Citizens of Another City

(Psalm 146; Colossians 3:1-4)

I’m told that there’s a guy who recently filed suit against Barack Obama demanding that Sen. Obama produce his birth certificate. His argument, if I understand this correctly, rests on the fact that when Sen. Obama’s mother married Luis Soetoro, Soetoro adopted her son Barack, and the family moved to Soetoro’s native country of Indonesia, mother and son became Indonesian citizens, and under US law at that time had to give up their US citizenship to do so. This guy contends that as a consequence, they can no longer be considered natural-born citizens, and thus that Sen. Obama is constitutionally ineligible to be the President of the United States.

Now, on its face, this lawsuit is laughable. First, it’s true that up until recently, US law forbade dual citizenship (except for citizens of Israel)—but that only really applied to adults; children of American citizens born overseas could be considered citizens both of the US and of the country of their birth until they turned 18, at which time they had to choose between those two nations. Second, this is a matter of interpretation, not of black-letter law, because this specific issue isn’t addressed anywhere in the US Code or in the text of the Constitution, and it’s a question which up until this point has not been raised; thus what this guy asked the courts to do was, on the basis of no supporting precedent, declare the frontrunner in Tuesday’s presidential election ineligible. There isn’t a judge in this country that would have the guts to do that, even if he believed it was an open-and-shut case that he should; and it isn’t, not by a country mile.

As a result, the whole lawsuit is just so much wasted effort. I’m not really a believer in deciding elections in the courts anyway, but if he was going to try to do that in this case, there are much worthier legal issues to raise than this one. The only merit to this guy’s suit is that he takes citizenship seriously. Which he should. Which we all should, and probably quite a bit more seriously than many people in this country do, because for all that Americans tend to be pretty blasé about it, citizenship is a profoundly important thing. It’s all about where we belong, and to whom, and where our allegiance lies; it’s about our identity in this world. As such, it means a great deal, whether we ever think about it or not.

It certainly was something the apostle Paul took very seriously, in a couple ways. In the first place, he was a Roman citizen—remember, under the Roman empire, not everyone was, by any means; there were a great many people, including most Jews, who weren’t citizens and thus didn’t have full legal or civil rights. Paul, however, was, and he used that to his advantage on more than one occasion. At a practical, concrete level, he knew just how much citizenship meant. In the second place, though, he also understood that his earthly citizenship had limits, because he owed God a higher allegiance; in Philippians, he even frames this in political terms, telling them, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here in Colossians, he doesn’t use that particular language, but the same core idea is in view: this world is no longer your primary allegiance, because this world is no longer where your true life is. You have a new and very different life, the life of Christ.

This tells us several things. One, this tells us something important about salvation. In our passage last week, Paul says, “If you died with Christ”; he begins this section with “If you have been raised with Christ.” Our salvation, as we usually understand it, isn’t just about a decision we made or an action we took or even the actions we take now; it’s about death and resurrection. It’s about a living God raising dead people. It’s about our old selves being crucified with Christ, nailed to the cross with him with all our sin and all our guilt and all our shame, and us dying with him and being raised to new life in his resurrection. It’s about a cataclysmic change in us, a change worked by the will of God in the power of his Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, that makes us all new people. Our salvation is not merely a reversible act of our fickle human wills, it’s the irreversible act of God’s unchanging will.

Two, this tells us something equally important about the implications of our sal­vation: namely, being saved isn’t just about going to heaven. It isn’t even just about going to church and supporting the church. Both of these things are part of the picture, but only part. It’s about a complete transfer of allegiance that comes from a complete change of identity: we no longer belong to this world, and we’re no longer primarily identified with it. Our true life is elsewhere.

Does this mean we’re supposed to withdraw from the world? With a few exceptions, no; God has placed us in this world to live in it for him. What it means is that, to borrow language Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 5, we should regard ourselves as his ambassadors—we live here, but not because this is our home; rather, we live here as his representatives, in order to serve him and carry out his ministry in the community and country in which he has placed us. From the point of view of this nation, we’re citizens here and owe it our allegiance, but from God’s point of view—which should be ours as well—our allegiance to this nation is and must be secondary, and our primary citizenship is not on earth at all, but in heaven. Our focus should be not on the things of this earth, but on the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; the goods we seek should be the goods of heaven, and the goals on which we set our minds and hearts should be the goals Christ has set for us.

This isn’t to say that we should ignore the things of this world, or that there’s something wrong with them; God created them too, and he created earthly pleasures, and he wants us to enjoy them. But we should see them in their proper light, not as goals in themselves but as things to enjoy along the way; we should remember that they come to us as blessings from God’s hand, and that they’re not what life is about, or what we’re supposed to be living for. We need to keep our priorities straight.

Three, on this Sunday before our presidential election, this all has a very particular application this week. One of the great preachers and teachers of our time, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has written a wonderful piece on this, a meditation on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, called “Let Christians Vote as Though They Were Not Voting”; with permission, I’ve made some copies available on the table in the back, and I’d encourage you to take one and read it, because I think he’s dead on. As Piper says, we’re in the world, and God has given us this world to use for his purposes and to his glory, which means we have to deal with it, in all its manifestations; the key is that we don’t take it too seriously. And so, as he continues,

There are unseen things that are vastly more precious than the world. We use the world without offering it our whole soul. We may work with all our might when dealing with the world, but the full passions of our heart will be attached to something higher—Godward purposes. We use the world, but not as an end in itself. It is a means. We deal with the world in order to make much of Christ.

So it is with voting. We deal with the system. We deal with the news. We deal with the candidates. We deal with the issues. But we deal with it all as if not dealing with it. It does not have our fullest attention. It is not the great thing in our lives. Christ is. And Christ will be ruling over his people with perfect supremacy no matter who is elected and no matter what government stands or falls.

As Christians, as the ambassadors of the kingdom of God on earth, we have the responsibility to work for the good of our community, of the nation in which we live, and of this world; God told his people through the prophet Jeremiah, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf,” and that command applies to us as well. We need to use the minds he’s given us to come to the best conclusions we can about what this country needs and what ought to happen, and then we need to act on that; which means, at the very least, voting. But having done that, we need to be careful not to put too much weight on it, or to get too tied up in it; we need to leave the results in God’s hands, for whatever his purposes may be.

Of the options we have, there’s no doubt in my mind who would make the best president—but that doesn’t mean I know whom God intends to set in that position, or what his reasons and plans are, or to what purpose; and so on Tuesday, I’m going to do my part, and trust God for his, remembering that “no matter who is elected and no matter what government stands or falls,” it remains true that “Christ will be ruling over his people with perfect supremacy”—and that my life, our life, is not in a political party but in Christ. Our salvation is not in this election, or any election, but in Christ; for we are citizens of another city, the city of God, and it is from that city that we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our life.

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