A New Citizenship
A sermon on Colossians 1:12-14 & Luke 10:25-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 July 2004
© LaughingBird.net


Message:
God has given us a new identity and a new allegiance in his kingdom, and our loyalty is now to truth and compassion regardless of their consequences for the interests of any other communities or kingdoms.

Sermon

For most of us, our citizenship has not been a matter of choice. We became citizens of a particular nation by birth and have had no reason to consider changing it. Unless we are living permanently in a nation other than the one in which we hold citizenship, then we can’t change it anyway. I have changed mine. I was born in New Zealand, but I’ve lived in Australia for more than eighty percent of my life, so some year ago I got around to making it official. I now have a piece of paper that says I am a citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia. One of the things that happens when you are a citizen of a nation is that, whether you like it or not, you are associated with the actions of your nation in the world. While you may not always personally approve of those actions, you nevertheless have a share in the responsibility for them. For me, having changed my citizenship, there have been a few times in recent years when I would rather have been associated with the stance of my former nation than my present nation, but I have crossed the line and now I just have to wear it.

Tonight’s readings raise an interesting set of challenges to our concepts of citizenship and what it means to be a loyal citizen of a nation. They certainly raise the question of whether I, and in fact all of us who follow Christ, have to think of ourselves as having crossed another line and become citizens of something other than a nation. And if that were the case, then it raises the question of what it might mean for us if our loyalty to the kingdom of God and our loyalty to a nation come into conflict.

The reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, there was a couple of verses at the end that are very familiar to us from their use in our liturgy. You may not have recognised them though, because it was a very different translation. You can find them on page 12 of your booklets though, and Mark proclaims them for us each Sunday:

Let us give thanks to the Father,
who made us fit for the holy community of light
and rescued us from darkness,
bringing us into the realm of his beloved Son
who redeemed us, forgiving our sins.

These words have serious political implications, particularly concerning our citizenship. Unfortunately we have been so influenced by an ideology that says that religion is a purely spiritual thing and belongs only to our private world, that we can often hear a passage like this and so effectively filter out its political implications that we don’t even notice them.

This passage says that God has given us rights of entry into a community in which we would otherwise have had no place — the holy community of saints in the light. And in order that we might claim those rights, God has rescued us from the darkness in which we previously lived, and transferred us into the realm or kingdom of his beloved Son. And in effecting this transfer from one kingdom to another, Christ has redeemed us. The language of redemption always has a legal or political edge to it. When you redeem something, you transfer the legal title to it back to where it belongs. If you pawn your watch to a money lender, it belongs to the lender until such time as you redeem it. It is exactly the same concept, so being redeemed is about who you belong to, about being put back in the right hands, about who now has a claim on your allegiance.

Perhaps it is not such a surprise that the political nature of the word redemption can be forgotten, but the words realm and kingdom are surely inescapably political. You might even want to add the word nation as a close synonym, and indeed elsewhere the Apostle Peter tells us to think of ourselves as a holy nation. Jesus says that his kingdom or nation is not of this world, meaning that it is not built on the foundations of a powerbase in this world, but he certainly doesn’t say that it is not in this world, or not relevant to this world, or not a counterclaim to claims of the kingdoms and nations of this world. Jesus teaches us to proclaim that his kingdom has come. He teaches us to pray for his kingdom to come as fully on earth as it has in heaven. And in a revolution-sparking statement, we conclude the Lord’s Prayer each day with a burst of praise that says that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s, and therefore not anybody else's, now and forever. Forever might not be a surprise, but now? If we assert that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s now, then we are refusing to recognise anyone else’s claims to kingdoms, power and glory now. And you don’t have to look too far in Spring Street, or Canberra, or Washington DC to see the extent to which our political systems are all about kingdom or nation and power and glory.

We are a people whose identity and allegiance have been transferred away from the nations and power and glory of this world and into the realm of God’s beloved Son, who redeemed us, forgiving our sins. And in the context, forgiving our sins can almost be taken as synonymous with forgiving us for our past actions in support of other kingdoms, powers and glory. And you don’t have to have been a guard at Abu Ghraib prison to have sinned as a result of being caught up in your nations pursuit of power and glory.

Our other two readings tonight both throw more light on the conflict between being a loyal citizen of the realm of God and a citizen of a nation on earth. When I read part of the reading from Amos this week, I was sure I had come across almost the same thing in the newspaper in the last few days. So I hunted it down, and sure enough, I had. Amos is denounced for undermining the optimism and courage of the nation. Because he has spoken out against the injustice and corruption of the nation, it is reported to the King that “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the nation and the land is not able to bear all his words.” He is told to leave the country and go prophesy his depressing message outside of the king’s realm. Sound familiar? Listen to this from Thursday’s newspaper:

Within hours of being named as the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate, the Republicans had issued a 22-page attack sheet calling Senator John Edwards “a slick populist whose talk about inequality in the ‘two Americas’ was undermining American optimism.” A spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign said, “Senator Edwards delivers his pessimism with a Southern drawl and a smile, but his message of a divided America rings hollow in the ears of an optimistic America that is united in meeting the tests of our times with strength and hope.” (The Melbourne Age, 8 July 2004, p.10)

Now I’m no apologist for Senator John Edwards — I would imagine that in power he would prove to the just another politician — but the plan of attack against him says a lot about the sort or allegiance and loyalty that kingdoms and nations demand. Speaking the truth is deemed to be disloyalty. We are required to make fawning endorsements of everything the nation says and does.

But we have been transferred away from allegiance to the nations and power and glory of this world and into the realm of God’s beloved Son. We are citizens of a kingdom built on truth. We are citizens of a kingdom that seeks justice and peace and compassion, not superficial optimism and fawning adoration of the power and glory of nationhood. Our citizenship of the realm of God will put us in conflict with our nation whenever the nation asks that its interests be advanced at the expense of truth-telling. Our loyalty is to the truth, and to the one who reigns in truth.

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is so familiar that its political offensiveness is hardly noticed anymore. Samaritan meant feared and hated enemy to Jewish ears, so if Jesus had been telling the story now, it would have probably been the parable of the good Al Queda terrorist. And the story is told in response to a question about who exactly is the neighbour who the law requires me to love as I love myself. The expected answer was to confine the concept of the neighbour to whom I owe love to my fellow citizens in my nation. But Jesus gives an answer that makes the enemy of my nation the one whose act of neighbourliness I am to emulate, and that act itself was an act treating a traditional national enemy with the same love I would wish shown to myself. What that means is that Jesus calls us to give up treating our fellow citizens as more worthy of care, support and compassion than those beyond our borders. I can see no alternative to conclude that that means that we cannot accept the argument that we must close our borders to asylum seekers because letting them in would disadvantage our nation. Even if it was true that letting them in would disadvantage our existing citizens, and I think that’s somewhat questionable, but even if it was indisputable, we are still called to exhibit a love and compassion that does not privilege our own local interests over those of outsiders. We are called to offer them exactly the same care, support and compassion to non-citizens as to citizens. And of course, once you do that, then the concepts of citizenship and national borders are pretty much out the window. What advantage would citizenship have if it didn’t give you special rights that non-citizens don’t have? None really. Well so be it. We have been transferred away from the nations and power and glory of this world and into the realm of God’s beloved Son, a kingdom which aims to have no outsiders, a kingdom which seeks to bring justice and peace and care and compassion equally to all.

All this may well cause us to be seen as dissenters, dissidents, aliens, perhaps even traitors. But if we are to take seriously what we assert in our prayer, that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s, not just forever, but right now, then we have clearly, through our baptism, had our citizenship transferred to a kingdom that asks of us a fierce loyalty to truth and unbounded indiscriminate compassion, even when that puts us at odds with the claims of the nations or kingdoms we were born into or naturalised into. But if we are being redeemed, put back into the loving hands we were created for, and forgiven our sins, and filled with the knowledge of God’s will and all spiritual wisdom and understanding, and made strong with the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, then what could ever tempt us to go back and submit again to the petty claims of corrupt nations and powers. We have been baptised into a new citizenship, and we are being nourished with the bread of truth and the wine of compassion for all we have to face, that we might come through healed and whole and made new.

So let us give thanks to the Father,
who made us fit for the holy community of light
and rescued us from darkness,
bringing us into the realm of his beloved Son
who redeemed us, forgiving our sins.