October 7, 2009
For our citizenship is in heaven. Philippians 3:20
Joe flew into Omaha Sunday, then we immediately headed back the way he came, by highway instead of air. We arrived home late Tuesday afternoon.
As I mentioned last week, I was involved in many different activities during my stay at Homestead (Pioneer Days went well, by the way–we had enough candles, and I managed not to set my long skirt on fire). One of the programs I didn’t mention was the naturalization ceremony I witnessed.
When I walked into Homestead’s Education Center shortly before the formal observance began (it’s an actual courtroom proceeding, complete with clerk and judge), I thought, Is this ever a picture of the American melting pot! The packed room included people of all races, dress and language. The ceremony was to be conducted in English, of course, but when I sat down, I heard a conversation in Spanish behind me, and what I later learned was Vietnamese next to me. As the woman from Citizenship and Immigration Services read the roll call of new citizens, I counted twenty-one countries represented, from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
If you’ve never been to a naturalization ceremony, I strongly recommend you attend one. There’s nothing like it to make you reflect on what citizenship means. The oath of allegiance each person took is very comprehensive and rather dramatic, talking a lot about being willing to defend our country in every kind of way. How seriously do I take that responsibility, I asked myself.
But what really struck me was the realization that I, unlike these immigrants, did nothing to gain my American citizenship. They had to earn it, by filling out paperwork, satisfying many requirements, paying a fee and taking a test (how many of us native-born citizens could pass it without studying, I wondered). All I did was be born.
All this thinking, as usual, led me to Scripture, where I discovered citizenship is a recurring theme in the New Testament. The Philippians, inhabitants of a Roman colony, enjoyed the prestige and security of being Romans citizens, an enviable privilege in those days. The city of Philippi was where the apostle Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, were flogged and hauled off to jail for healing a demon-possessed girl. When the magistrates then tried to release them on the sly, the pair dropped this bombshell on their keeper: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us” (Acts 16:37). The alarmed authorities, who knew they could be a heap of trouble for violating Paul and Silas’ rights, “came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city” (v. 39).
Later, in Rome, when he was again about to be scourged, Paul also stressed his precious citizenship. “The commander went to Paul and asked, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ he answered. Then the commander said, ‘I had to pay a big price for my citizenship’ [during the reign of the emperor Claudius, Roman citizenship could be purchased for what would be a princely sum for a soldier]. ‘But I was born a citizen,’ Paul replied” (Acts 22:27, 28).
So Paul knew very well what his words in Philippians 3:20 would mean to his long-ago readers. And today, we who swear allegiance to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:11-16) would do well to meditate on the honor (“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens…of God’s household”–Ephesians 3:19), the rights (“an inheritance…reserved in heaven for you”–1 Peter 1:4), and the responsibilities (“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God”–1 Peter 2:16) of our godly citizenship, remembering that we did nothing to earn these benefits (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
All we have to do is be born–again (John 3:3-6).