Family vs. Citizenship

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Family vs. Citizenship

March 13, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18                     Luke 13:31-35             Philippians 3:17 – 4:1

What would you do if you won a prize that you couldn’t use?

A graduating high school senior would not be impressed with winning a burial plot or custom casket from the funeral home.  Someone who can’t swim and is afraid of the water probably wouldn’t be too impressed if you told them that they won a new bass boat.  And someone who can no longer drive, doesn’t stray far from home, and whom most of us would think of as being a shut-in, would not be terribly excited about winning a cruise or an adventure vacation package to go hiking in Grand Teton National Park.  It is just that sort of… lack of enthusiasm that God receives when he tells an elderly Abram, who was already ninety-nine years old, that he would be given a “great reward.”  We begin our scripture lesson this morning with that story from Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 where we hear this:

15:1 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inheritmy estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so, a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspringbe.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadiof Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God offers Abram the grand prize to beat all grand prizes and Abram’s response is, “meh”, or “so what?” because he’s already written his will and knows that his entire estate will be inherited by one of his favorite, and most trusted, servants.  Abram has no children and no family other than his faithful wife.  And, since he left his ancestral home decades before, he doesn’t even have any nieces or nephews or extended family that he cared to name in his will.  To Abram, at the age of 99, it’s too late.  He doesn’t need any more money, or power, or fame, or anything else than he already has and he has no heirs to whom to leave it.  But God knows that and includes a bonus in the grand prize that Abram didn’t expect.  God includes an heir, a son, born in his old age, as a part of the prize package.  And, just to reassure Abram that this is the real deal, God signs a covenant contract with animals slaughtered in a particular way, that was a well-known system of signing treaties between lords and vassals in Abram’s time, and one that Abram would certainly have known and understood.  In in his contract with Abram, God not only promises gifts to Abram’s yet unborn son, but also to his heirs many generations into the future.  God’s promise extended beyond Abram, to all of Abram’s family and the nation that would one day descend from them.  But was God’s promise limited to people who were genetically connected to Abram?

Well, many of those people certainly thought so.  And it may well be that attitude that we see in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Luke 13:31-35.  Here the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod may want to kill Jesus because he thinks that he is the resurrected John the Baptist, but also because the Pharisees just want Jesus to go away.

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

So, yes, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to go away, but they had also heard that Herod was afraid that Jesus was able to do miracles because he was John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded, who had been raised from the dead.  And in this, although it is certainly self-serving on the part of the Pharisees, there may also an element of “Us vs. Them.”  Jesus and the Pharisees, even though they often were at odds with one another, were on the same “side.”  Since they were all Jews, they were all descendants of Abraham, they were all from the people of Israel, they were from the same family, and at some level, for many of them, Herod was the outsider and the enemy. 

Over the hundreds of years between Abraham and Jesus, the people of Israel often came to see their nationality and their citizenship as being inextricably connected to, and intermingled with, their ideas of family.  This was a thing that started early, and God often gave Israel instructions to push back against that idea by commanding them to treat foreigners the same as everyone else under the law and to treat them decently as human beings and as people of faith.  It was necessary for God to do that because people so intermixed the ideas of family and citizenship that they discriminated against anyone who wasn’t born into the right family tree.

God never said that his Abram’s blessing meant that God would not bless people outside of Abram’s family and God often had to remind his people of that but, with the coming of Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection, that familial, genetic understanding was explicitly, and openly confronted by the followers of Jesus.  And that’s what we see in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi in Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 where he writes these words:

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Much like the world we live in, Paul’s world was a confusing and frightening place.  People who claimed to represent Jesus did things, and taught things, that were not in line with the teachings of scripture or those of Jesus.  And there were also people inside and outside of the church whose primary motivation was to enrich themselves rather than to advance the cause of the kingdom of God.  And so, Paul encourages everyone to follow his example and to choose good role models that live and teach in the same selfless way that the disciples, Paul, and his other ministry partners did.  He admits that there are people who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” but he reminds the church that our true citizenship is not to be found in our families, not in the nation in which we live (although that is not to be ignored), but in heaven.  We look forward to the return of Jesus Christ and our final transformation into the bodies of our eternal form.

Abram knew that God’s grand prize didn’t have much value if he didn’t have anyone with whom to share it and God knew that too, so he made a covenant with Abram to pass that blessing on to the future generations of his offspring.  The mistake that many of his descendants made was to assume that God’s promise was inherited to Abram’s genetic offspring and not the descendants that inherited his faith.  God regularly reminded his people that they needed to welcome the stranger, to welcome the foreigner, to treat foreigners the same under the law as they treated the citizens of their own nation and members of their own family.  And the coming of Jesus, and then the ministry of Paul, broadened that understanding even further.  Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus becomes a member of Abraham’s family and we all inherit the blessings of God and an eternity in God’s house as co-heirs, brothers, and sisters of Jesus Christ. 

But Abram saw that his inheritance lost its value if he didn’t have anyone with whom to share it and the same is true for us.  We have been given a great inheritance that includes the blessings of God, a transformed eternal body, citizenship in the kingdom of God, and an eternal home in God’s house.  But as good as that is, its value fades if we have no one with whom to share it.  Our calling is to stand firm in our faith, to pattern our lives after Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and the best role models that we can find, so that we can live our lives as ambassadors of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, and so that we can share what we have with our family, our friends, our nation, and the world.

Because Abram knew that the greatest value of God’s gift wasn’t in having it, but in sharing it.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Real Freedom (and Pandemic Paul)

We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.” 

But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s become a cliché to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?”  But this week, I’ve been thinking church should be asking itself what Paul would do.  Of course, anyone who has spent any time in church or Vacation Bible School has heard about Paul the Apostle.  Paul was born in Tarsus which was a part of what is now the nation of Turkey.  But despite being born far from Rome, Paul was born to parents who were both Jews and Roman citizens. 

There were privileges that came with being a Roman citizen.  It was as if the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights only applied to citizens, and you carried those rights wherever you went, anywhere in the Roman world.  Non-citizens didn’t have the same rights and slaves certainly did not have them.  Romans could not be beaten or treated harshly, and while they could be arrested, they couldn’t be tried in any court outside of Rome but had to be returned to Rome, or to a Roman court, for trial.  In modern language, citizens were privileged.

But Paul didn’t always use that privilege.  Paul found that sometimes his privilege, his rights, his citizenship, and even his freedom, was a disadvantage when sharing the message of Jesus with the people around him.  In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Even though Paul was not a slave, he sometimes gave up the rights that he had so that he could be heard by the slaves and share the message of Jesus with them.  Even though Paul knew that following Jesus released him from some of the dietary restrictions and rules of the Jewish faith, he would follow those customs when he was with the Jews so that they would be able to hear his words when he shared the gospel.  But when Paul was living among the Greeks and other people who were not Jewish, he would follow their customs for the same reason. 

Wherever Paul went, he did whatever he could to allow people to hear his message.  And that often meant giving up something important.  Paul found that his rights, his privileges, and even his freedom, got in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  Slaves wouldn’t hear a message that was preached by someone who used their citizenship and their freedom to act better than them.  Jews wouldn’t listen to someone who was an outsider and violated their religious laws.  And people everywhere feel more comfortable around a person who respects their customs.

But what does that mean to us?  What would Paul do if he lived among us today?

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic crisis in the United States, we are hearing a lot about rights and privileges.  We have a right to move about freely.  We are free to choose whether we will wear a mask.  And those persons who are vaccinated are being granted special rights and additional freedoms. 

But is exercising those freedoms the right thing to do?

I’ve seen churches advertising that they are “Open and Mask-less.”  Vendors are selling signs saying that vaccinated persons are welcome in their church.  And I’ve seen churches that say things like, “All are welcome.  Unvaccinated persons must wear masks.”  I understand that these are the rights that are given to us under the United States Constitution, and the privileges of having access to the Covid-19 vaccine.  But will exercising these rights prevent us from sharing the message of the gospel?

It was once common for churches to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves.  That custom made me so uncomfortable that I vowed never to return to any church that made me do it.  And so, I worry that requiring unvaccinated persons to wear masks will make them feel unwelcome.  We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.”  But that’s exactly what these signs are saying.  Anything that draws a line between “us” and “them” is exactly what Paul spent his life trying to avoid.

If Paul were writing today, I wonder if his words wouldn’t be, “Though I am vaccinated, and am free to do as I wish, I have made myself to be unvaccinated, to win as many as possible.  To the unvaccinated, I have become unvaccinated to win the unvaccinated.  With the mask wearers, I have worn masks, to win those that wear masks.”  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

We have rights.  But what if using them turns people away?  In the twenty-first century, like Paul, we must be careful that our rights, privileges, and freedoms do not get in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Blessings,

Pastor John


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