IN THE WORLD, BUT NOT OF THE WORLD
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON February 28th, 2010
Philippians 3:20 “But our commonwealth is in heaven,…”
Our commonwealth is in heaven. It’s a marvelous coincidence that today’s Epistle is from Philippians chapter 3.
A marvelous coincidence, because our Lenten study groups have been looking at the letter to the Philippians, and studying Bishop Ed Little’s book on Philippians. Others of you who are not in the study groups are reading Bishop Little’s book at home. We are not yet to chapter 3…..that awaits us. But already it has given us much food for thought.
St. Paul says, “Our commonwealth is in heaven,…” It’s an interesting word, ‘commonwealth.’ Modern translations put it as our homeland is in heaven, and I’m sure you agree with me that makes much more sense.
Our homeland is heaven. It is where we are heading. It is the purpose of our life in this world. And in heaven there is one law, the Law of Love. As citizens of heaven that law is what binds us always.
Our homeland is in heaven reminds us of the saying that Christians are in the world, but not of the world. That is – we live in this world, it is our home for now with all its joys and sorrows, successes and failures. But the world’s values in which we live are not necessarily ours – for we are also citizens of heaven. We are in the world, but not of the world.
If heaven is our homeland, then we must give some thought to a heavenly dimension in our lives. And surely, the point of giving up things in Lent, and taking things up, is to remind us that this material world is just that……a material world. Ultimately, it will pass away, and we will be left with just the heavenly world.
Lent is a preparation for that. By increased attention to our spiritual life, particularly in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we make some progress, not as a material persons but as spiritual persons.
When we fast it reminds us that we are more spiritual than material. We are citizens of heaven. In making such sacrifices that Lent calls us to make, we remind ourselves that life is more than the world we live in.
Jesus himself said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Lent reinforces that God’s Kingdom is not of this world.
And so Paul’s reminded the Philippians that our homeland is in heaven. It had a particular relevance for St. Paul and those Christians in Philippi. When Paul wrote this Epistle, he was imprisoned in Rome facing the possibility of his martyrdom – facing and anticipating his probable death.
In chapter 1 he goes on and on about glorifying Christ either by his death or his life. He can’t make up his mind what he wants – to go to Philippi as a free man and preach the Gospel, or to die as a martyr and witness to the Gospel in that way. So you see, for St. Paul, heaven was literally just around the corner. Yet, he still writes with joy to the Philippians and encourages them to live a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
Having said that, St Paul then writes some wonderful prose in chapter 2 – some of the finest scripture ever. It is his great poem about Jesus becoming a servant through the incarnation. “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and took the form of a servant,,,,,,,,that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven, and on earth and under the earth. And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Such powerful words in chapter 2! Then, in chapter 3, our reading today, we come down a bit. Paul goes to the nitty-gritty of church life. He has a warning for those new Christians in Philippi. He warns them of those who live “as the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
See the contrast? Minds set on earthly things…..citizens of heaven. Strong words! Make no mistake – Paul is not talking of pagans or persecutors. He’s talking about fellow members of that church, describing them as enemies of the cross of Christ.
You see, Paul’s imprisonment had given the opportunity for some in that church to cause division, to take a role of leadership which was unworthy of them. “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry”.
This is a fascinating window into the early church at the very beginning of the New Testament. It is a problem that must be faced in every age by faithful Christians in every church. For we are but sinners – and Paul is telling the Philippians not to be distracted by these enemies of the cross of Christ, but to keep their minds fixed on Heaven.
Those Christians had their eyes fixed only on earthly things. He’s not saying they are killing their fellow Christians. He’s talking about their love of food, of pleasure and of possessions. Their minds are set on earthly things. Their behavior and their attitudes caused division in the church.
What a wonderful warning this is for us in this Lenten season – when we strip away things so that we may be more united with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Keep your eyes fixed on heaven, your homeland.
Today’s Gospel parallels the same thing – the same warning that St. Paul gives. Jesus is confronted by the news that Herod wants to kill him. It would have been so easy for Jesus to get angry or to criticize Herod. Of course, in the end it was not Herod who killed Jesus, but the Sanhedrin, through the agency of Pontius Pilate. This is the first hint of Jesus’ approaching passion and death. Jesus, rather than being scared or angry, is both resolute and determined that this shall not beat him.
Would that we were so determined in confronting sin and Satan in our own lives! That is one of the purposes of Lent, to remind us of the continual battle between Satan and God’s kingdom.
Today’s Collect has something to say on this point. “Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy word, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith.”
Most of us haven’t really gone astray – but Lent does remind us that we need to approach the throne of grace with penitent hearts and steadfast faith. Penitent hearts is what Lent calls forth from us. All our Liturgies, all our Lenten disciplines, all our extra prayers and devotions, all our good intentions, have as their gift back to us, what Psalm 51 says: “Create a clean heart in me O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Lent is a time of penitence for all those bad habits and attitudes that cling and really make us like those Philippians – enemies of the cross of Christ.
And we will not be completely renewed and cleansed until we heed the prayer we hopefully say daily: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…”
For you see, forgiveness refreshes the soul.