Inverted Citizenship

We hear the wonderful story of the Moravian believers who sold their lives into slavery to reach a certain group of slaves in the Americas. The anti-God British slave owner forbad the gospel to be preached on his island. This was the only way the believers could reach the people there. They made this commitment to enter into the world of other people, on a no-return basis. It was a commitment for the rest of their lives, to suffer all the same treatment of those abused by our world, until death. It’s a remarkable story of clarity: The clarity with which the believers saw and valued the lives of other people; the clarity with which they saw through the false reality of our consumerist societies. This is God’s love.

But, of course, these believers weren’t the first to give up one of the things we value most, our citizenship in a favoured nation, and they won’t be the last. We know of a Jewish man who gave up citizenship in heaven to become a slave among us. Given the brutality of this world, this was a one way ticket to rejection and death. This “voluntary humiliation” of God is described in Philippians chapter two. In contrast to human competitive cultures, this must be the most surprising and stunning act of all time. It is the single act that reveals God and makes him and the gospel so lovely to those who suffer in our world and who have no hope. God in Christ became a man, and, as the Greek puts it, died as a “slave” for humanity. This is the only way he could enter into death and defeat it for us, to rescue us. True life and true power revealed on the cross. The Moravians were only “following Jesus.”

This missionary act of God is described in many places, including John chapter one. The word, that created all things, puts on flesh and dwells among us. This is called the incarnation. It is the model of true life. When we were his enemies, he didn’t treat us in a hierarchal way, but came to us and lived among us, tasted our sufferings, identified with us, and learned our story by his own experience. This act shows the “abundant life”, how we are to treat others in the world, even those who hate us. The gospel is “preached” by our “incarnation” into the world of others, by following God’s self-giving action, revealing the gospel by living demonstration. Missions is fellowship, entering into the lives of others and living out God’s response to the things we pass through together. The gospel becomes incarnated within our societies.

The issue of citizenship was much on Paul’s mind when he wrote to the church at Philippi. Philippi was a favoured Roman city, which had citizenship privileges beyond most of the cities of the empire. These privileges set them apart from most of the populous and from the suffering of the world. The normal response was to bask in these privileges as the will of the gods for them. In other nations it might be their “good karma”, which they were simply to enjoy. But the revelation of God in Christ brings us into a whole new way of life, which was set to make a monumental difference to our nations. This fact about Philippi brings Paul’s second chapter into even more clarity. “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus. Though he was God, he did not think equality with God was something to be grasped, but emptied himself…”

The great “emptying!” In what way were the citizens of Philippi being called upon to empty themselves? The same way Paul did in his life (Philippians chapter three.) Paul was among the most privileged in the Jewish classes. But in Christ he learnt to count that as dung. He learnt to follow Christ’s example. This was huge for a Jew then. Suffering was the curse of God. It showed God’s rejection and confirmed Jesus wasn’t of God. For Paul to have a shift in this way was as monumental as this shift would be in our present world where we believe prosperity is the will of God. Such a view sidelines the multitudes and separates us from the suffering, as it did for the Pharisees, and as Jesus highlighted in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ example once and for all finishes this way of living in the world, and that is why Jesus was such a threat.

Paul was called to treat the gentiles as co-heirs in Christ. He was called to suffer with the believers who were being rejected, to treat the poor of the world as equal brothers and sisters at one table, in real life fellowship and daily experience, to seek them out to serve them and their faith. In this way Paul was “suffering with Christ.” Paul was called to a citizenship with all believers. This was now to be his citizenship (Phil 3:10). Christ had turned the tables on what we are called to value. Instead of valuing our security and “otherness”, and clinging to that, we are called to let that go and to value and enter the lives of others with the gospel and with our own self-giving. This type of community was a challenge to class life, the way the economics of the empire was ordered. This community is still supposed to be the central character and experience of the church and our lives today, even though our world and economies still tell us we must live the old way.

For years I have read Paul from a Western mindset of individualism and then used that to go back and interpret what Jesus said. But now I am beginning to see, to have wonderful new glimpses, that all the paradigms for the gospel and for how we live with others were actually established by the teachings and actions of Jesus. Paul was actually following that and showing how that worked. This is how his “justification by faith” is to be understood. It is our new citizenship, our death of boasting, our inclusion of the other in our lives and table. This is how the early church saw it. The sufferings of Christ were their model. The resurrection of Christ was their hope. The two facts gave their faith and world its entire meaning. That’s why our world isn’t connecting; why we aren’t connecting with those “outside”. That’s why we are always at war. Today we get our meaning from the modernist view of technology and “the good life.” That’s the citizenship we protect.

In Jesus we have “the great inversion.” This is the consistent new reality in all Jesus taught. The widow who gave little gave more. The last shall be first. Those who mourn shall rejoice. Those who laugh shall cry. Those who rule shall serve. The child receives the kingdom. The gentiles and those outside shall come in. The sinner is forgiven. The humble is exalted. The Samaritan (enemy) knows God. The omnipotent God suffers for his creation. The enemy is loved and served. Inversion is the message of his kingdom. His kingdom isn’t built on efficiency, productivity, output, victory. That too is inverted. It’s built on self-giving. He calls us to participate in God’s great inversion on Golgotha: a new world.

So those of us who have favoured nation status, let’s give it up. Those of who don’t have it: let’s not seek it. Let’s leave it behind and get into the boats with the immigrants on the sea or in their camps and pass through life with them. Let’s enter their insecurity with their families and children, showing them God’s kingdom in their world, his love for them in Christ. This is how God has called us, not only to love others and bring the gospel to them, but to reshape his world and creation. This is why he died and rosé and launched his new community. We are citizens of this new community.