Christian Dual Citizenship
Christ the King Sunday
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
25 November 2018
“You say that I am a king. For this I was born. And for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
From 2002 to 2005 I had the privilege of living in England for three years while I completed a degree in theology at Oxford. Living in another country for an extended period of time changed me. I was no longer a tourist. I took up residence and become part of the economy. I lived, studied, and worked alongside people with a different history, worldview and set of experiences. It gave me a perspective on another culture and ways of living which were different from what I was used to.
Happily, I could converse in the Queen’s English and read the road signs. I eventually learned to get in on the correct passenger side of a car and to “mind the gap.” I didn’t watch television for those three years or follow any US Sports teams. I learned to enjoy a glass of port before dinner, rowed crew, and followed cricket. I got used to the British currency, enjoyed the idea of a summer bank holiday, and never wore a pair of jeans. And, after about a year, I could speak with a British accent such that those who might not be listening too carefully often thought I was a native. I fully immersed myself into British life and culture. I enjoyed my life there so much, I thought about becoming an ex-Patriot and living out my priestly and academic career in England.
I also want to mention that while I was living in England, two significant events happened. The Episcopal church in the USA elected and confirmed Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop and the US declared war on Iraq. I got to experience both of those events from a foreign country’s point of view. And, as a former military officer and member of the clergy of the Episcopal church, you can imagine that I got a lot of questions from people about both of those events. It was an interesting position to be in–being an American in Oxford at that time.
Most of the conversations were not only about the ethics of war or human sexuality, but also about the different forms of church and national government that separated the United States and England. Listening to the perspectives and concerns of my international counterparts helped me think more carefully about what it means for the Episcopal Church to be part of the global Anglican communion. And, these conversations broadened my perspective on the place of the United States as a member of a wider international community of nations. It was as a result of these types of encounters that I returned back to this country changed both in temperament, education, and outlook.
I share this experience with you because it is the closest example I can think of to illustrate the positive effects that being part of two different worlds can have on someone, because as Christians we live in two different worlds every day. We are currently citizens of the kingdom of heaven as well as citizens of an earthly government. Today on Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate and acknowledge Christ as the ruler of the kingdom of heaven and ruler over all the kings and governments of the earth. This fact should give us great comfort. I also hope it gives us guidance on how we are to live as citizens of these two realms simultaneously. Perhaps the best way to explore this is to compare some of the basic features of these two realms.
The first thing to be said is that earthly government is not evil in itself. Earthly communities need laws, order and structure in order to function at all. Anarchy can not produce any form of peace and justice. The problem, of course, is that earthly governments are ruled by sinful and broken human beings and can therefore never produce a perfectly just and peaceful society. And, though it doesn’t need pointing out, in democratic societies, our public officials are elected by us, sinful and broken human beings.
Whatever peace and justice we achieve is provisional and always very fragile. Public opinion and personal loyalties change on whim. We make laws and then later repeal them. Earthly nations also tend to be religiously, racially, or ethno- centric with responsibility for a specific geographical space. Nations of the earth come and go. There has never been an eternal country. The United States, too, some day, no doubt, will pass by the wayside. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one of the biggest problems with earthly government is that what passes for the truth appears to be merely a function of power. Whether that power resides in the hands of the church, science, the media, or lawmakers. In short, we stumble along, mostly in the darkness of our own ignorance as we struggle to govern ourselves.
In contrast we are also, right now, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the king of this kingdom. He is without sin. He is not elected. He is appointed by divine right. His administration is permanent. He rules by the eternal and unchanging law of the Gospel, which extends beyond race and nationality. He has authority and responsibility over the whole world. He gives us our identity as the priesthood of believers. By his suffering and death on the cross for our redemption, he claims our enduring loyalty and our gratitude.
And, unlike in earthly government, in God’s kingdom, truth is not subordinate to power. It is the other way around. Jesus’ is given power to be the king of kings because his kingdom exists to speak and serve the Truth. As we listen to his voice, he unites us to one another by gathering us to himself. His word lightens the darkness in which we live.
The difficulty of being part of these two kingdoms is that we are tempted to live in only one or the other, instead of standing in that interpenetrating space where the kingdom of heaven illuminates what earthly kingdoms should be striving for. Our task is not become ex-Patriots of either realm. God does not call us to view our earthly political life with disinterest, contempt, or even despair. For to despair of it reveals a lack of faith that God is at work in it. Indeed, as we live at this time in history where the kingdom of heaven has been inaugurated, but not yet fulfilled, God calls us to labor beside him in creation, to be his image bearers in a broken and fallen world, until the new creation, the new heaven and new earth is complete.
We learn how to be God’s image bearers by participating in the life of the church. God gives us the vehicle of the Church, imperfect though it is, to learn how to live as God’s kingdom people for the world. And to do this well, we can’t be the occasional Christian tourist to the church. To be God’s image bearer requires a full immersion into the Word of God and the life of the church, our closest earthly approximation to what being a citizen in the kingdom of heaven requires of us. As such, we have to learn its history and its laws, participate in its customs, and learn its language. Through the church we learn that forgiveness is the coin of God’s realm. And that its food and drink is the body and blood of its own king. All of this will teach us how to become part of God’s economy of grace and how to speak with a Gospel accent.
As we learn how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, we will be better image bearers of God’s kingdom in our earthly one. As God’s image bearers we do not to despair for the future of the world, since we know that it has already been secured. We live patiently and confidently in a world of transience, impermanence, and change. We work for justice, though knowing that it will never be perfectly achieved until God brings his kingdom to fulfillment.
We are sustained by God’s Word. We listen to his voice, so that we may be guided and guide others through the darkness and moral confusions of our world. We proclaim with confidence that suffering and death can always be redeemed and that no one is beyond the reach of the love and mercy of God. We demonstrate and declare our love for people, we cultivate friendships, we repent of our wrongdoings and forgive those who have sinned against us–for these things are the currency we circulate as part of God’s economy of Grace.
These are the tasks of the Christian dual citizen. This is the work God calls us to do and it will change us when we do it.
We don’t have to lobby or canvas or fight to get Jesus elected. He’s already won. The challenge for us is to remember that he actually has.