An Oath of Allegiance
A sermon on Philippians 3:17 - 4:1 & Luke 13: 31-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 February 2010

Our allegiance to Christ and our citizenship of his Realm take priority over those to our local culture, but that doesn’t rule out a continuing love of our homeland and tribe.

Sermon Text

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really enjoying watching the winter Olympics and was excited to see a few Aussies up there receiving medals. Olympic Games are perhaps second only to wars for bringing out the flag-waving national pride in most of the population, and unless your sport is the Luge, Olympic Games are a lot safer than war. National pride and citizenship have been a little bit complicated for me over the years. I was born in New Zealand, but I left there too young to have much sense of belonging there, and I grew up here and became an Australian citizen. I loved being an Aussie and always thought that if I went overseas, I would be proud to be an Aussie, but when I did first travel to Asia and Europe a few years ago, Australia had just joined the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and we were building concentration camps in the desert to lock up any refugees from those places who managed to make it this far in their desperation to survive. Suddenly it seemed like to be an Aussie overseas was to be associated with those atrocities, and I actually felt rather embarrassed about being an Australian abroad. I even wondered whether I might be safer renewing my New Zealand passport and travelling as a Kiwi, although I never followed through on that thought. And then a couple of years ago, I made my first trip to New Zealand as an adult, and felt a bit more of a sense of belonging and homecoming than I had expected. Given the choice between feeling the icy wind on my face as I ski down a snow-capped mountain, or trying to keep the sand from sticking to the mixture of sunscreen and sweat on a hot crowded beach, I’ll take the mountain cold every time! But if it is true that sport shows up where your allegiances lie, then I’m an Aussie, because I haven’t even noticed whether the Kiwis have done anything of note at the Olympics.

If we are to take the words of Jesus and of the Apostle Paul seriously, then the sorts of confusions I might have about national allegiance should be paling into insignificance alongside the citizenship and allegiance struggles that we face by becoming followers of Jesus. In the passage we heard tonight from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, he is contrasting them with the culture they live among, and he doesn’t just say “You’ve got different values”, or “Your faith and lifestyle are different.” No, he says that in contrast to them, you are citizens of a different realm. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” he says, “and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Four weeks ago there were some terrible mudslides near Machu Picchu in Peru. A news report on the ABC at the time said that Australian travellers stranded by landslides felt that they had been forgotten and they wanted the Federal Government to put pressure on Peruvian authorities to speed up evacuation efforts. In other words, what they were saying was, “Our citizenship is in Australia, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Federal Government.” This is exactly the image the Apostle is working with. Your citizenship is somewhere else, but for now you are in this place, surrounded by people whose culture and values and lifestyle are very different, but in the event of trouble and danger, it is to home that you look for your security and your rescue.

But the thing is, these people that Paul is addressing are not all foreigners who’ve moved into Philippi from some place else. They were mostly born and raised there. They’ve mostly never even been anyplace else. The local authorities would certainly have regarded them as their own citizens. But Paul says, “Your citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that you can expect a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And if he’s saying it to them, then there is every reason to suppose that he would be saying it to us too. “Your citizenship is not in Australia, but in heaven, and it is from there that you can expect your help, from the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now that might sound okay if you are thinking about the benefits of belonging to Heaven and having a saviour coming from there. But Paul is saying this to native Philippians as a way of differentiating them from the society or culture they live in, so the implication is that, as citizens of Heaven, you now live in Philippi as foreigners, as outsiders, as those who do not really belong. And so to us he is saying, as citizens of Heaven, you now live in Australia as foreigners, as outsiders, as those who do not really belong. And that’s a bit of a wrench, isn’t it? It leaves you feeling a bit like your arm has been cut off. I mean, heaven sounds great and all, but if you’re caught in a mudslide in Peru, how do you call the embassy? Who’s more likely to send in the helicopters to pick you up: Heaven, or the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs? If we relinquish our national citizenship to claim citizenship of Heaven, who’s going to send the choppers for us?

Foreigners. Outsiders. Sojourners. Misfits. It doesn’t feel so good, does it? And who are we supposed to cheer for in the Olympics?! Heaven doesn’t seem to have entered a team, or if they did, I missed them and their flag-bearer in the opening ceremony. I certainly haven’t seen Heaven listed on the medal count. Are we now to be a homeless people, a people with no earthly place of belonging, no country to love? When I fly back into Australia after a time away, and my heart leaps in response to the unique light and colours of this ancient land, is that now a feeling I’ve got to repent of and get over? Is it now unChristian to cherish and identify with a land and its peoples?

Well, I think not, but it is not an easy uncomplicated reconciliation either. I want to take us back to the words we heard from Jesus in tonight’s gospel reading. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” These are not the words of a man who has renounced all love for his people, are they? Clearly there is still a burning passion for the nation and its populace, for the people he has grown up among and called his own. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” There is a yearning, aching, longing love here. And yet it is far from being an uncritical one-eyed nationalistic fervour. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” No wonder Herod wants to kill him. Such strident internal critique is often regarded as treason. The people who wrap themselves in flags and sport bumper stickers that say “Australia: Love it or Leave it” don’t take kindly to such honest self-critique.

But it is to just such a risky and unpopular stance that Jesus calls us follow him. And Paul says “Imitate me,” even as he delivers his scathing critique of the idolatrous and gluttonous society he sees around him. This season of Lent has often been a time when we become aware of the cost of following Jesus, of what we have given up to follow him on the way. And clearly, an easy “my country - right or wrong” kind of patriotic relationship with our native countries is something we are called to leave behind. That doesn’t mean we can’t cheer when an Aussie athlete wins gold, but it does mean that we might have to stop and challenge the idea that winning gold is so important that we should up our sports funding rather than upping our overseas aid programs. It doesn’t mean we can’t feel the thrill of home as we spot the Australian shoreline from the airplane window, but it does mean we might have to stop and challenge the ideas that Aussies should be first rescued when there is a disaster, that Aussie jobs matter more than the livelihoods of people elsewhere, and that those born elsewhere have no right to come here unless we deem it to be to our advantage. Such a change of attitudes will make us misfits, and unpopular, and perhaps even bring charges of treachery. But so be it. Sojourners and misfits we will be.

I’m still an Australian, or at least a Kiwi-born Australian. And I’m still excited for Torah and Lydia with their gold medals draped in green and gold. But that’s no longer my primary identity or my primary allegiance. We’ve been called to journey on from that place. For all our love for our places of birth and upbringing, we are now sojourning citizens of Heaven. And if you’re in trouble and you’re not sure where to find your embassy, you’re in one of them right now. Every church is an embassy of Heaven. That’s why it would be inappropriate to display a national flag in here — the church is not “of Australia” but only in Australia as an embassy of another realm. And for us now, our oath of allegiance is not taken around the flag of Australia, but around the cross of Christ, and its words are those of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.