“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)
On August 24, 410 A.D., an army of Visigoths under Alaric I, sacked Rome. Few events have portended so much. Rome’s citizens were left with only their lives with the Visigoths were through. Rome had sat inviolate for over a thousand years. Her armies had brought stability, order and security throughout the Mediterranean world. Now all that was gone. Writing from Bethlehem, the translator St. Jerome declared “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” In his wake, Alaric left a new world of fear and uncertainty.
Many questioned the Empire’s switch to Christianity. Could the old gods be angry? Still others saw the collapsing world around them, and looked for someone, anyone really, who could offer them the old security. From across the Mediterranean came a firm voice that offered a final coda from the ancient world to stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of barbarism. Addressing the crisis of his time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gave the world his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, The City of God.
Now the great crisis of the Fifth Century will seem far removed from our own day, and a subject entirely inappropriate for a commemoration of Independence Day. Yet, its lessons stand as an important reminder to us of our obligations as citizens, and concerning the nature and role of government. On this day we celebrate our freedom. Let us remember what a frail things freedom is, that we would use it well.
As Augustine saw it, the world was a dangerous place. As Christians, Augustine reminded his readers that they were first and foremost, the people of God, and ultimately the citizens of His City. He was quite aware, however, that we had yet to possess this city. For now, he wrote, we live in the City of Man, which is at war with the City of God. As such, we are by nature aliens and strangers in this world. Our hope lies elsewhere.
Jeremiah 29 records a letter the prophet sent to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians. Israel had linked its religious identity with their political identity. To be a revived people of God, they must then become a revived nation. But here they were in exile, in a strange land, with strange customs, subject to other authority.
Jeremiah disabuses them of these hopes. They will remain in exile for seventy years. Instead of pining for a lost nation, and hoping for what cannot be, he urges them to settle in to their new surroundings, lay down roots, raise families, and flourish where they are. Jeremiah goes further, urging the exiles to pray for the welfare of the cities where they now reside, and intercede with the Lord on its behalf. (Jer. 29:7)
He makes the point that their identity as God’s people is not dependent on whether there is a Jewish nation. They can be God’s people where they are, if they embrace the tension this creates. He urges us to engage our neighbors, from a position of exile. Here furthermore grounds these efforts in the hope and knowledge that God remains in control, and that He has a plan that is unfolding. (v. 10-11)
The tension should inform our lives as citizens. Too often, we head to one extreme of another. We can withdraw, deciding that the world is too evil, and await the coming Kingdom. Or we can wrap the Cross with an American flag, and confuse our home with our salvation.
God does use purely secular authorities. Isaiah 45 sings of the Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s instrument. Similarly, God explains how he used the Babylonians to carry out His work. Indeed, it is Caesar’s need for more taxes that brings the pregnant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy. As the Psalmist says, even man’s wrath praises Him. (Ps. 76:10)
So how are we to live our lives here? We live here, but the ground of our being lies elsewhere.
At least we should follow Jeremiah’s instructions, to build a life here, to not hold back, but we should also hold up a mirror, shining God’s light on this darkened world. We should be prophetic voices, reminding the world of God’s justice, and seeking to bring our world as close to that vision as we can, even while realizing that we shall always fall short.
But we do not despair, in this, the country of our exile. For all the celebrations and gnashing of teeth, we too often lose sight of this tremendous truth, that we are citizens of heaven, and from thence comes our salvation.