“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Philippi. Dear friends in Christ: Imitate me, Paul says. Follow my example. See my pattern and walk in it. Look to me as your guide. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” He doesn’t point us to the saints of old, or even to Jesus; Paul points us to himself. “Join in imitating me.” How bold, how daring, how arrogant. Just who does he think he is? We have an automatic aversion to those who set themselves up as moral examples, who tell us to look to them as a pattern of teaching or life. Politicians, pastors, and celebrities; we’ve seen them all shipwrecked just when we thought we could trust them. But Paul is a different kind of example; yes, he knows exactly who he is, and that is precisely the point. The pattern he sets is as a forgiven sinner. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, not as a man who is sinless, but as one who has renounced the world in repentance and faith. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, in being a foreigner and stranger in this world, as one whose citizenship is in heaven.
You see, there are only two passports that you can carry, only two citizenships that you can have, and you can’t have both at the same time. Both citizenships are given at birth; either your natural conception and birth, or the rebirth of water and the Word in Holy Baptism. There are only two paths, two ways to walk: either you will imitate Paul as a citizen of heaven, or you will imitate those around you as a citizen of earth. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Citizens of earth are enemies of Christ’s cross; they despise the cross and reject all that it stands for and all that it gives. Some use the cross as an excuse for sin, for giving in to the desires of the flesh. I’m forgiven, they say, set free from the Law, and so I can live how I want. God likes to forgive, I like to sin, so I’ll do what I want and He can do what He wants. Others have no desire for what the cross gives. They don’t believe that they are sinners, or they deny that what they are doing is sin. They look for loopholes, they try to make gray what God made black and white. They explain away God’s Law, giving in to Satan’s first lie: “Did God really say?”
Citizens of earth cling to, and even worship, the things of this world. That is what rules them, instead of the Word of God. Their natural desires and appetites, their body’s sinful inclinations, govern their actions. Citizens of this earth do what feels good, without regard for how their actions affect others or offend God. As Paul says, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Their god is their belly, or other organs; they worship the desires of their body, giving in to what their flesh, corrupted by sin since the Fall, wants. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; they boast about their sin. They take pride in what they have done. What else is a homosexual ‘wedding’ or a transgender magazine cover than glorying in shame? Do not imitate them! Their end is destruction, for they have worshipped what will be destroyed, what does not last. When you live as a citizen of this earth, dear friends, you are clinging to those things that are temporary, while forgetting of the things of eternity. You are shortsighted; your eyes are fixed on those things that corrupt you, abuse you, and then will pass away. If your god is temporary, if he will be destroyed on the Last Day, then you will be destroyed too, along with all who trusted in him.
Repent. Repent in imitation of Paul. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Renounce the things of this world; renounce your citizenship on this earth and live as a stranger and foreigner here, with your citizenship in heaven. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; citizens of heaven count all earthly glory as worthless, as rubbish. Imitate Paul in seeing every reason for boasting before the world as so much garbage next to Christ’s salvation. Imitate Paul in renouncing, putting to death the desires of the flesh in repentance. Citizens of heaven take no pride in the things of this world, in the glory that this world bestows on those who embrace its ways, its citizenship. Citizens of heaven care little for what the world says about them, for what the world threatens to do to them. They know who their Lord is; they know of His victory over the world, and in that victory they trust even if they are put to shame before the eyes of others around them. Citizens of heaven do not glory in their sins, they do not boast in them, but they repent of them, crucifying their sinful desires and appetites in repentance and faith. They put their flesh to death daily, returning to that moment in time when their citizenship in this world was removed, replaced with the citizenship of heaven. Each and every day they look to their mark of citizenship, their passport, the sign of the holy cross made upon their forehead and upon their heart as they were given a new birth in water and the Word.
Citizens of heaven cling to Christ’s cross; they know their sin and they look toward their Savior, crucified and risen, for forgiveness. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are strangers and foreigners here, bearing the mark of another citizenship, gathering in embassies scattered throughout this world, outposts of heaven upon this fallen earth, receiving grace and mercy from our Savior. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, could make you a citizen of heaven, a member of His Kingdom, by taking you from the citizenship of your birth, giving to you a new passport stamped in His blood. You do not have to pay for your citizenship, or earn it in any way; it is not for you or anyone else to bestow. Your citizenship was won for you by Jesus, He paid with His own life the high price required to take you from the citizenship of earth that leads only to destruction to the citizenship of heaven that gives life, and life to the full. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, can bring you back to your heavenly citizenship when you have strayed. He calls you back through His Law, and He forgives you through His Gospel, reaffirming your citizenship every time you repent by His mercy and love.
Citizens of heaven imitate Paul’s example of repentance and then set themselves forth as an example for others. This is not to be done in pride and arrogance, by Paul or anyone else. Instead, this is an act of service, done in humility under Christ for the good of our fellow citizens who need our help, our example. Every citizen of heaven should be able to say to their brothers and sisters in Christ: “Join in imitating me.” Imitate me in repentance, imitate me in clinging to Christ’s cross, imitate me in renouncing the desires of the flesh, and together, on the glorious Day that is coming, we will imitate Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” Citizens of earth worship and serve the sinful inclinations and desires of their bodies; citizens of heaven renounce those desires and put them to death, looking toward that Day when Christ will transform these bodies of sin to be like His glorious Body. Citizens of heaven do not hate their bodies, but they do look toward the day when those bodies will be as God created them to be: without sin, pure and holy forever. Jesus is coming, and He is coming to make your body imitate His in glory, in holiness, in righteousness and purity forever. Jesus is coming and He is coming to conform you, body and soul, to Himself. The glory of Easter will one day be yours, because you are a citizen of heaven, covered in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and you await His return in glory, the very glory of heaven. He who has been given all power and all glory by virtue of His victory over sin and death will with that same power call you forth from your grave on that glorious Day, and you will finally come to your homeland, where your citizenship truly lies, to live with Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.