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Everyone Belongs (Citizenship) -- Ephesians 2:11-22 (6th Sunday After Pentecost)


Photo credit: Nick Fewings, used with permission via Unsplash





Twice in my life, I’ve had the honor of attending a citizenship ceremony – I think officially it’s called a “naturalization ceremony.”  The first was a little over 30 years ago, when I was clerking for a federal judge in Mobile, Alabama. I came into work that morning, and one of the judge’s secretaries let me know that Judge would be presiding at the citizenship ceremony in the Ceremonial Courtroom, and that Judge had said to come down and watch if we were interested.


Now the Ceremonial Courtroom was something else. Most courtrooms today are not all that big – designed for and crowded with technology (like what you see when we’re called for jury duty here in Marin County). For the Ceremonial Courtroom – you could think more like To Kill a Mockingbird – but all in marble – a big, grand courtroom – with columns – in the federal style. Impressive... and imposing.

        

When my co-clerks and I walked in, the room was packed. We sat in the back. I think it was the most cross-cultural crowd I had ever been in – people from a broad spectrum of national origins, every age and complexion. Judge Cox convened us very formally. We said the Pledge. Some of the folks who were becoming citizens spoke, telling the stories of how they’d come here. Families were beaming with pride. Judge said some words about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and then he asked those becoming citizens to rise, and they took the oath of citizenship – while the rest of us sat in rapt silence. And then, there was cheering, lots of cheering. I had the sense – in my bones – that something significant had happened.

        

The second time was just five years ago, over in Oakland, at the Fox Theatre – which is, I’d say, more than10 times bigger than the Ceremonial Courtroom. And this time, I knew somebody. One of my colleagues at the seminary and her husband were taking the oath, and they invited us to come – so Rev. Ruth T West and I rode over together. Like the last time, there were tons of people – all the families – from so many nations of origin. And it was the Bay Area, so outside, on the way in, there were lots of community organizers, with their tables set up, ready – on the way out – to register the new citizens to vote, and to ask them to sign petitions.


Inside, the Fox Theatre was packed out. We heard stories from those being sworn in; there was a video with talk of freedom and the Bill of Rights; and then they took the oath. Speaking all together, they promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to work for the good of the nation in times of war and times of peace. And then they were asked to repeat: “I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.”  And the Presider said to the crowd, “Friends, meet your newest fellow citizens.” And the place went wild, for our family and our friends. What I remember most was that moment – of wild cheering and weeping, whoopin’ and hollerin’ – that moment where in our world of division and discord – for a moment – there was the sense that there was nothing separating us at all. For a moment. A beautiful, joy-overflowing moment.

        

I begin with those stories, so that we can begin with, and hold on to that moment of joy-in-togetherness as we turn to this Scripture that invites us to think about citizenship. Because more often than not these days, I think thoughts of citizenship get tangled up with the narrower concept of nationality – it gets bound up in our immigration crisis, and in the failure of both political parties to repair that broken system, to the harm of so many.


This Scripture invites us to think more expansively – about citizenship in the broadest sense[1]. So let’s think for a bit about what citizenship is – broadly understood, and then turn to what this passage from Ephesians has to say. And then we’ll turn back to our contested world. Sound good?

        

For both us and the writer of Ephesians, the concept of citizenship has its roots in Ancient Greece – and iin Greek city-states.[2] The Greek word in the text is politiea –related to polis – the word for city (we know that Greek word, think Indianapolis). And the word for citizen here is sympolitai – actually, citizens together – those who share in the life of the city.[3] Now, by the time Ephesians is written, it’s the era of the Roman Empire. Rome has expanded the notion so to reflect the distinction between those who are citizens of the Empire – entitled to all the rights – and to separate them out from the subjected, colonized people. To be a citizen of Rome is no small thing: The Apostle Paul is a citizen of Rome – and when he is prisoner in Jerusalem being tried for sundry crimes, he invokes that citizenship, and the proceedings grind to a halt, because, as a citizen, he has the right to be tried in Rome.

        

The notion of citizenship fades during the Middle Ages – replaced by feudal relationships, but it reemerges particularly during the age of revolutions – French and American. In the French Revolution, it becomes particularly important. They are revolting against an absolute monarch – and, for them, “citizen” is a more egalitarian expression meant to counter the hierarchical relationship of subject and king. They embrace it as an egalitarian title – they address themselves as Citizen: Citizen Clark, Citizen Cowperthwaite, Citizen Reppun.

        

But remember, we’re thinking expansively – at the fullness of this concept. Across all that history, there’s a sense that citizenship is about the relationship of the individual to the broader community. There’s a sense that it’s about both rights and responsibilities. I think it’s interesting that the USCIS describes it in terms of values: “Citizenship is a unique bond that unites people around civic ideals and a belief in rights and freedoms.”[4] The Center for the Study of Citizenship emphasizes participation – as citizens we are “participatory members in community.”[5] And, I found a group of young people in the UK who describe it like this: “Citizenship is people working together to make a positive difference in the society in which they live,” based on the values of justice, openness, and tolerance.[6] 

        

Now notice:


·      Across all those notions – notice that there is a negative power that can be invoked with the word citizenship: Some are in. Some are out. Some are citizens. Some are not. It’s the power of separation.


·      AND, there is an affirmative power that can be invoked. You... belong. And you, and you, and you. You belong. I belong. We belong.  We are citizens together. Together, we participate in something bigger than ourselves – participatory members in community – gathered around values and a common cause – the commonwealth, the common health – the well-being of community. (We use this sense all the time, think of being “citizens of the world.”)


In one sense, the power of the word citizenship can be used for separation. In the other, the power of the word can be used to affirm the quality of community to which we all belong.


Now notice this: The writer of Ephesians rejects entirely the power of separation.The writer of Ephesians remembers a time of separation – a very real reality – where some were in, and some were not. Remember the former times, when there were rules and law that kept us apart. Some were called “circumcised” and some “uncircumcised.” Remember, back then, you were excluded from citizenship, from the commonwealth, foreigners and strangers, without hope, without God.


But now. But now. Christ has destroyed the barriers – abolishing forever the power of separation – tearing down the walls, the rules that keep some out. In Christ, those who were far off have been brought near, and the two have been made one. What Christ has created is nothing less than one new humanity in which all of us belong. Citizenship in this more expansive sense has nothing to do with the now-defunct power of separation.


And then the writer of Ephesians gives us these cascading images. We are one body. We are citizens together – everyone now with access, with all the rights of living human, all of us sharing responsibility for each other. No one is any longer to be thought of as “stranger” or “alien.” We are all members of God’s household – with the horizontal, loving relationships of family and friendship replacing notions of hierarchy and power-over. We are being built together to be the dwelling place of God: Where God lives in the world is wherever this new humanity resides and thrives.[7]


In Christ, what we see, what we experience, what we participate in is a citizenship higher, and broader, and deeper than any the world has ever known. We are citizens together in Christ. There is an entirely new architecture. The dividing walls have been demolished, and what rises up is a new house in which everyone dwells – God and us – each and all part of this one new humanity.


So notice two things – two things about this new humanity – about our citizenship in Christ. First, everyone belongs. Ultimately, citizenship is about belonging – that deepest of human needs – a place to belong where we can live out together the fullness of what it is to be human. In Christ, everyone belongs – each of us created equal in our fabulous diversity, woven together in the fabric of friendship, family, and community. One body. One house. One humanity.


And second, everyone is a full and participatory member of that body. I have a lifelong friend whose mother talked in terms that I used to think sounded old-fashioned. She used to talk about “philanthropy.” All seven of her kids (on into adulthood) were expected to always be doing some type of what they called philanthropy – volunteer work. And she talked about being “moral” in the best possible way – of being an honest, loving, kind human being – with a sense of responsibility to help others live and thrive. Remember what those young people said: “Citizenship is working together to make a difference in the society in which they live.” Citizenship is about the quality of participation that we put back into the community into which we all have been welcomed. In Christ, we are building the house together.


OK, so now... let’s bring this more expansive understanding of citizenship back into the world we inhabit here, together, on June 30, 2024 – back into our contested world. What if we understand ourselves first and foremost as citizens together in Christ – participatory members of a body in which everyone belongs.


What would that mean if we brought that understanding to the crisis of our broken immigration system. What would it mean to live, first and foremost, as citizens called to participate in a new humanity where Christ has abolished every wall that divides – and where every person belongs – each of us fully human, all of us with access to the source of life. What would it mean to participate, together to build that house.


Just this past week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that allows municipalities to make sleeping outdoors illegal – it doesn’t matter if the city has beds enough.[8] What would it mean to say we are all citizens together in Christ – in a house where everyone dwells. What would it mean to build that house. I know, these are big questions. Questions that just open up into more questions. But, what if.


In this season of civic observance – Juneteenth, Pride, Independence Day –  as we are thinking about our communal values – I think last week was a particularly hard week.  There were all those Supreme Court decisions. And the debate. And on Friday morning, I don’t know about you, but I was deeply sad – a bit weepy. And I wondered, Have we given up? Now, I’m not talking about any political race. My sorrow was more expansive than that. I’m talking about our values.


Have we given up on insisting that our leaders be honest, decent people?

Have we given up on the notion that public servants serve for the public good?

Have we given up on expecting that our leaders think about and care for the most vulnerable among us?


And this passage from Ephesians brought me to a broader horizon. We are citizens in Christ, living a new humanity, where everyone belongs. What a gift. We don’t get to give up. We don’t get to give up on building that house. We don’t get to give up on saying to those who have been far off, “Welcome in.” We don’t get to give up on being citizens together – on being human together. In Christ, we are one body, one house where everyone can dwell, one humanity living and loving the world for good -- we don't get to give up on that.


Imagine for a moment – if we paused this week to celebrate citizenship like that. Imagine. There we all are, gathered together – maybe not in a ceremonial courtroom – but out in the open air – people of every land and race and gender and nation. We share our stories of how we have come to be here. We see each other, and we are fully seen, and we promise together to work for the common good – in good times and not so good – to be citizens together – to build together this world beyond every separation, this world where everyone belongs. Imagine the whoopin’ and hollerin’ on that day, as we wrap up those promises to each other, with those humble, gentle, determined words: “So help us God.”




© 2024 Scott Clark




[1] For general background on this text and Ephesians, see Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp.395-405; Israel Kamudzandu , Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-2/commentary-on-ephesians-211-22-6 ; Sally A. Brown, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-2/commentary-on-ephesians-211-22

[2] This is a very basic overview of the concept of citizenship, drawn from Perkins, supra; Raymond H. Reimer, “Citizenship,” in The New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, vol.1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009), pp. 670-71; https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/ ;  https://www.britannica.com/topic/citizenship

[3] See Perkins, pp.396-97.

[7] See Perkins, p.402.

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