The Commonwealth of the Reign of God

(Philippians 3:17-4:1)

Our Scripture lesson for this morning translates it, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” But, if you’ll look at the footnote at the bottom of the page in your pew Bible, you’ll see that another way of translating it is, “But our commonwealth is in heaven.” That has kind of a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

We live in a commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Kentucky. So do the folks in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Interestingly, Australia and Puerto Rico are designated commonwealths. Anymore, it’s a quaint way of identifying a state or a democracy.

At one time, however, a commonwealth was the designation of a group of people with common interests who gathered their resources together to further their interests. The thinking, of course, made some sense: Two heads are better than one. If we work together toward a goal, we’ve got a better chance of achieving that goal—whatever it is—security, education, a lawful society. You name it.

And in that sense, the wealth—both figurative and literal—that ensues is the wealth common to all the inhabitants of the collective. Pretty simple, really. If you convince enough people that what you want is what they want, you can better regulate the common life—a sort of social contract.

On a basic level, we know this is true. In order to have any sense of order, people must buy into the notion that the health of the individual is dependent on the health of the group. That’s why we don’t turn you loose and let you do just anything you want to do. You might goof it up for the rest of us.

Think about it. One attention-starved individual with a gun can throw the whole social experiment into chaos. Because he’s been ridiculed, or because he hates people different from him—because his life hasn’t turned out the way he wanted, because he thinks it would be cool to see his picture in the paper for a few days, he figures he’s got a right to act anyway he wants.

One parent who thinks childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy, and next thing you know, we’ve got a Measles outbreak.

It just takes one, doesn’t it? It just takes one guy who thinks red lights are for everybody else, just one lady who thinks that the lovely perfume she picked up at Macy’s ought to be shared with everybody in a three block radius, just one toddler determined to sing “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family” at the top of her lungs on an already delayed flight to Topeka … and our nice little ordered world starts coming unglued.

We rely on the notion of a commonwealth in ways that we rarely ever think about—until the commonwealth is called into question.

The abuse of the commonwealth by individuals seeking only after their own self-interest is sometimes called “the tragedy of the commons.” Some people take more than their share of the common goods, jeopardizing the whole community. According to The Guardian, "The world’s richest 1% are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030.”

That’s a lot of wealth right there, but not much of it in common.

We need the commons, but humans show an amazing capacity for forming and enforcing tribal boundaries. Think about the political tribalism that seems more entrenched every day.

But there are even more subtle ways we order our worlds, aren’t there? We have a tendency to organize ourselves in neat little lifestyle enclaves:

According to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic, a significant minority of Americans [live in hermetically sealed worlds]. They seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. Education and geography seemed to make a big difference in how people think about these issues, and in some cases, so did age.

Has it ever occurred to you that most of the people we know, most of the people with whom we work are people who look and think and act like us?

It’s second nature to us.

Think about it. If you go to almost any large city, you’ll find an interesting phenomenon: Home team clubs. We have a friend who lives in Atlanta, who’s a displaced Cleveland Browns fan. During football season, she goes to a bar every Sunday in Atlanta, Georgia to sit with other displaced Cleveland Browns fans—so that for three hours a week she can talk to some normal people.

Birds of a feather. You know how it works. People with common interest wind up bracketing themselves off into little sub-groups. It’s convenient. It gives you something to talk about. Your comfort level increases when you’re with folks who think and talk and act like you.

When Susan and I make our little jaunts to the North, we always comment on how funny people up there talk. You move away for thirty years, you come back, and everybody has mysteriously cultivated a thick accent—like they stepped right off the set of Fargo. We breathe a sigh of relief every time we get back and hear somebody say, “Y’all.” We know we’re home. It’s safe. Our comfort level is restored.

It happens in church, too. The church growth movement named this the “homogeneous unit principle.” What they said was that people automatically move toward groups that reflect their values, speech patterns, and socio-economic status. So, why not just determine your market and make an appeal only to those people who are likely to feel comfortable with you?

And to a certain extent, that’s right, isn’t it? The church can’t always be walking around worried about being liked. We try to be sensitive to people’s feelings, but we know that somewhere along the line, if we’re doing it right, we’re going to put some folks off, make some folks mad.

I mean, look at Jesus. He always had somebody up in his business. People thought they’d try the life, only later to drop it like it’s hot. So, if we’re trying to follow him, we’re honest enough to know that we won’t appeal to everybody.

But it’s one thing to make people mad because you’re trying to win a little justice for those who’ve been systematically cut off from justice; it’s something entirely different to write people off simply because they wear their hair differently from you, or because they drive a Buick.

But it still happens, doesn’t it? Of course, people are much more sophisticated about it, but it’s still there. Although, I will say, in the current political climate, it’s once again too easy to be bigot in public. But usually, the bigotry is so much more plausibly deniable.

I was in a meeting one time with L. Wayne Stewart, formerly head of our denomination’s Reconciliation ministry, the arm of the church concerned with addressing the root causes of racism. And one woman said, “L. Wayne, I won’t deny that racism exists, but isn’t better than it used to be?”

And he said, “In many ways, yes. I grew up under segregation, prior to the civil rights movement, and yes there are some things that are a lot better than they used to be. I can drink from the same water fountain as you. I didn’t used to be able to do that when I was a kid, growing up in Dallas, Texas. As a black man, there are a lot of things I can do now that I would never have dreamed of doing when I was a poor black kid.

“But let me tell you a story, and let you draw your own conclusions. As a young man looking for work, I’d read the Want Ads in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I’d get so angry. Because at the bottom of all the ads for the good jobs there was a disclaimer that said, ‘Colored need not apply.’ And I knew that there wasn’t any place for me. I knew I couldn’t get hired because of the color of my skin.” He said, “As a young black man that used to tear me up. Then one day, I was doing some research and ran across some Want Ads in the Star-Telegram from the ‘20s and ‘30s. And at the bottom of the ads it said, ’N-words need not apply.’ And I thought to myself at the time, ‘Well at least they say ‘colored” now instead of ‘the N-word..’

Then he said, “My son, Kevin Wayne Stewart, graduated from Texas Christian University as a computer engineer. Top of his class. He’s a computer genius. He read the Want Ads in the Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers and they all said, ‘Equal opportunity employer.’ So he applied to twelve of those businesses for a job. A long time passed without hearing anything from anyone.

L. Wayne said to his son, “I want you to do a little experiment for me. Go back to all those places and say, ‘I left something off my resume, and I’d like it back to revise it.’

So his son, Kevin Wayne, went back and told the people that he’d accidentally left something off his resume, and that he’d like it back so he could fix it. Eleven of those businesses went to the files and came back and said, “We’re sorry. We can’t find your resume. We must have misplaced it.”

L. Wayne said, “Now, you and I both know what happened to those resumes. Somebody saw he was a black man and threw it away.” He said, “Things are different, I’ll give you that. You won’t see printed at the bottom of a Want Ad, ’N-word need not apply.’ It says ‘Equal Opportunity Employer.’ Some things are different. But the upshot of it is, if you’re walking in my shoes—it’s still almost impossible in a lot of places for a black man to get a good job.”

Paul is talking about being a citizen in a new kingdom, the new reign, where God calls the shots instead of Caesar. He’s anxious for us to understand that we’re part of the commonwealth of this new, vastly diverse reign—not just some lifestyle enclave.

The new world God is busy creating treasures diversity, celebrates the gifts of those who are different from us. The table around which we gather is open to all people, regardless of whether or not they look like us, love like us, pray like us, or have platinum membership status in our lifestyle enclaves.

Those who follow Jesus are called to model a different reality. Sure, the rest of the world tends to gather in like-minded groups. But we’re people trying to live like God asked us to live, our commonwealth is in God’s new realm—where peace and justice rule the day, and nobody gets left on the sidelines.

We serve a God who came among us, who refused to stand back from us, in the comfort of heaven. We model our life together on the God who forsook security to become vulnerable by coming down among us, placing God’s life in our hands. God is able to “transform the body of our humiliation,” because God took on that body … felt the humiliation that comes from living in a commonwealth where the wealth is anything but common.

All of this makes sense when you see what comes after our Scripture lesson. Paul is laying the groundwork for talking about problems in the church. Euodia and Syntyche are duking it out in the fellowship hall between the iced tea and the potato salad. We don’t know what they’re fighting about, only that they’re apparently not of the same mind. And to Paul’s way of thinking, that’s a problem. Paul tells to be of the same mind as the Lord.

Do you see? If you’re a part of the commonwealth of the reign of God, the mind you share isn’t some pre-agreed upon list of characteristics and behaviors. The mind you share is the mind of Christ.

The commonwealth of the reign of God is the body of Christ. And no matter where you come from, or what your skin color is, no matter what the raw material for the make-up of the body is, if we subject ourselves to him, he is able to “transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”

And there ain’t no lifestyle enclave of like-minded individuals in this world that can ever promise you that.