Once years ago while still serving a church in Houlton, Maine, on a day off I seized an opportunity to travel across the border in order to visit Canada. Having written that, I should add here that this actually wasn’t that big a thing: I was in fact headed for Woodstock, New Brunswick, a small town which like Houlton is prominently situated along that international border; and travel between the two communities was and is an everyday occurrence. I don’t remember now why it was I’d gone to Woodstock that day; but what I do remember with great clarity is stopping at a local convenience store and how I was greeted by the cashier. For no sooner than I’d set my purchases on the counter, she smiled broadly and said to me, “So… visiting from the ‘states,’ are you? Having a good visit?”
Her utter certainty about that surprised me, and immediately I began to wonder how she could have possibly known that I was from across the border. For one thing, based on where I was parked, it was unlikely she’d seen my Maine license plates; I hadn’t yet gone to my wallet to pull out American currency; and to my recollection, I wasn’t sporting any sort of American flag on my person! On the other hand, perhaps it was something about the way I looked, or maybe she heard in my voice a little bit of an American accent (could be that I’d slipped into my “downeast” voice at the wrong moment; because, yes, I have been known to do that from time to time!).
Whatever it was, I never did find out for sure; but somehow and someway there was something about me that immediately tipped off this woman that I was not Canadian, but in fact “from away.” It was simply a small exchange coupled with an act of courteous hospitality; but afterward, I was left with the thought that though I was in actuality no more than 15 miles from what was home at the time, at that moment I might as well have been a million miles away. Because suddenly it had become obvious (at least to one store cashier) that my citizenship was elsewhere; and I, at least for a few moments there, was the so-called “stranger in a strange land,” where there was no disguising who I was and where I’d come from.
In truth, there is more to citizenship than a birth record or an entry on a passport: citizenship is about where we live, where we make our home, where we’ve come from and where it is we’ll always return; moreover, our citizenship says a great deal about the values, commitments, loyalties and allegiances that make us who we are. What this means is that while I might visit, work or even live in some other place for a period of time in my life – and while there may indeed be moments that I’ll seek to blend in, unnoticed, to my new surroundings to the point where it may even seem like I belong – my true citizenship will always be elsewhere and cannot be denied; and ultimately, that particular allegiance will always be the thing that directs my pathways along the journey.
And whereas this certainly applies in terms of my being born and raised an American citizen (!), it seems to me that there’s an even deeper truth revealed here as regards my faith in God in Christ.
There’s a passage in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, in which Paul speaks rather harshly of those who live “as enemies of the cross of Christ;” (Philippians 3:18) that is, a group of “presumably professing Christians” in the city who nonetheless were dismissive of much of what the cross represents. For these early Christians, this was merely one divisive issue among many – and a recurring theme throughout the Epistles – as new believers struggled to reconcile the good news they’d received with life as they’d always known it. Easier, some reasoned, to blend quietly into the dominant culture than to accept the opposition that could easily come in a stance of true faithfulness. Paul would have none of it, however: “Their minds are set on earthly things,” he writes, a stance and attitude that can only lead to their destruction. “But our citizenship,” he goes on to say, “is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 20)
It’s a reminder to us that in every era, including our own, to be a Christian means to live in that very awkward situation of dwelling in one place even as our citizenship firmly belongs in another. Given the world’s ongoing propensity to equate purpose and fulfillment with things like power and prestige – to say nothing of the very nature of humanity – it will always be true that you and I who would seek to heed the word of God in this life will exist as outsiders; truly, to quote William Willimon, as disciples of Jesus Christ we are the “resident aliens” in modern society. In all honesty, it can be a struggle at times; in ways both subtle and profound many of us have known what is to be, if not persecuted, then marginalized for adopting a stance of faith in how we seek to live our lives. But we do it – not always easily and not wholly without stumbling, but mostly gladly – because in Christ we know that our citizenship is of another realm, another place with a ruler different from the rulers of this present age. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” and wherever else we dwell, whatever else happens around us, that allegiance is what moves us in the here and now.
This is one reason why, as Christians, this season of Lent and our shared “journey to the cross” is so very important. For even as the world continues encouraging us to compromise what we believe for the sake of whatever happens at the moment to be socially, politically or culturally correct, here’s Jesus who calls us to sacrifice all in love, and then does just that himself, even unto the cross. Truly, the cross itself is a symbol of our real citizenship; it is a constant reminder that our faith, our true allegiance, will always stand against the glittering temptations of this world. The cross stands as emblem of clarity and focus, the assurance that amid all of life’s many perplexities and the moral dilemmas of our time, heaven is still our home.
And when heaven is our home, it makes all the difference in how we live – and how we’re recognized – even when we’re dwelling far away from that home.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry