter with Jesus required. Much of the message of salvation and a Kingdom of peace was gobbled up into Roman nationalism. Being Christian and being a patriotic citizen were essentially the same thing. Fast forward 1700 years, and we still see the profound effects of this imperial shift in the way our modern church and its members have often related to governmental authorities.
The constantinian mindset leads us to live with divided loyalties. It props up a “two
kingdoms” theology, where the message of Jesus contains nice ideals that are, ultimately impractical for surviving and succeeding in the world as it actually is today. Therefore we either merge the gospel of the kingdom with that of the surrounding culture, or we off-handedly acknowledge the compromise and chalk it up to realism. In this way we prop up and even perpetuate broken systems of the empire, rather than being the faithful presence of God to rescue the world from itself.
The truth is, empires come and go, but the Kingdom of Heaven only advances. All the empires of man will inevitably buckle under their own weight; it may be an implosion or a steady decline, but they eventually fall. The invitation from Jesus Christ, then, is to align ourselves with an incorruptible kingdom that will last for eternity, and to live from the inside out what that allegiance truly means for humanity.
As Napoleon Bonaparte once confessed: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”
Next we will take to Paul’s argument in Romans to ascertain our relationship to our governments today.
Reflect and Pray:
- What was it like for you when you first became a citizen of heaven? Was the transition smooth or awkward in learning what that meant for your life? Did you ever question, early on, if you were truly saved because you kept missing it? Ask the Lord to reveal places in your story where he has taught you to plant both feet firmly in his kingdom.
- Where do you see influence of that constantinian merging of church and state in our contemporary society? On both a personal and national level, ask the Lord to identify and separate anything from our understanding of His kingdom that may lead us to divided loyalties.
- You can find all of these podcasts here.
- I would refer you to NT Wright’s incredibly important work on the subject, particularly his book “Justification”, or an article such as this.
- Another mind-blowing book: “Resident Aliens”, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. This book has shaped my understanding of Jesus’ lordship and how it affects the church’s role in the world like no other. Basically, you could quit reading my rants and just get this book for a far more articulate version of what I’m trying to say.
- “semen est sanguis christianorum” from Apologeticus, 197 AD.
- A rather incendiary lecture by Dr. Hauerwas on this subject can be found here.