Our Citizenship is in Heaven

I have grown to detest election cycles – and I don’t even watch TV or listen to the radio, where (I know) the ads have been sensationalized and manipulative for many years. I hate the way that beloved children of God allow themselves to be divided against each other over secular politics. Many a friendship has shipwrecked on the rock of politics – and for what? I hate the way that fear becomes such a core motivator during election cycles. If “that person” or “those people” get elected, then…   Then what? Then God will stop being God? Then Jesus Christ’s victory will be in vain? Then we can no longer have the peace of Jesus within us? Then he can no longer work his wonders through us?

Since when has any political ruler ever stopped the Kingdom of God?

The apostle Paul warned against this worldly way of thinking, reminding us, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). He tells the Philippians that he is writing this letter in tears because of the “enemies of the Cross of Christ,” whose minds are occupied with earthly things (Philippians 3:18-19).

I’m not saying, of course, that it doesn’t matter who gets elected, or that informed voting isn’t important. I am saying that Jesus’ Kingdom is not ultimately of this world (John 18:36). I’m reminding each of us that he has already conquered victoriously, and that he invites us many times to be not afraid. He assures us, “You will have trouble in the world – but take courage, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). He tells us this so that we can have peace in him – a true peace that no one can take away (John 14:27). We need not be afraid of the powers of this world. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:31-39).

Some political signs even go so far as to say “SAVE AMERICA!!” Never mind that the USA contains only a fraction of God’s beloved sons and daughters. Never mind that Jesus alone is the savior of the human race – and that he already claims victory! When Jesus comes in glory and tells the story of the entire human race, the USA may not hold quite as exalted of a place as some like to think.

Yearning for political messiahs is nothing new. Fear of bad things happening is normal – and bad things do happen, as Jesus promised they would. Anger at injustice is normal and good – outrage is an appropriate human response to evil deeds. But both our anger and our fear – especially when we do not invite Jesus into the midst of them – leave us vulnerable to the manipulation of secular powers. Many who own news outlets or social media conglomerates make their money by manipulating us – and too often we allow them! Many running for office warn us of just how bad it will be if the other person wins. They seduce us into an ungodly alliance: “Join us, and we will protect you against them…”

Now obviously, if we exercise our civic duty and vote, we have to vote for someone. No doubt, one candidate is often preferable to the other. The idolatry enters in when we allow ourselves to get seduced by political ideologies. Psalm 146 warns us to put not our trust in princes, in mortal men in who there is no salvation. There is a difference between voting for someone and looking to that person or party for deliverance or salvation.

The prophet Isaiah devotes two entire chapters (30 and 31) to the issuance of a stern warning to the Israelites who are forming an alliance with Egypt in order to protect themselves against the threat of the Assyrians. Yes, the Assyrians were a terrifying threat. But the chariots of the Egyptians were not meant to be the salvation of Israel. God was! The prophet sternly warns the people that they are living in the shadow of Egypt, to their own ruin and destruction. God promised (and did) win the victory against the Assyrians. They were living in the shadow of fear and giving their trust over to the Egyptians rather than God. They suffered greatly as a result, in the form of the Babylonian exile, foretold by Isaiah. Only a remnant remained of those who put their trust in God rather than secular salvation.

It could have gone differently for them – if only they had heeded the gentle voice of God! Isaiah extended God’s invitation to them: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength. But this you did not desire!” (Isaiah 30:15).

Let’s all examine our consciences this fall. Are we living in an unshakable confidence in the victory of Jesus that has already been won? Do we accept and believe in the true peace that only Jesus can give – and which he begins to confer upon us even now? Do we claim that peace and choose to abide in it? Do we choose to radiate his victory and change the world by loving our neighbor – yes, even our enemies?

Or are we living in fear, holding in contempt the other humans who are allegedly stealing our peace away from us (as though it is theirs to take!)? Are we allowing ourselves to be manipulated and seduced by secular powers that cannot and will not save us? Are we attempting to exchange the already-real peace of Jesus for a worldly peace that never has existed (not since Eden!) and never will until Jesus comes again?  Are we conducting ourselves as enemies of the Cross of Christ by living for this world instead?

Come, Lord Jesus!

Jesus’ Story and Our Story

My original title today was “The Logos and our logos.” No good. The reader would start thinking of the Nike logo or the McDonald’s logo. I could go with the actual Greek alphabet and say “the λόγος and our λόγος” – but that would scare some away.

Logos (λόγος) is the Greek word for “word.” But it can mean so many other things: reason, explanation, discourse, account, sentence, meaning, language, communication, and much more. It’s one of those Bible words that simply can’t be translated without losing much of the meaning (much of the λόγος!).

The beginning of John’s Gospel dramatically presents Jesus as the eternal λόγος, who was with the Father in the beginning, and who is himself God. He is the spoken Word through whom all things came to be. That Word becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us. That Word gives purpose and meaning to our otherwise meaningless existence. He makes it possible for our life to be worth something, and opens us up to share in his eternal life.

That’s John 1. Today I want to reflect on Hebrews 4:

“Indeed, the Word (λόγος) of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (λόγος)” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

I had a great “aha!” moment this summer on retreat when I was praying my way through the Letter to the Hebrews. Over the last 12 years, I’ve been slowly soaking in the New Testament on my annual retreats. During each hour of meditation, I read and meditate on the English translation of a chapter or two at a time. Then I go back and look at the Greek.

In this case, I was dumbstruck that this oft-quoted passage begins and ends with the word “word” (λόγος). Jesus is the eternal Word of God, living and effective, penetrating soul and spirit, laying bare our hearts. In his presence, my own λόγος comes to full light. I am part of a story. My human life is a “word” in its own right. My story will be told; my “word” will come to full light – possibly in this life and for sure in the next. Jesus, the eternal λόγος, promises to take all that is buried or hidden and expose it fully (Luke 8:17).

His story is a judgment upon my story and your story – not in the sense that he is eager to dole out condemnation. Quite the opposite! He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He does not will the death of the sinner, but that we turn to him and live! But the only way for our guilt and our shame to be healed is for the entirety of our story to be brought into his light. So long as we keep parts of it buried away or hidden, we cannot be a whole person. The conflict that is playing itself out in the drama of your story and my story cannot be resolved until Christ, the great protagonist, is allowed to be present to all of it.

This is why we Catholics put the Paschal Mystery at the center of all things. Every Sunday we gather to remember and participate anew in the saving event that is the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus. Every year we enter the Paschal Triduum – the holy three days that is one single celebration – to remember THE story – the only story, the one true story, without which our human experience cannot be redeemed or resolved.

Hebrews 4:13 is typically translated in English as us giving an account in the presence of Jesus. Literally in Greek this passage says “All things are naked and uncovered to the eyes of him to whom belongs our λόγος.” The vulnerability of this experience is indeed unsettling. But deep down, don’t we all ache to be known, seen, heard, and truly understood?  Only the eternal λόγος can make that happen – and only by uncovering and laying bare all that is within us!

We belong to him – not in the sense that he owns us, but that we are ordered to him in a relationship – both in creation and in redemption. The original creation happened through him. Through God’s Word all was made. God spoke us humans into being, breathed his Spirit into us, and declared us very good. He gave us stewardship of the entire cosmos. We failed. He never stopped loving us. He promised to send the woman and her offspring to crush the head of the serpent. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word died of the Cross and rose from the dead. The Word promises to take our tangled mess, to expose and uncover all of it – and to heal, restore, and gloriously transform us.

This, I think, is also the meaning behind Simeon’s cryptic words to the Virgin Mary: that a sword will pierce her heart so that the hearts of many may be laid bare (Luke 2:35). She is the New Eve, the promised woman. Her heart is fully pierced, fully vulnerable, and fully exposed – for sure at the Cross on Good Friday – but actually at many moments. Jesus declares “Behold, your mother!” so that each of us can receive her fierce and tender motherly care throughout the rather unsettling process of our own hearts being pierced by the Word, exposed, healed, and transformed. His eternal Love is both fierce and tender, and it is the only way.

Jesus does not expect this transformation to happen all at once. It’s a gradual process that happens over time. Like any great story, ours has moments of triumph, moments of loss and heartache, moments of betrayal, much adversity, and many setbacks. At every chapter, we can remember that THE story has already been told, and the victory has already been won – in the person of the λόγος. His story gets to become our story. Will we, like Mary, say “yes”?