Citizens of Heaven
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Philippians 3:17-4:1
‘Are you a Londoner?’ a journalist asked me last week. I found it a hard question to answer. I grew up in the West Country, although none of my family live there now. I was born in Canada, although my parents weren’t there very long. My mother was a refugee from Berlin, although her parents weren’t German. My father lived in London for several years, as did my sister, although they each moved away in their early thirties. I lived in America for many years, although never planned to settle there permanently. I’ve now lived in London longer than anywhere else in my adult life – but I somehow resist being pinned down to having to support Spurs or Arsenal or pining for the sound of Bow Bells.
So when Theresa May said at the Conservative Party conference in 2016, ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,’ I wondered if she was talking to me. Whatever you think about her accusation, she certainly put her finger on something important. A recent book claims the significant divide in British politics is not between capitalism and socialism, but ‘between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.’ (David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics)
‘Anywheres’ dominate British culture and society. They thrive at school, go to prestigious universities, work in cities at some stage, marry late, and populate the cultural elites. They are self-made. They are proud of being tolerant, meritocratic, egalitarian, autonomous, open to change, internationalist and individualist. They often live a long way from their parents. They comprise about 25% of the population, and almost all voted Remain.
‘Somewheres’ are about 50% of the population. Their identity is designated: they are Scottish farmer, a working-class Geordie, a Cornish housewife. They mostly live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14. They are generally more local in outlook, communitarian, stable, patriotic, traditional, mindful of security and tied to specific places. They have larger families, and give more to charity.
David Goodhart, the author of the book, contrasts what work means to the respective groups. (If you’ve got a tidy mind and are wondering about the other 25%, they’re the In-Betweeners.) Anywheres work because they seek a good income and they wish to exercise their skills. Somewheres obviously need income, but are much more concerned to contribute to the lives of others, both family and the wider public. There’s an irony that Anywheres proclaim the equality of diverse family structures, but themselves tend to live in stable nuclear families; whereas Somewheres tend to have a more conservative view of the home but their actual domestic lives tend to be less stable. The paradox of our society, in these terms, is that we’re a population largely made up of Somewheres, whose cultural, educational, commercial and political leaders are mostly made up of Anywheres.
Rather than argue over the details of this analysis, I want today to identify the more general point that our lives are more centred on identity and belonging than on ideas or convictions. The experience of unemployment is of course about loss of income, but even more about not knowing who we are or where we belong. The great decisions of our lives are seldom prudent calculations of benefit and risk, and more often gut-level realisations of our true character and the people who we want and need around us. Our family and friends are those who most fully know who we are and see things about us that we hide from ourselves. The great political debates of our day aren’t fundamentally about human rights or economic benefits or legitimate migration or coarsening public discourse: they’re about profound identity, deep belonging, and about how we each can find a balance between securing our own sense of who we are while appreciating and encouraging the flourishing of those whose identity and belonging is different from our own.
It’s into this context that Paul in his letter to the Philippians speaks some powerful words. In the midst of controversy over the person of Jesus Christ and over what kind of lifestyle was faithful to his legacy, Paul announces a revolution in our notions of identity and belonging. He says, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ That might sound like familiar Bible language – so I want to pause for a moment to recognise how transformational those words really are, for Anywheres and Somewheres alike. Paul literally shifts the centre of the universe, from this existence and our daily reality, to the realm of essence, the things that last forever, the habitation of God and of those whom God has called to share the life of eternity. Rather than earth being the source and testing ground of truth and coherence, heaven becomes the measure of all things. When we’re assessing whether something is right or wrong, the question now is, does it stand the test of eternity? Will it abide with God forever? Or does it belong to the world that is passing away?
Consider the cliché of our time, ‘I hear where you’re coming from.’ When we’re confronted with a disputatious work colleague or an enervating in-law or a troublesome fellow passenger on a bus, and we have the will to come alongside them but still somehow win the argument, we say, with a hint of understanding perceptible within our weariness, ‘Look, mate, I see where you’re coming from…’ and then we show that we really do appreciate what’s making them act in this exasperating way. But there’s always a ‘but,’ and sure enough after a short or long time we eventually say, ‘But see what it looks like for me,’ and subtly suggest that our perspective is better, wiser, more comprehensive or more authoritative, and must prevail. You could say that’s our cultural problem today: we’re not really hearing where each other are coming from.
But Paul turns this kind of argument on its head. By saying we’re citizens of heaven, he’s saying, ‘It’s not finally about where you’re coming from – it’s about where you’re going.’ See what a colossal transformation this involves. If we try to reconcile where we’re coming from, we’ll never manage it – we’ll be defeated by difference, deflated by diversity, discouraged by divergence. That all changes if we follow Paul and start to concentrate on where we’re going. We’re going to heaven – where there is more than enough love for all, more than enough joy, more than enough truth, more than enough space for everyone to flourish. So we arrive at a definition of the church: a bunch of people who all come from different places but are all going to the same place. Yes it’s interesting where we’re coming from – but what’s vital is where we’re going.
So being a Christian transforms our identity. No longer are we trying to assert our assumptions as normal, demanding that everyone hear how much we’ve suffered to ensure they excuse our eccentricities, imposing our prejudices on others so we never have to be challenged or changed. Now we are a people pooling our resources for a journey we make together to a place none of us have ever been. There are no experts, because we’re all citizens of a country we’ve never visited and longing for a home we’ve never known. How do we prepare for that journey?
Well, we start by consulting the guidebook. In the guidebook we start to learn a new language, begin to practise new habits, commence making new companions. For example we stop saying ‘life isn’t a rehearsal’ – because actually it is – or ‘life’s too short’ – because the life that really matters goes on forever. We stop taking the largest piece of pie or the biggest slice of cake because we believe we’re all one body and you eating is the same as me eating. We cease making ourselves omnicompetent because we know that for a community to flourish, everyone has have moments when they need to ask for help and moments when they’re in a position to offer help. We cease seeing others as a threat and start to perceive the ways in which they are a gift.
Once we’ve got this new language, new habits and new companions, we can explore the next stage. And that’s living as if we were already there. The experience of what it’s like to feel like you’re already in heaven is what we call the kingdom of God. Living as if we were already in heaven means being able to sit together in silence, because silence is no longer dead time but time in which we are most fully aware that God, rather than us, is the major actor in history, and we are blessed to be created by one in whose eyes we are precious, honoured and loved. It means keeping Sabbath, because Sabbath is a constant experience of not striving to secure our own salvation but resting in the grace that all the real work has already been done by God. It means sharing in worship in a way that recognises that we all bring different things to the table but receive back the same. It means seeking to help others while being constantly aware of the ways in which they are helping you.
And when we’ve got used to living as if we were already in heaven, there’s only one more step to take: and that’s to let go of our own belonging, release our constant effort to establish and maintain our own identity, and instead allow ourselves to be wholly owned by God. This is of course what baptism enacts. But it’s no simple thing. You may know the story of the man who fell off the cliff. Somehow, as he fell, he clung on to a branch growing out of the rocky edge. Desperate, he shouted, ‘Is anybody up there?’ After a pause, a quiet voice said, ‘My son, I am with you. Let go of the branch and I am here.’ He thought for a moment and finally shouted, ‘Is anybody else up there?’ It’s no simple thing to give up our own identity and allow our belonging to be refashioned. But it’s the secret of eternal life.
It’s because they have resolved to change their identity from where they’re coming from to where they’re going that so many people have chosen to join the Nazareth Community. Today we celebrate with them and give thanks for their example. If you’ve been listening carefully you’ll have noticed that as I described these steps of learning new habits, living as if you were already there, and letting go of your identity, the examples I’ve given cover the seven dimensions of the Nazareth Community’s life together. The quest to discover where we’re each coming from is a never-ending and finally fruitless one. The turn to realise where we’re all going is a life-giving and joyful one. As Paul puts it, the Holy Spirit is turning the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of Christ’s glory. That’s real transformation. That’s what being a Christian is all about.