Our citizenship is in heaven

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March 13, 2022

Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior…

This morning it is, I think, impossible for us not to be conscious of the indiscriminate evil of a powerful tyrant. Self-indulgent, despotic, vulgar, compulsive, corrupt – a man whose deeds have caused fear and misery on a vast scale. A man whose deeds are so callous that some have openly wondered if the real motivation underlying them is simply a personal penchant for cruelty, rather than any more rational or quasi-rational excuse.

And like any tyrant, we find ourselves thinking of a person whose relationship to truth is, shall we say, severely strained. This is a tyrant happy to make outrageous claims based entirely on fantasy as a so-called justification for his own horrendous actions. Claims that another group of people were making it impossible for the tyrant and his regime to feel safe, and which thus demanded urgent and violent action. A claim which had a very particular impact on one significant minority who were sought out, persecuted, tortured, and murdered.

A minority, one of whose most notable leaders penned words which we heard read just now – the apostle Paul, writing to the church which he had founded in the Greek city of Philippi. Writing words that came, very probably, from a dark and dank cell in the Mamertine prison, into which he may well have been thrust in the persecutions that followed the great fire in Rome in the early sixties of the Common Era. Persecutions invoked by that megalomaniac tyrant, the Emperor Nero.

Philippians is overshadowed by Paul’s realization of the possibility that he might imminently be about to die. The very fact that he writes from jail is, itself, a big clue – for incarceration was not, in this time and place, a punishment in its own right. People were not sent to jail for a number of months or years as a court-imposed punishment of a kind we recognize from modern society. In the era of the New Testament, prison simply existed as a holding-space, either before someone was put on trial – or before they were executed.

And so, in the first chapter of this short letter, Paul says

“…by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”

And, in the passage we heard just now, we hear, perhaps, Paul’s view of the depraved emperor Nero, as he speaks of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ. I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.”

Whether or not Nero was at the forefront of Paul’s mind as he penned those words, he is quite clear of the root of their sinfulness: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly…their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 

And Nero is not, of course, the only person this morning that we might describe as being self-indulgent, despotic, vulgar, compulsive, or corrupt. For Jesus has just been told, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” The name Herod, for Christians, conjures up more than one anti-hero. We first come across Herod the Great, who, according to Matthew, orders the massacre of the young children in Bethlehem in response to his encounter with the rather un-wise ‘wise men’, whose pit-stop in Jerusalem causes fear, rage and terror in the wake of Jesus’ birth.

But this morning, as we focus on the adult Jesus, we speak, of course, of Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, most famous, at least to Christians, for his immoral and incestuous marriage to Herodias, which led to the cowardly, craven execution of John the Baptist, and who, according to Luke, is also involved in Jesus’ own trial.

And at this point in Luke’s narrative, as Jesus is making a deliberate and rather protracted journey towards Jerusalem, we encounter some Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod is out to get him. As Jesus has visibly inherited the prophetic or homiletic mantle from John, and as he has been active chiefly in the Galilee, Antipas would most certainly have been aware of Jesus’ ministry and teachings, and – misunderstanding the nature of Jesus’ sense of vocation or messiahship – would very likely have seen him as a threat to the stability of his rule.

For it is sadly inherent that despots and dictators need to find contrived reasons to justify deeds that become increasingly unbalanced and evil. That is why, of course, if we jump to a consideration of the events of our own time, we find President Putin making the claim that Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” because of the threat it was under from Ukraine. That is why there was such an urgent need to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, to prevent an apparent genocide from taking place there.

This past Wednesday, the BBC had a ten-minute interview with a young Russian politician called Maria Butina. Her name may be familiar, for she lived in the US a few years ago, until she was arrested and convicted for acting as a Russian agent ‘without prior notification to the Attorney General’, and spent fourteen months in a federal jail before being deported back to Russia, where she was elected to the lower house of the Russian parliament. A member of the United Russia party, which is enthusiastically pro-Putin, Butina is a strong and vocal supporter of the Russian president, and shares both his view of the situation regarding Ukraine, and his challenging approach to what you and I would call ‘the truth’.

Thus, in this extraordinary interview with a BBC journalist who had only, days before, escaped from Kyiv, she explained that President Zelensky was most definitely a Nazi. When it was pointed out to her that, being the Jewish grandson of someone who had fought against Hitler as a member of the Red Army, he was ‘a bit of an unlikely Nazi’, she was undeterred in her views, and explained that Nazis were people who killed and murdered civilians because of their race.

Her response to the inevitable follow-up question that such a definition must – surely – mean that Vladimir Putin was, in fact, a Nazi, evoked the clear, simple statement of apparent fact that “Russian troops are not bombing civilians.” When pressed about the veracity of this claim in the light of the vast amount of evidence in the western media that would suggest otherwise, she was crystal clear: “The Russian Army does not bomb civilian population. Absolutely not. We just don’t do it. Russian troops do not bomb civilian population.”

To which the best response, I think, are the words from that prison cell: many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears…

There are advantages in coming from a small island nation. Great Britain has, of course, the huge natural advantage of being an island, and with the great support of a powerful friend and ally, we were able to resist invasion during the dark years of the Second World War. That is not to say that the English have always behaved honorably with regard to our neighbors – there are reasons why the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish have historic reasons to dislike the English – but the borders of Great Britain have not been the subject of the kind of change and volatility that has dominated the history of central and eastern Europe.

It is undoubtedly true that Russia, along with Belarus and Ukraine, finds its historic and cultural roots in Kyivan Rus, reinforced by the Christianization that found its climax in the so-called ‘Baptism of Rus’ in 988. And at different times in the last thousand years or so, different rulers and political powers have exercised different kinds of governance over these troubled lands. None of which, of course, remotely justifies the evil behavior of President Putin, his supporters, and his armed forces.

Indeed, what it should remind us of are the horrors and terrors that come at the hands of those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ – those whose mind are set on earthly things. Which, sadly, all too often includes those who invest inappropriately in the ownership or sovereignty of land and who desire to oppress or harm people on account of their race, ethnicity or any of the other differences that cause to regard some of God’s children as being ‘other’.

For in our first reading, we find an elderly and bemused Abram being told by the Lord that he is being given a vast land to ‘possess’ – To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. Thus was born the concept of what is sometimes called Eretz Israel – ‘greater Israel’, as distinct to the political boundaries of the modern state founded in 1948 and internationally recognized around the ‘Green Line’. The only slight problem was that in Abram’s time, as the Lord makes very clear the land in question already belonged to some other people. In our bulletins that reading ended with a nice simple period after the word Euphrates.

However, if you open your Bible, you’ll find this a convenient piece of editing to spare modern day church readers having to carry on and say, “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” Ten separate tribes or peoples or communities.

And it’s not really worked out very well from then until today. Abraham’s immediate descendants don’t exactly behave very nicely, and the peoples of Ishmael and Isaac are not great buddies to this day. There is good reason why our gospel this morning finds Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, and, when he finally arrives in the city, six chapters later, we will, of course, find him weeping over it, saying, “If you … had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace…” 

Sovereignty and territory, of course, are two of the most prominent examples of the ‘earthly things’ that prompts Paul’s bitter remarks about those who ‘live as enemies of the cross of Christ’, and both the Middle East and Eastern Europe possess histories which would only make Jesus weep again, and again, and again, and again… Weep over the bloodshed and enmity that have been seen in so many successive generations, and, indeed, weep over the way the descendants of Abraham have treated each other and all too often claimed religious justification for their actions.

In a fascinating and profound article published a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the author and medical historian Brandy Schillace offered a penetrating analysis of President Putin’s ultimate reason for his instigation of this evil and immoral war. “Putin’s war,” she writes, “is also a dance with death: his death.” Noting a pattern common to many such dictators, she goes on to explain:

Putin “lives in a world from which he is deeply disconnected. He is famously tech adverse, and his policies towards LGBTQ and most other progressive movements are backward and punitive. He is an alien in this world; he is also aging out of it. Vladimir Putin will die, and he doesn’t know when.”

“Fear of death has been with mankind all along,” Schillace writes, “but never have we been more in denial about it, more sheltered from it, more coddled by the suggestion of medical immortality … Vladimir Putin is the longest-serving politician presently in office — and has passed a resolution ensuring he can continue to keep “running” for president until at least 2036 (he would be 90)… It’s the longings of an old man for something he can no longer reach [by which she means his attempt to recreate the power and territory of the USSR into which Putin was born], and it’s the driving force of terror in the face of his own exsanguination.

It’s hard to speculate on how Putin will spend his last days,” she says, “but in his reckless declaration of war — and in recent days, his threat regarding nuclear strikes — we can see desperation. A magnum opus, a swan song, a bid at some lasting legacy, a desperate chase after retreating shades of youth: by whatever name, Putin’s war on Ukraine is evidence of his fear.”

And it is that fear, ultimately, which is, in theological terms, where we find the root of the many sins that the conflict in Ukraine presents. For Christians believe that in Jesus we have encountered 'the way, the truth, and the life’, but in the ideology for which Putin stands, and for which so many dictators have stood across too many centuries of warfare and cruelty, we see a ‘way’ that blatantly devalues life, and which manifestly tramples on truth – which is the stock in trade of those ‘who live as enemies of the cross of Christ’.

For allowing one’s actions to be so horribly perverted by the fear of death is simply not Christian, and shows an understanding of vocation that does not resonate with Christ – as Jesus himself makes clear in our gospel passage this morning, where the prospect of death in Jerusalem only spurs him on in pursuit of his vocation. And we might, perhaps, note that, in stark contrast to President Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that, as the leader of the people of Ukraine – as its democratically elected president – he does not have the right to fear the prospect of his death. His fear, he says, is the fear of not having a state – “you are asked where you are from, and you answer:” and the reply comes, “there is no such a country. I am afraid of this,” he says.

An example, perhaps, which leads us back to where we begun, to Paul, writing to the Philippians from his Roman prison cell, and the imminent prospect of his own death.

For – in sharp contrast to Vladimir Putin, at least when interpreted through Dr Schillace’s penetrating lens – Paul knew that he was called to speak great truths, not great lies, for by doing so ‘Christ will be exalted…whether by life or by death…For to me,” he wrote with confidence, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”

And that is the vocation and that is the truth for us who are children of the new covenant forged in the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ. It is a calling which lifts us higher than the national flags and passports we possess, for it lifts us to that place in which we, and all God’s children, find our true citizenship, where the cross of Christ towers over warfare, violence and hatred.

For Paul was right that for those who follow Jesus, our citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there, and only from there, that we can ever expect a Savior. And that is why, my brothers and sisters, that is why, and it is the only reason why, like Paul, and like his beloved Philippian church, truly, we can stand firm in the Lord. Amen.