(Philippians 3:17-4:1; Matthew 13:24-30)
One of the things with which we all struggle as we grow into adults is our identity. I have talked about identity few times in the last month, asserting that we are children of God. Of course, we are also other things.
As young children, we learn that we are members of a particular family that has its own identity. We know who the members of our family are, what pets we have, where we live, what jobs our parents are engaged in, and so on. We learn what behaviors and attitudes are acceptable in our family.
As we get older and move toward the teenage years, we form friendships and belong to groups that have their own identities. Now our identity is not only tied to a family, but to friends and groups of friends. In high school our identity can get even more defined by the groups and activities we are involved in. There are the academic kids, the band kids, the sports kids, the artistic kids, and so on. Some of us belong to more than one group.
As we move toward high school graduation, we start to think about our future beyond high school: Will we go to college, get a job, take a year off to travel, get married, and so on. Throughout our lives, our identities are shaped and reshaped, molded and remolded, formed and reformed depending on the environment we are in.
I became aware of identity in a new way when I moved from Northfield, Ohio, to New York City in my early twenties. I lived in New York City for 10 years, but people would still tell me I didn’t seem like a New Yorker. They would ask me where I came from and when I told them Ohio they would say, “Oh, you’re from the Midwest.” I had no idea I was from the Midwest until then! Even though I hadn’t realized I was growing up in the Midwest, the culture of the Midwestern United States was ingrained in me. I had a certain way of being that was Midwestern – and I still do. Being from the Midwest is a part of my identity. It means I tend to be straightforward, friendly, unpretentious, honest, and welcoming. After all, I’m from the area that is considered the heart of America! After I got over wanting to be a hip and cool New Yorker, I embraced the fact that I was a Midwesterner at heart!
We all have an idea of who we are that influences the way we live and what we think. Usually, there is more than one component to who we think we are. For example, I’m a person with a Midwestern upbringing who enjoys living on the East Coast, I’m a clergy person in the Christian religion, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m creative in all sorts of ways, I’m tall, I’m a graying strawberry-blonde, I’m outgoing, and so on. Now, I want you to take a moment to think about the different components of your identity. How would you describe yourself? [Pause while people think.]
It is the idea of identity that Paul is addressing in this portion of his letter to the Philippians. He is reminding the Philippians that – first and foremost, above all else – they are Christians, followers of a the crucified Christ, and that, therefore, their citizenship is in heaven, not on earth. Regardless of where they come from, regardless of who their family and friends are, regardless of the culture they live in, regardless of what they like or dislike, first and foremost and above all else they are citizens of heaven. The fact that they are citizens of heaven must come before all else and thus be the foundation of their identity. Everything else about them and their lives must spring and grow from this foundation.
The tension between heaven and earth – between two identities, between two kinds of belonging – has existed from the beginning of Christianity. What do we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. Life on earth is not as it should be. What we do as Christians and members of the body of Christ is try to embody heaven on earth. We try to imitate Jesus, to live as he calls us to live, and thus embody heaven on earth. One way to express the tension that we feel as Christians, followers of Jesus, and citizens of heaven is to say that we are “in the world, but not of the world.” We live as pilgrims, wayfarers, sojourners while here on earth, but our true home is in heaven. We are “in the world, but not of the world.”
Throughout the history of Christianity, Christians have struggled with what it means to be citizens of heaven while living on earth. Some have believed that they were called to live apart, in religious communities that live differently than the rest of society. During the Middle Ages, monks and nuns formed monastic communities, many of which continue today. During the Protestant Reformation other groups formed, such as the Mennonites and the Hutterites, which continue today, along with the Amish.
Others have believed that they were called to live in society doing much of what their neighbors did but with Christian discernment. This is what we all do. We live as citizens of the United States of America, as residents of towns and cities, as members of neighborhoods, as employees of businesses, and so on, but we do so with the awareness that we are – first and foremost, above all else – citizens of heaven; which means that we make decisions and behave according to that first citizenship even though we live as citizens, residents, members, and employees of other places, too!
We live with this basic tension in our lives – this being “in the world, but not of the world” – just as our Christian ancestors did. It is easy to envision the “us” and the “them” of this story as Christians against non-Christians, or as Christian values against worldly values. But the interesting thing about this story – both in the past and now – is that the tension isn’t always between Christians and non-Christians, or Christian values and worldly values. Often, the tension exists between Christians! As we know, there are many different Christian traditions and many ways to interpret and understand how we are to live as Christians. There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians, evangelical Christians and orthodox Christians, denominational Christians and non-denominational Christians. I know Christians who are political conservatives, and I know Christians who are political liberals. I know Christians who support just wars and I know Christians who are pacifist and oppose all war. I know Christians who support government spending for social programs, and I know Christians who don’t support government spending for social programs. And all of those Christians – with all of those differing values and opinions and beliefs and behavior – all of them are citizens of heaven, or are at least striving to be citizens of heaven in the way they think they should be striving.
American Baptists believe in something called “freedom of conscience,” or “freedom of belief.” Our denomination believes that each of us should be free to follow our consciences. No organization or person should be able to tell people what to believe or to persecute people for their beliefs. Many people don’t realize that even though the Puritans came from Europe to America so that they could practice their religion without being persecuted, those same Puritans ended up persecuting people here in America who didn’t believe what they believed. Each state had a state religion – for Connecticut it was Congregationalism – and if you were too radical you could be hanged in the square, which is what happened to Quakers in Boston. The founder of Baptists in America, Roger Williams, founded the first city in which there was separation of church and state and in which people were not persecuted for their religious beliefs: Providence, RI. Rhode Island then became the first state in which there was separation of church and state. Our country could have gone in a very different direction if not for Roger Williams and the first Baptists in America.
As it is, we are blessed to live in a country that figured out that it was madness to persecute people because of their beliefs. We are blessed to live in a country in which we have the right and the responsibility to figure out what we believe and to behave accordingly. It is my responsibility to study the Bible and practice my faith in such a way that I am continually discerning God’s will for me and for His world. It is through living my life and practicing my faith that I come to believe what is right or wrong, what is true or false, what is good or evil. The Holy Spirit will move through my life and the practice of my faith and lead me into all truth. And the Holy Spirit will do the same for each of us. This is, of course, where freedom of conscience gets tricky. I, with all my experiences both in my life and in my faith, may be led to a different truth than someone else is led, with all his or her experiences, even if we are both Christians.
I believe that our other scripture passage for today is instructive regarding freedom of conscience. The parable of the weeds among the wheat tells us that it is not our job to tear the weeds from the wheat; rather, it is God’s job. As a matter of fact, if we try to tear the weeds from the wheat, we may end up hurting the wheat. Only God has the discernment to know what is weed and what is wheat, and only God has the expertise to separate the two without injuring what is good, so we must leave the job to him. So, while we live as citizens of heaven, trying to embody heaven on earth as we exercise our freedom of conscience, we are not to tear into those whose freedom of conscience has led them to a different belief. Only God knows what is weed and what is wheat, and only God has the ability to separate the two, so we are to leave the job to God.
As citizens of heaven we are to try to imitate Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. . . . he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). As citizens of heaven, we are not to become self-righteous or think of ourselves as better or higher or right-er than others. Instead, we are to exercise the right and the responsibility of freedom of conscience, we are to continually discern the will and the way of God, we are to stand firm in our beliefs even while we love and respect and serve others with humility – even those others with whom we disagree, even those others we may think of as weeds, for only God knows who is truly weed or wheat; only God knows. Let us leave the judgment to God, then. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, February 21, 2016, the Second Sunday in Lent.