Sunday, 3 July 2011

Being a citizen; St Thomas' day

Ephesians 2.19-22, John 2.24-29

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…”

I’m a UK citizen. It was simple for me getting that status – both my parents were UK citizens, so it was automatic. I’m glad it was simple, because if you want to become a citizen in adulthood, you have to take an exam to do so and having looked at the kind of questions it asks, I’m not too sure I’d pass.
I would probably have managed “What and when are the Patron Saints' Days of the four countries of the UK?” but I’d have been in difficulties with some of the rest.
• What are the powers of the devolved administrations in the UK? Which areas of policy remain under the control of the UK Government?

• What is the earliest legal age at which children can do paid work, and what documents must they have before they can work?

I don’t think I’d stand a chance…
The trouble with the citizenship exam is that it is a very blunt instrument. We know intuitively when we feel part of a community, whether it is a nation, a neighbourhood, a workplace or a church. We have a sense of belonging, a connection and commitment. What happens there is our business. We have a stake in it. It has to do with us. But it is very hard to find a way of measuring all that in legal term, and it always has been. .

Immigration has been in the news again this week, with debates about how many foreign workers there should be in the UK, but this dilemma is nothing new. Deciding who is in and who is out, who belongs in a particular community and who doesn’t has always caused problems. It goes right back to the time when we first started moving from living in tribes – extended families – to living in cities where we were surrounded by lots of people we weren’t related to. Who was entitled to the support of the community now? Who could you count on in this mass of strangers?

The ancient Greeks were the first really to think about citizenship. They lived in city states, places like Athens, Sparta or Thebes. Each city made its own rules for deciding who belonged, but the fundamental assumption was the same. If you were a citizen you had rights, but you also had responsibilities. You were expected to take an interest and play your part. They took a very dim view of people who kept themselves to themselves and didn’t participate.

The Romans developed those ideas. They’d built a vast Empire spreading far out from their city state of Rome, and they soon realised that citizenship was a wonderful incentive to loyalty in the far-flung outposts of that Empire. So they gave out citizenship as a reward to retiring soldiers or foreign officials who helped them. St Paul’s father, a Jew from Tarsus, seems to have been given citizenship for his service to the Romans. Paul inherited it from him and he was glad of it, because it gave him protection on several occasions when he would otherwise have been flogged or even executed on the spot. It was ok to treat a non-citizen like that, but you couldn’t just punish or kill a Roman citizen without trial. It was a status worth having.

For most of those who lived in Paul’s world, though, Roman citizenship was way out of reach, and they knew it. For slaves and for the poor – who made up much of the early church - there was no chance of becoming citizens. They had nothing the Romans wanted.

So when Paul talks about citizenship in his letter to the Ephesians he is using a word loaded with meaning for them. And it wasn’t just Roman citizenship which was a fraught issue for them. There was another sort of belonging these early Christians cared deeply about. The early church was a mixture of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and both groups had reasons to feel insecure. For the Jewish Christians their new faith was really just a development of what they had always believed, a faith which went back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were still God’s chosen people as far as they were concerned. But the Jewish authorities didn’t agree, and gradually they were being pushed out of the synagogues. They weren’t part of their ancient household of faith any more.

The Gentile Christians, those who hadn’t grown up in Judaism, had problems of their own. Many of their Jewish brothers and sisters in the church looked askance at them. Here they were, sauntering into God’s family at the eleventh hour, without even having to keep the Jewish laws– could these Johnnie-come-latelies really belong on the same terms? It was hard for the Gentile Christians to feel secure when they kept being told they were gate crashers.

So citizenship – who belonged and who didn’t, and who got to decide – was a very live issue for many in the early church. When Paul starts talking about citizenship he knows his hearers will sit up and take notice. Pretty well everyone who heard his words would have felt like an outsider for some reason, a fish out of water, yearning to know they belonged somewhere to someone.

Paul’s words to them were a wonderful reassurance.
“You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he tells them, “you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” It doesn’t matter what Rome thinks about you. It doesn’t matter what the Jewish authorities think about you. It doesn’t matter what other members of the church think about you. God says you belong. You are a part of his household, his sons and daughters, you are a citizen of his kingdom, and there is no belonging that is more secure than that.

That was very good news, but it was also challenging because, as we saw earlier, being a citizen is about more than just having the right passport. It’s about connection and commitment, letting that sense of belonging make a difference in practical ways.

In today’s Gospel reading, I think we see the moment when for one man, the penny drops, that connection is made and he really starts to belong.

Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to his friends after the resurrection. He didn’t feel part of what had happened. He couldn’t connect with this strange story the others were telling of meeting the risen Jesus. It was as if they were all living in some new kingdom, while he was still stuck over the border in the old one. He’d caught glimpses of that kingdom as he had travelled around with Jesus during his ministry, watching him heal and teach and meet people with love, but when Jesus died he had convinced himself that those glimpses had been an illusion.

If Jesus hadn’t come to him, hadn’t shown him his wounds and invited him to reach out and touch them for himself, I suspect Thomas would probably have just walked away, gone back to his old life and written off his time with Jesus as a brief spell of madness. But when he sees him standing there, when he hears that familiar voice, it all becomes real. He crosses a boundary and he knows he can’t go back. It’s not just that he realises the story is true, but that the story matters to him and makes a difference to him. Suddenly he isn’t just looking at the kingdom of God from a distance, like a curious traveller, just passing through; he is right in the thick of it. He has become a citizen. This new world, with its new demands and its new perspectives is one he can’t turn his back on.

Jesus talks about his new- found belief, and about those who will believe in him later.
To us “belief” tends to be something we do with our heads. It is about intellectual assent to some set of statements. But that isn’t what the New Testament writers meant by it. To them belief was much broader and deeper. It was about throwing in your lot with someone, letting your life be changed by that allegiance. In a sense it is the same as becoming a citizen, really belonging, acknowledging the claims that this new place, this new community, this new perspective has on your life.

Tradition has it that Thomas travelled eastwards with the message of Jesus after this encounter and ended up in India, where he was eventually martyred. Unlike many ancient legends, it is entirely possible that this one has a basis in fact. There were well-established trade routes from the Middle East to India, and there are very ancient Christian churches in India, which claim to have Thomas as their founder. Whether that is true or not, Thomas’ meeting with Jesus changes his life completely. “This is about me,” he realises. “This is where I belong; I am not just an onlooker, a visitor passing through; I am a citizen of this kingdom that Jesus has died to establish, and nothing can ever be the same again.

It is a wonderful thing to belong, to feel secure, to feel at home. But real belonging isn’t just a matter of passing a citizenship exam or getting a passport – you can have all the official documents you like and still feel like a stranger, disconnected and alone. That is true of nations and of neighbourhoods, of churches and of any other group we belong to. It is when we let that place and its people make a claim on us, when we find ourselves giving as well as receiving that we really start to feel that this is our place, our business, our responsibility. It is especially true of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where there are no citizenship exams, no quotas, no passports, where everyone is welcome. There are no strangers in God’s household, but it is up to us whether we choose to let that welcome become real to us, make a difference to us, and whether we are prepared to live as people who belong and who want others to know they belong too.


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