Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, 11;
A number of years ago I came across the results of a nationwide poll in which people were asked to define themselves in a single word. What would you answer? Not even one sentence but using just one word, who are you? Of the more than eleven-hundred people who participated in the New York Times — CBS News poll there were about two hundred different answers.
Among the most frequently given answers were the words “average” at four percent of those polled, “me” or “myself” at four percent as well. The word “concerned” came in at nearly three percent among the words most offered as a self-description. Few other words reached even one percent.
After the poll was taken a number of celebrities were asked to describe themselves in a single word. Businessman Donald Trump answered, “Doer.” Professional basketball coach Pat Riley offered the word “Traditional.” News anchor Peter Jennings described himself with the word, “Impassioned.” Talk show host Rush Limbaugh selected the world, “Misrepresented.” None of the respondents in the poll choose a word of self-description that indicated their race. Neither did participants in the poll tend to label themselves as members of an interest group or part. The single word that was used the most, well over twice as much as the next most frequently given word of self-identity was “American.” This answer was evenly distributed across the country.
Perhaps you don’t find the results of this poll the least bit surprising. Maybe it is pretty much what you would expect. I confess that when I read the results of the poll I was disappointed with what I found. After all, the United States is a country in which over eighty percent of the population claim in some fashion to be followers of Jesus. It seems reasonable to think that the overwhelming majority or at least a large plurality of people would describe themselves with the single word “Christian,” not “American.” Certainly there is nothing wrong with being American. To the contrary, much good can be said about it. But the poll seems to me to suggest a misplaced priority.
Citizenship is about not just where you live but where you belong. It is about things like identity, loyalty and values. And these are things that go with you even if you are outside of the country that you call your own. They shape you, define you, make you who you are no matter where you are. You can live in a foreign land for decades as a resident alien while maintaining your citizenship in a place long unseen. Citizenship is not just a fact seen on a passport but a reality that resides in the heart.
What about your heart? Commenting on the poll I referenced, popular culture expert and professor at Northern Michigan University, Michael Marsden, said, “Maybe when you scratch the surface — what are you at the core — ‘American’ is what it is.” But as followers of Jesus Christ we may be a lot of different things on the surface but what we are at the core is Christian and as Christians our deepest and truest citizenship is not found in any place on the planet. The apostle Paul put it well when he said in our New Testament text, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (
This kind of language is used on a number of occasions in scripture, like when Paul said to the Ephesians that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ” (
“Aliens and exiles.” That’s striking imagery. As Christians we are never truly at home, never truly where we belong. We are strangers and sojourners, displaced in every land in which we are found. We exist as resident aliens who have roots that are planted elsewhere. Our visions, our values, our sense of identity reflect a citizenship that is not of this world and which is not comfortably compatible with places and powers of this world. This should not surprise us since we follow One who, scripture tells us, had “nowhere to lay his head” (
Who are you? The apostle Paul spoke to that question when he wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth . . . seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self . . . In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (
But I can just imagine some Greek raising a protest as he hears these words from the apostle. On his chariot he has a bumper sticker that boldly declares, “Proud to be a Greek!” “And why shouldn’t I be?” he asks. “After all, Greece was the birth place of democracy. The literature of Greece is remarkable in its creative richness. The architecture of Greece is breathtaking. The same can be said of its sculptures. The philosophers of Greece have stimulated great minds for countless generations. The stories of Greek heros continue to inspire courage. The Greek language itself is virtually the universal language of the civilized world. Yet you dare to say that the old self is stripped off for the new self in which there is no longer Greek?!” And Paul would say, “Yes, because Christ is all!” On another occasion this same apostle wrote, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world . . .[A] new creation is everything!” (
In our hearts, in our lives, in the way we are church together, it is the new creation that we proclaim, demonstrate and celebrate, a new creation brought about by the cross of Christ. It has not been brought about by our efforts, our accomplishments, or by our forebears but by the sacrificial work of God in Christ alone.
It is vitally important that Christians see themselves as exiles and aliens rather than primarily as American citizens. Only as exiles and aliens can we live and love in the world in the remarkably compassionate way of Christ, especially in extraordinarily conflicted times. Nichama Tee has done extensive research into the character of the people who rescued Jews from the Nazis, risking their own lives in the process. She was lecturing recently and after the lecture the audience was given an opportunity to ask questions. One person made mention of Christian rescuers. Tee replied, “Only a certain kind of Christian became a rescuer.” And was kind was that? It was the Christians who were less well integrated in their society, independent and willing to stand up for those in need. In other words, the Christian rescuer was not an ordinary citizen but what Paul called an exile and alien.
Yes, we still live in this world, this old creation. For us in this congregation the part of the old creation we live in is America. In some ways we Christians live in America as Jews lived in Babylon in exile during the prophet Jeremiah’s time. Jews were taken into captivity after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 BC. Speaking to them the Word of God, Jeremiah told them to trust and obey God, continuing to be a distinctive, set apart people. They weren’t suppose to lose their identity by being absorbed into Babylonian society. But on the other hand, they were to care for the well-being of Babylon. They were to live among the Babylonians peacefully, productively, prayerfully. Though their hearts were elsewhere, they were to have families and raise their children and work fruitfully for good right there in that foreign land. God’s word to them was this: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
We, too, need to seek the welfare of the land where we live. Though as Christians we are to be a distinctive, transformed people, we are to live and work side by side with all others in America. We are to affirm the good we find and contribute to society in positive and constructive ways in keeping with our faith. And we need to pray on behalf of the nation and pray for the leaders that they might be clear-sighted and compassionate for the good of all. I think of the instructions given to the young minister Timothy by his mentor Paul, who said, “I urge that supplication, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (
As aliens and exiles whose hearts are in heaven and whose pride is in the cross alone, we draw back from national pride. But at the same time we can, and I believe should, be thankful, thankful to live in America, thankful for opportunities we enjoy, thankful for freedom we exercise, thankful for material abundance we experience, thankful for the beauty of the land “from sea to shining sea,” thankful for the people who give of themselves without compulsion, thankful for the role Christianity has played in its history. Thankful to God. Not blindly patriotic, not uncritical of some policies or practices but genuinely thankful. There is much for which to be grateful in this land.
And we can be thankful without forgetting who we are, not primarily Americans but Christians whose standards of behavior, vision of goodness, and most noble responsibilities come from above, not from any place on earth. Yet by living as aliens and exiles we can best bless America and every other place where Christians may live. The early church understood this well. In the ancient Christian document, the Epistle to Diognetus written about 130 AD there is an amazing statement that describes the rightful character of Christian existence. He wrote of followers of Christ being a people who live everywhere but belong nowhere. In practices of eating and clothing, they conform to local customs. Yet, the ancient writer declares this: “[Christians] display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. What the soul is in the body, so the Christian is in the world. Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are preservers of the world.”
What a powerful phrase, “preservers of the world.” We can only fill this role as we understand that we are not ordinary American citizens but a distinctive people called out of the world. Yet we live in the world, in America and elsewhere, loving, serving, praying and proclaiming hopes and possibilities that reach to heaven itself. We can best bless and preserve this great nation by walking in the path of that supreme stranger and exile, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Craig M. Watts is Pastor of Royal Palm Christian Church in Coral Springs, FL.