Sermon outline for December 28:
What Are Our Plans for Moscow?
During the recent furor, the question has been posed to Christ Church (and, implicitly, to Trinity), “What are your plans for Moscow?” To answer that question, we must understand what the church is, and what she’s called to be and do. One historian of early Christianity has called Christianity a movement for “urban revitalization.” More theologically put, the church is God’s city on earth, called to witness and serve in order to transform the earthly city so that it becomes more like the heavenly city.
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . . .” (Philippians 3:1-21).
THE HEAVENLY COMMONWEALTH
The English word “political” comes from the Greek word for city, polis. Understood in this way, the church is unavoidably political, since she is herself a city. She is not political in the sense that she exercises coercion, and she is not a city in all the ways that earthly cities are cities. But she is political and a civic order in the sense that she is a community, under the authority of a King and His appointed rulers, governed by her own constitutions and procedures, with her own calendar, culture, and customs.
At several points in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses explicitly political terminology to describe the church. For instance, Philippians 1:27-30 are a single sentence in Greek, and the main verb is politeuo , which means “to live as a citizen.” The Philippians, so proud of being Roman citizens and so protective of Roman custom (Acts 16:20-21), needed to learn to live as citizens of a different commonwealth that placed new demands on its citizens.
In chapter 3, Paul mounts a polemic against the imperial ideology, affirming that Jesus, not Caesar, is “Lord” and “Savior,” both prominent terms in imperial propaganda. Paul refers to the Philippians as citizens instead of a heavenly politeuma (“commonwealth”). The idea is not that Christians would go home to their “heavenly home” when they died. The idea is that the church of Philippi is a colony of a heavenly empire, ruled by Jesus at the right hand of the Father.
The Philippian Christians were thus to consider themselves a colony of heaven more than as a colony of Rome. Paul had imitated Christ by giving up his privileges as a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 2:5-11; 3:1-7), and he exhorted the Philippians to follow his example by treating their Roman citizenship and attachment to the Roman emperor as “rubbish” for the sake of Christ and His heavenly politeuma .
The most common Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia . Though frequently etymologized as “the called-out ones,” the word means “assembly,” the “called-together ones,” and, like the other terms we have been examining, was originally a political term.
Ekklesia was used in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament to described the assembly of Israel for covenant-making at Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 18:16), for the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65), for public repentance, for dedication of the city after the exile (Nehemiah 5:7, 13; 7:5, 66), and for other religious and national purposes (Judges 20:2). At times, it refers to a permanent institution of Israelite social and political life (Deuteronomy 23:1). By taking over the LXX usage, the church was claiming to be the true assembly of Yahweh, the fulfillment of the Sinai assembly, the people who had returned from exile, and the new nation of Israel.
In the Greek world, however, ekklesia referred to the assembly of citizens of the polis . When Aristotle spoke of the sovereign “assembly” in Greek democracy, he spoke of the ekklesia . When any important business faced the city-state, the citizens would gather in the theater or other public space as the ekklesia to deliberate. By taking this word to describe the church, the apostles were making clear that the church is not another “sect” or cult that existed under the umbrella of the polis . She is an alternative governing body for the city and the beginning of a new city.
What does God’s city do? How does the Christian ekklesia do her business? First, it is imperative that we recognize that we are not the only churches here on the Palouse. All the congregations of Christ’s Church in Moscow are “colonies” of the heavenly commonwealth. Denominational boundaries are dissolving today, and are being replaced with geographically-based connections among churches. We at Christ Church and Trinity seek to promote the unity of the local body, and participate in ministry with other churches in the Palouse. The churches are the guardians of the health of the city, and the moral and spiritual state of Moscow is our collective responsibility.
Second, the accent of our activity in Moscow must be on self-sacrificing service. Before Israel had a ruling king, Israel had serving priests, and in the Bible even kings are distinguished less for their commanding authority than by their willingness to die for their people. For disciples of Jesus, servanthood is not merely a means to authority and leadership; it is the form of leadership. We should be busy feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, taking in the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-39). We are called to be a Sabbatical people, a people devoted to giving rest.
Third, we glanced last week at John 17, where Jesus says He gave the “glory” He received from the Father to the disciples (v. 22). In Scripture the “glory” of God is linked closely with His visible beauty and majesty. In the context of John 17, the glory given to the disciples is associated with their unity (v. 22), which in turn catches the attention of the world (v 23). As we live in unity, love, peace, joy, the “glory” or “beauty” of God manifest in our lives is a primary witness to the gospel. This “glory” should be evident in every area of our lives ?Ein the way we go about our work, the products we produce, the harmony of our families, the letters we write to the newspaper. Our plan for Moscow is for civic “beautification.”
Finally but really firstly, the power for all this comes through the Spirit, who ministers to us in the Word and Sacrament every Lord’s Day. Worship is the heartbeat of God’s city, and the main means for the transformation of the earthly city. In worship, we ascend to the heavenly polis, and afterwards we descend from the mountain radiating the glory of God, refreshed and renewed in fellowship with God, eager to tell of the things we have heard and seen.
As summarized by historian Rodney Stark, early Christianity “revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” Over centuries, the Greco-Roman cities were transformed, and many became predominantly Christian cities.
What are our plans for Moscow? We plan to witness and serve and worship so that God’s will is done in Moscow as it is in heaven.