Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A New Citizenship

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is called his most personal epistle, containing several expressions of Paul’s attachment and fondness to the Christians at Philippi. At the end of chapter 1, Paul confides in his readers that he has a conflict between two wonderful options: to depart from the earth and live with Christ, or to remain on the earth, knowing the Philippians would be full of joy if Paul would be able to see them again.

If I were Paul writing verse 27 to my children, it might read like this: But whatever happens, whether I get to come and see you or not, you act right. Remember who you are, and whose you are.

I wrote similar notes to my own children when I sent them off to summer camp or family vacations with friends. I think this is precisely how Paul felt as he urged the Philippians, “Let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” (KJV) Other versions read “Let your manner of life. . . ” or “Conduct yourselves. . .” But the meaning is deeper still. Paul’s particular use of “conversation” more accurately means “your walk as citizens.”

What? I can almost feel myself losing you. Perhaps you are like me, and the word citizenship generally evokes an instant shoulder-slumping boredom that hearkens back to a verbatim round-Robin reading of the government textbook, paragraph by paragraph, in second semester eighth grade. Oh I hope you had a better government teacher than I had.

For Paul to allude to their citizenship does not seem remotely personal. His use of the word citizenship might read like the legal terms in a contract the Scribes recited in the gates of the city. It meant that "one should order one's life and conduct in a certain manner as to the habits and principles of the citizenship of a state or city.”

But the Philippians knew that Paul was not instructing them about their local citizenship. He was joyfully reminding them that their citizenship was not confined to the Roman colony at Philippi, but that they were citizens of an entirely new and “better country,” a radical worldview, and an eternal ethos -- of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When my children read their notes from mom on their way to summer camp, they probably felt some sense of “family.” We belonged to each other, with all our family habits and principles. I believe the Philippians may have been stirred by that same sense of belonging when they read Paul’s words, rejoicing in who they were, and Whose they were.

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