Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Transferred Citizenship

Clement of Alexandria - December 5, 2017

When I was a freshman in college, I obtained my first passport. I was going on an overseas trip with a group from Birmingham-Southern. Of course, a passport is quite a common thing, but, when I held it in my hand for the first time, flipped through the pages, and read the fine print, I was captivated by its power. By presenting that little document to a representative of a foreign government, I was demonstrating that the Secretary of State of the United States was asking--perhaps expecting--that representative to give me access to her or his country without delay. A history of political boundaries, military battles, and reciprocal treaties was represented in that document.

I was also fascinated with the part that mentioned that I could lose my citizenship if I ever renounced it in front of an authorized representative of the Department of State. My mind danced through the possibilities. What happens if I renounced my citizenship but did not have a new country to take me in? (This was before the film The Terminal, which explored the idea of a stateless person trapped in an airport.) What if I made a half-hearted, mostly-joking statement about not wanting to be a citizen anymore and it was overheard by the right (perhaps wrong) person. Would that person swoop in, snatch the passport out of my hand, and render me un-nationalized right there on the spot?

Over the last two weeks, royal watchers have been given the delightful news of the engagement of Prince Harry of Wales to American actress Meghan Markle. It is highly unusual for someone in the line of royal succession--even if fifth in line--to marry someone who is not a British subject. Initially, it may have raised some constitutional questions, which were quickly answered long before the engagement was announced (and perhaps before it even happened). Ms. Markle will need to become several things as this marriage to the Prince Harry takes shape. First, there's the question of whether she would remain a foreigner, and it seems that she won't. She is to become a British citizen after the marriage. Also, she must become a Christian and an Anglican at that. She identifies as Protestant but has not been baptized, so the Archbishop of Canterbury is working on that part of the plans. It also gives him a chance to talk about the role of baptism in becoming a follower of Jesus. And that gives me the chance to talk about citizenship in a heavenly kingdom.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, "[God the Father] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (1:13). Imagine how those words sounded to the Christians in Colossae. All around them were signs of the Emperor's reign: statues, banners, soldiers, temples. Yet Paul wanted them to see how they were already transferred into a new citizenship, subjects of the kingship and kingdom of God's beloved Son.

The funny thing about citizenship and national borders is that they are human constructs. Where one nation begins and the other ends is based on an agreement. Sometimes there are geographic boundaries that make the distinction obvious. Other times borders run through pastures, villages, or even houses. My grandmother's house is partly in Shelby County and partly in Jefferson County. She eats breakfast in one and takes a bath in the other. I'm sure the tax assessors have determined exactly how that arrangement should be worked out, but otherwise the differences are more subtle than that. If you're not paying careful attention to the sign that marks the county line in front of her house, you would almost certainly miss it as you walk down the hall toward the bedroom.

Do we miss our heavenly citizenship? The signs can be hard to see. For generations, God's people considered themselves members of God's family. They waited and watched for the coming of God's kingdom in the kind of clear (although perhaps artificial) distinctions that designate earthly kingdoms. Where would the border of God's kingdom be? By what army would those borders be secure? But God's kingdom came when God's son was born in a Bethlehem stable, when he was crucified on a Roman cross, and when he rose from the dead when no one was looking. Because of Jesus, we have been redeemed--purchased, bought, freed--from the kingdom of this world, a kingdom of death, and transferred into the kingdom of that Son. It isn't something we should be waiting to see. It's something that is true here and now.

As a follower of Jesus, what does it mean for you to live not as if you were a part of God's kingdom but as the full citizen of it that you already are? We pay taxes where the tax assessor or IRS tells us to. We vote for local, county, statewide, and national officials. We pledge allegiance to the flag. We carry passports issued by the Department of State. That citizenship is obvious in so many ways. How might our citizenship in God's reign be just as clear? How might we use our money to underscore our participation in that kingdom? How might we use our vote and our advocacy as citizens of God's kingdom? How might we devote ourselves and our allegiance to God's banner? How might we move through this world as bearers of a different mark of identity? In Christ, we are already transferred into God's kingdom. When will our lives reflect that?

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