In a time when Roman expansion reached as far as the known world could go the assumption was that they had arrived. Romans believed that their Empire had civilised the entire world. Such an Empire was understood to be the society of all societies and as a consequence such civilisation marked, they believed, that the end of world history was being played out in their time. The Eternal Rome with their ordered and controlled way of life was deemed the culmination of all things. Bringing every Barbarian tribe to heel was proof that things cannot get better than this. To whom were people being brought to heel? To the one whom Rome venerated – the Emperor.
This was a time of control where political executions on crucifixes were conveniently placed in public to deter any sedition. The Army was bursting to full and intimidating. Public services were efficient and people knew their place. The nobles had privilege; everyone else stayed in their station. Perhaps not everyone was equal, but everyone was deemed secure as fellow Roman citizens. This was Pax Romana at its finest.
Yet there were fledgling communities scattered all over this Empire whose allegiance had radically shifted. No longer was the Roman Emperor perceived to be in authority as the one who offers ‘peace’. Instead there were those who were 'acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus’ (Acts 17.7), exclaimed a once frustrated Roman from Thessalonica.
One such community which bowed the knee to Jesus of Nazareth rather than Caesar was in Philippi, a city which sought to be a mini-Rome. Rome far from Rome if you like. If you lived in Philippi you would doubtless feel as much a Roman citizen as anyone in the Empire’s epicentre. And that was the intention. But these burgeoning communities of Jesus understood that their ‘citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3.20).
Because the King is alternative, so is our citizenship. Followers of Jesus belong to a different tribe. As it was in Rome or Philippi of 49 AD so it is in Melrose, Port Ellen and Gairloch today. Just to be clear – being a citizen of heaven means currently living amidst the Empires of today, whether it be global capitalism, Post-Enlightenment Romanticism or whatever. Jesus’ kingdom may not ‘be from this world’ (John 18.36), but make no mistake, it is for this world. It is this very point that so many of Jesus’ followers miss in Scotland today.
The world of Perth and Dundee, as it was in first century Philippi, is not as it should be. It could look different. Citizens of heaven exist to show society in a humble way what it looks like to really live. It is incumbent upon those who hold a passport of the kingdom of God, through faith in this living Lord, to be involved in the reshaping of our communities in accordance with their citizenship. We ought not batten down the hatches and wait for the Second Coming. Absconding from this world, the very object of Jesus’ redemption, is to rubbish that which is motivated by his love and grace.
I hark back to my blog of 4th February – those who are so marked by their belonging to Jesus Christ are compelled to ‘pick up a shovel’. We will not be able to bring a new earth about ourselves. Reality this side of heaven will always be fraught with difficulty. Nor will the quietism of some quarters of the evangelical/Christian world do. We belong instead to an active, constructive, humble, but grander vision of what society should be. Such a vision is not just fancy sprinkles, it is the very yeast of the cake itself.
By Dr Stuart Weir, CARE for Scotland National Director