We’re continuing our study of Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God. We are now well-beyond the book, but continuing to explore its implications.
The holy colony
(Phil 3:20-21) 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.
We in the US take citizenship for granted. Most of us were born citizens. But in Rome, citizenship was a rare commodity — enjoyed by a minority of residents. Citizenship had to be inherited, bought, or earned. And the most common way to earn it was to serve at least 25 years in the Roman Legion.
After service, a Legionnaire would not only be given citizenship, he’d be given a tract of land in a Roman colony — that is, a city founded by Rome outside Italy. Philippi was one such city.
In a Roman colony, most people would not be citizens, but the citizens living there would mainly be retired soldiers and their children, and they’d be very proud of their citizenship.
The colonies served to protect Rome’s interests. After all, if necessary, the retired soldiers could be counted on to be loyal to Rome rather than to the local people and their peculiar, non-Roman customs. The retired soldiers also served as something of an army reserve, trained to preserve the peace and Roman interests when necessary.
Rome planted colonies at strategic points throughout the empire. These were not made up of conquered peoples, but of Romans. They were primarily to preserve the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. This was the great dream of the Romans. Universal peace would be secured by recognition of one lord, the Emperor. Every year upon his birthday, every citizen in the world was expected to burn a pinch of incense in front of his bust and audibly declare, “Caesar is lord!”
A Roman colony was a “little Rome.” It was set down in an alien world, where its citizens were strangers and foreigners to the land in which they lived. They spoke Latin, the language of Rome. Their dress, their customs, their whole manner of life was dictated to them by Rome, not by the social customs of the people of the land. The education of their children was to enable them to be proud citizens of Rome. They were taught to look forward with great anticipation and expectancy to the coming of the Emperor. That coming was resplendent in glory and pageantry. The colony must be ready at all times. There was to be no shame if the coming was unannounced.
To the alert mind of the apostle the little community of saints was a colony planted in an alien world. It was there to propagate the peace of heaven. This was to be a universal peace to be achieved by acknowledging one Lord-Jesus Christ. Every week the disciples gathered about a table and ate and drank in memory of Him. The colony of the Spirit which began with Lydia and her household was “a colony within a colony,” and the last was the pagan culture in which the first was set down.
This explains Paul’s use of politeuma. It was the word for citizenship. After having encouraged them to be followers together of him, and to observe those who did follow him as an example, he declares, “For we are a colony of heaven; from which we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” What a thrill it must have been to the little persecuted minority in Philippi to realize they were actually a colony planted by heaven, set on a victorious course which would one day be world-shaking.
Paul told the church to think of themselves as colony — people living in place where they are not citizens and there to pursue the interests of their native land. A Roman colonist in Greece would see Greek as a foreign language and Greek ways as foreign ways. He’d have to learn their language and ways, but he’d live as a Roman.
But Roman citizenship was both a privilege and an obligation. Citizens were expected to serve Rome, to worship the emperor (called “lord” and “savior” and even “son of god”), and to uphold Roman values — which they were expected to pass on to their children.
And to tell a Roman citizen that his real citizenship is in heaven is to tell him that his greatest pride and treasure has been replaced by something of far greater value.
Notice that Paul didn’t say that they are co-citizens, both of Rome and heaven. No, their allegiance is solely to God. There are no divided loyalties, just as a Roman soldier in Philippi owed allegiance to the Roman emperor only.
For Christians today, the impact is, in a sense, far greater, because while we take our US citizenship for granted, we identify ourselves as Americans as much as we identify as ourselves as Christians. Our local Christian private school is the “American Christian Academy” — because it values patriotism and Christianity — not because there’s any risk that someone might think it’s not in America.
We want to be co-citizens, and we want to import Americanism into Christianity to create Amerianity — that peculiar brand of Christianity that studies the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in Sunday School as if those those documents were holy writ drafted by the holy apostles themselves.
But that would be like a Roman citizen in Greece declaring the laws of Greece equal to the laws of Rome. That would be, well, sedition against Rome. Rather, Greek law was to be judged by Roman law. They might obey the local laws for the sake of peace, but only if the laws didn’t conflict with the will of the Emperor. But the Roman citizen never asked whether Greece honored the laws of Greece. The true citizen asked whether Greece honors the laws of Rome.
Just so, when we get distracted from God and his word, and instead focus on securing our rights as Americans under American law, well, that’s to seek the lesser thing. It’s not Christianity at all. It’s pursuing the values of a nation which isn’t where our real citizenship is. No, we’re a colony of God, living under God’s laws, and those laws haven’t changed and don’t need to be defended before the Supreme Court.
I don’t know … Sometimes I think we feel the need to have our Christian values affirmed by the secular government, as though God needs the endorsement of the Alabama legislature or the United States Congress.