“Heavenly citizenship”: Living with Jesus’ story (Philippians 3:20-21)

Mennonite Church USA

This is the second of a Bible study series by different authors on the key Scripture texts for Mennonite Church USA’s next biennial convention, to be held July 1-6, 2013, in Phoenix. The convention theme is “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope,” and the Scripture texts are Psalm 24:1, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2:14-22. See www.mennoniteusa.org/convention.

By Hyun Hur

Hyun Hur lives with his wife, Sue—who contributed her insights and editing to this piece—and their three children in Temple City, Calif. Five years after planting and pastoring a Korean Mennonite church in Southern California, they recently launched ReconciliAsian (ReconciliAsian.com), a peace center for Korean immigrants and beyond. Born in Suwon, South Korea, Hur believes that Mennonites—who have been committed to their Anabaptist roots and have practiced core values of discipleship, community and peacemaking for 500 years—could offer an alternative and refreshing perspective to Korean Christianity.

Why do we live here?

It was only when I was in my late 20s—and encountering undocumented immigrants coming to work in South Korea—that I began to ponder the significance of citizenship. Korea was becoming one of the most economically developed countries in Asia, and people began pouring into Korea from all over Asia, Africa and South America, looking for work opportunities from manual labor to high-tech expertise. Many came with work visas, but many also entered on tourist visas and then settled in the country with documents that had expired. Many of these undocumented workers often faced abuse while enduring unspeakable working conditions without any guarantee that they would even be paid for their work.

As I worked with my church to find ways to serve the people, I wrestled with the questions, Why do these people come to Korea? Why do they put up with such abuse and suffering? Is there any divine purpose other than the economic opportunities in Korea that brought them so far from their homes? 

Now living in Los Angeles and having worked with immigrant churches, I have known undocumented Korean immigrants in congregations who live with the anxiety of someday being arrested and deported. Many of these friends feel as though a path to citizenship in America would be the answer to all of their day-to-day struggles.

I also know many successful first-generation immigrants who have a green card or U.S. citizenship but have not assimilated to the dominant culture. Most of the time, their focus is on how to survive in America and how to secure the wellbeing of their immediate family.

And I know U.S.-born children of immigrants who have had access to educational and financial resources but feel disconnected from the history and tradition of their immigrant parents as well as the larger American history and tradition taught in the classroom.

The impact of citizenship is indeed complex, but I still have the same questions. Why are we here? Is there a divine purpose for us to be in America other than the economic and social opportunities?

Working with immigrants across the spectrum has taught me about the dynamic inter-relationship among history, identity and mission. A community shares the stories of its history, and these stories shape its identity and mission. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes to a church in the city of Philippi—a unique city with a distinctive history, identity and mission. Like people today, the Philippians knew the value of citizenship, and it is to these people that Paul addresses his words about the core identity Christians share and how to truly live as citizens of heaven.

Background

Philippi was located in Macedonia, a northern part of the Greek peninsula. It was built in 358–357 B.C. and named after Philip, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, after he conquered and occupied the land. Later this city was destroyed and rebuilt by Emperor Octavian and became a colony of the Roman Empire. Octavian strategically set Philippi up as a military outpost, with the mission of bringing Roman culture and rule to northern Greece and expanding Roman influence on neighboring areas.

Philippi was populated with war veterans, and since it was a Roman colony, those who lived there were granted Roman citizenship with its many privileges, including property ownership, tax exemptions and legal protection. These privileges also were extended to Macedonian Greeks and Jews in Philippi, and they too valued and felt proud of their identification with Rome.

I wonder what common stories the Philippians knew by heart and retold to the next generation. How did these stories shape their identity as Philippians and unite them?

We can imagine that many living in Philippi knew the shared story of the Battle of Philippi, in which Octavian became the victor for Rome to prevail. Perhaps Philippians frequently expressed how lucky they were to be living in the reign of Pax-Romana and acknowledged Philippi’s significant role in the Roman Empire. Because they were granted citizenship in a colony located outside of Rome, they probably did not take the privileges of their citizenship for granted. The prestigious prize of Roman citizenship conferred the ultimate power of Rome.

The text

Paul, who knew the power and privilege of being a Roman citizen, strategically planted a church in Philippi instead of in the small port of Neapolis (Acts 16). He knew the context of the Philippian church well, and challenged the Philippians not only to live in the history, identity and mission created by the Roman Empire for the citizens of Philippi, but also to embrace the deeper story rooted in the life and power of Jesus—to live as citizens of heaven here and now, and to wait with hope.

Verse 20 begins with “but,” so we must examine verses 18 and 19 to see the contrast Paul makes between those who are and are not citizens of heaven. Paul identifies those who do not follow Christ as “enemies of the cross” (v. 18). Their primary focus is on “earthly things,” and they fulfill their selfish desires and ambitions any way they please. The distinctions can be seen in the following chart:

vv. 18–19

vv. 20–21

Enemies of the cross

Citizens of heaven

End is destruction

End is the new order under Jesus

Mind on earthly things

Mind on things of heaven

Glory in their shame

Look toward the transformation of the glorious body

Paul boldly declares, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). Paul exhorts the church members to remember that their identity is found in Jesus, from whom they have citizenship in heaven. Their new identity is founded solely on Jesus. Paul also purposely uses the word soter (“savior”) in this verse. “Savior” was usually used to refer to Caesar, but Paul subversively uses it to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ, contrasting Jesus with Caesar.

This verse also challenges the Philippians to conduct themselves as citizens of heaven in the present, not somewhere in the distant future after their death. Church members are to bring the reign and rule of heaven to earth here and now with the hope of their Lord by the power of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s power is strong enough to bring all powers under him and to transform his followers to be able to finish their mission from heaven.

Citizenship of Rome

Citizenship in Heaven

Philippi

Heaven

Pax-Romana

Pax-Christus

Victory through war

Victory through the cross

Caesar

Jesus

Thus, Paul reminds the Philippian church of an alternative narrative to which they are to cling—the central story of Jesus, who became victorious not through war and violence but through his self-emptying at the cross (2:6-11). Jesus ushered in Pax-Christus and the reign of heaven, in which his followers have citizenship under his glory and power. This is the story that citizens of heaven must remember, retell and pass down to the generations that follow to shape their identity and mission.

Reflections

  1. What kinds of stories shape our identity as followers of Jesus Christ today?
  2. What kinds of powers should be under the reign of Jesus Christ in our lives?
  3. How have stories of power, privilege and wealth shaped and influenced the stories and identities of Mennonites as followers of Jesus?
  4. What kinds of mission are we engaging that stem from our identity as citizens of heaven?
  5. How are we influencing the world around us as citizens of heaven?

Then, why do we live here together?

It is only when we seriously identify ourselves as heavenly citizens that we can truly unite as a body of Christ. No earthly categories and documents will have the power to divide the citizens of the kingdom. As a community of heavenly citizens, we can share the mission given to us and work together to proclaim the reign of God.

Thinking back to my ministry years in Korea, the irony was that while foreign laborers were flooding into Korea, Korean Christians were focusing on sending missionaries to the “10/40 windows” (parts of the world located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the Equator—including Saharan and Northern Africa and almost all of Asia)—almost the same places the laborers were coming from. Korean Christians were blind to the strangers in their midst and to the abuse and the injustice the foreign workers faced. We can focus so much on the sending that we fail to welcome those who are before our eyes.

We need to see the significance of the strangers and newcomers around us, for they play a big role in the body of Christ with their views and needs. In our global context, everyone is—in a way—a stranger and a welcomer. We are to identify ourselves as strangers in this world and to be broken in our identities as strangers. We are also to identify ourselves as heavenly citizens and to welcome the strangers around us. This is the mission I believe God has called us to be part of.

Mission is happening all around us, in our workplaces, schools and homes. May it bear fruit so that the world may see Jesus’s invitation to become citizens of heaven.

###

Hyun Hur lives with his wife, Sue—who contributed her insights and editing to this piece—and their three children in Temple City, Calif. Five years after planting and pastoring a Korean Mennonite church in Southern California, they recently launched ReconciliAsian (ReconciliAsian.com), a peace center for Korean immigrants and beyond. Born in Suwon, South Korea, Hur believes that Mennonites—who have been committed to their Anabaptist roots and have practiced core values of discipleship, community and peacemaking for 500 years—could offer an alternative and refreshing perspective to Korean Christianity.

Image available:
ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/HyunHur.jpg
Hyun Hur (Photo provided)