We Are Immigrants

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. . . . our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
—Philippians 3:12-17, 20-21

For three years of my life, I lived as an immigrant, twice moving from North Carolina to the United Kingdom. When living as an immigrant, many aspects of life taken for granted are lost. For instance, the security of employment; the guarantee of tax, educational, or retirement benefits; and assumption of continued residency do not exist. At least, they did not exist for me while I was in the UK.

Each time I lived in the UK, I had short-term visas. The visas allowed me to work, study, and live for a restricted time, in a certain place, for a certain purpose. The tenuousness of such an existence constantly reminded me that I did not fully belong to that place. No matter how much I enjoyed being there, delighted in my work, and appreciated my friends and neighbors, I did not belong to that kingdom. My citizenship was elsewhere.

Yet, holding citizenship in one place while living in another has advantages, too. I saw my adoptive county through different eyes. My eyes were opened to see what the culture around me assumed as “natural” to be simple convention. For instance, while my British companions opened each conversation with a comment on the weather, such a gambit seemed superfluous given the descriptions were always the same virtually every day of the year, i.e., cool with a high chance for rain, intermittent sunshine possible. However, soon, I discovered having a conversation about the weather was not actually a conversation about the weather but a means to evaluate the character and temperament of one’s fellow conversationalist. If I entered the weather conversation willingly and earnestly, deeper, more substantive discussions followed. (Such a discovery proved highly beneficial for a minister when deeper conversations are the very point!) Over time, I came to appreciate their subtle evaluative tool.

Conversely, living away from one’s home country opens our eyes to see that country anew. By moving to the United Kingdom, I gained an interesting perspective on my own country. From experiencing nationalized healthcare to issues of class and race, living in the United Kingdom reshaped my perceptions of the United States, particularly the southern United States. One insight quickly catalogued was the significantly different way meetings concluded.

Here, in the US, particularly in the southern United States where public transportation is essentially absent and travel by car is relatively easy, rarely have I attended a meeting where the meeting’s chair concludes the session by asking if everyone has arranged “ride-sharing,” i.e., carpooling, to the next meeting, asking everyone to either volunteer seats in their car or find a car that has available seats. This pairing of drivers and riders happened repeatedly at our circuit-wide church meetings in the UK. Since I was 16 and obtained my license, seldom have I paused long enough to ask if I NEEDED to drive or if anyone else NEEDED a ride. I just drove . . . by myself. Of course, occasionally I would share a ride, but that was far more the exception than the rule. All this is to say that being citizens of one place while living in another can offer a beneficial vantage, enabling us to reevaluate both our new home and native land.

Paul was asking the members of the church in Philippi to take advantage of a similar position they held as citizens of one place living in another. To make this point, Paul drew on a cultural phenomenon well understood by the Philippians.

Philippi was a Roman colony in a Greek part of the world. Formally established by Philip of Macedonia in the 4th century BCE, Philippi was re-colonized by the Romans in the later part of the 1st century BCE. This means that when Paul arrived sometime in the middle part of the 1st century CE—some one hundred years later—the Romans were established as the ruling elite of a city still heavily influenced and populated by Greeks and Greek culture. These Romans over the course of a century, by marriage and osmosis, had taken on much of the Greek culture. Yet, the Roman colonists, while living in the Greek Philippi, did not have citizenship in Philippi but in Rome. They lived a double-existence. They were Romans who were not entirely Greek while being Greeks who were not entirely Roman. Yet, ultimately, while living in Greece, their citizenship and loyalty was with Rome.

The entire community knew it. So, when Paul began articulating this notion of living one place while being a citizen of another, his chosen metaphor is not accidental. He crafted his message for just this audience. That audience would resonate immediately with his words. In the end, Paul knew the power of his metaphor because he knew the city’s cultural climate.

As Roman citizens, the Romans of Philippi were granted immunity from certain taxes and civic obligations and gained other rights and privileges denied their fellow Greek residents of Philippi. This culture of advantage and disadvantage created a disparity in actions. Those who were Roman would often behave in one manner because these citizens understood the immunity and cultural benefits afforded them by their Roman citizenship. They understood that having citizenship, even if that citizenship was to a place far from where they were, allowed them . . . expected them . . . to act differently from those around them. In other words, there was a direct correspondence between citizenship and actions.

The population of Philippi understood this correspondence; the Philippian Christians understood this correspondence; Paul understood this correspondence. Paul wanted to capitalize on this understood correspondence, so he drew upon this correspondence to shape how the Philippian Christians were to act.

Utilizing this culture of correspondence, Paul asks his readers to recognize that their citizenship is in another land, in another kingdom. Rather than citizens of Roman or Philippi, Paul wants his readers to understand that they are citizens of heaven. Earlier in the letter, Paul reminded them that Christ willingly gave up his original citizenship to take on another. Likewise, they are to give up their original citizenship on earth to become citizens of heaven. By virtue of baptism into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, these Philippian Christians transferred their citizenship and became immigrants from another kingdom without moving an inch. Moreover, just as a correspondence exists between citizenship in Rome and certain behaviors regardless of one’s residency or non-residency in Rome, there is a correspondence between our citizenship and our actions regardless of our current distance from or proximity to heaven. Citizenship had its privileges.

Poignantly, most of the members of the church in Philippi were not Roman citizens but slaves. They were not members of the polis with power and privilege but noncitizens who had only been denied power and privilege, watching others advance and benefit from it. So, Paul is not solely tapping into a culture of correspondence but Paul is exploiting a mood of longing permeating an underclass. For the first time, these slaves are offered privilege. For the first time, the disadvantaged are offered advantages. For the first time, the powerless are offered the power of citizenship, but this power comes as citizens not of Rome but of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom ruled by a king who has power over life and death itself.

Possibly most importantly, Paul emphasizes that this citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is not some distant hope assuming some delayed response and eventual change. Rather, Paul reminds his readers that this kingdom of heaven is coming to us and soon. As such, the kingdom’s imminence must change how we act, live, and respond, today—right here, right now. This is not some delayed hope in a “sweet by and by” but in a transformed “now” filled with transformed people currently running the race, pursuing the prize. Citizenship, it turns out, has it privileges AND its responsibilities.

As newly classified immigrants of heaven, Paul challenges the church in Philippi to take advantage of the improved perspective gained as a citizen of another kingdom. He wants them to see their world, their city, and their lives differently. And, in seeing everything differently, he assumes corresponding different actions must logically follow.

Two thousand years later, we read Paul’s letter, sitting in our own kingdoms of privilege and power. Having read it, we are reminded that we, too, must learn to live as immigrants. While not necessarily moving to a new country or community, we, like the Philippians are immigrants by virtue of baptism. Such a position affords us a new perspective and assumes new responsibilities. We must take advantage of seeing the world around us with the “eyes of heaven,” embracing the corresponding responsibilities to live and act according to our new sight and citizenship. Living as immigrants will not be easy.

How will this new citizenship empower our living, our desires for change, our hopes, our promises to transform this body, i.e., Young Harris College, into a present embodiment of the God’s kingdom here in north Georgia? Might living as citizens of another kingdom—a kingdom for the dispossessed and the dismissed—require us to relinquish some of the powers and privileges our current citizenship affords us? Like Christ through Paul, how will we empower the disempowered? How will we offer freedom to the captive? How will we set at liberty those who are oppressed? How will proclaim recovery of sight to the socially, economically, and politically blind? How will we speak truth to power? How will we declare the year of the Lord’s favor in this place?

Most importantly, as Paul reminds us, this new living is not some delayed event but a present necessity because we are already citizens of the kingdom. In other words, by delaying God’s liberating actions any more we remove the modifier “good” from the gospel. The good news that is God’s coming kingdom becomes simply collected with all the other news about a better tomorrow. When we forget our citizenship and embrace our comfortable power, we cease being prophets concerned about transformation of the present age and become transformed into being concerned primarily about profits.

Paul’s letter forces us to ask ourselves, are we residents of this place, comfortable in our positions, or are we immigrants from another kingdom, willing to become embodiments of God’s discomforting good news?

May we all be immigrants and live as immigrants from God’s in-breaking kingdom in this place!

Amen.

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