On Being a True Citizen
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 28, 2020
Reading: Acts 26:19-32
I have been reading recently about the famous Pier 21 in Halifax. I had, of course, heard of Pier 21 and, in fact, visited it when I lived in Nova Scotia. What drew me to it at this time was that I am working with a group of people to bring the Nelson Mandela display to Pier 21. Hopefully, in a couple of years time the display will be on the waterfront in Halifax for all to see. I’ve also thought about the connection between Nelson Mandela and Pier 21; Nelson Mandela being a symbol of resistance and responsibility in the face of persecution and difficulty, and Pier 21 representing freedom and acceptance. Pier 21, of course, went from the 1920s to the 1970s.
One and a half million people from all over the world, came through Pier 21, escaping persecution. It’s a symbol of our nation’s acceptance of people from disparate and divided places. I’ve been thinking about that because that very idea has been embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we love so much, and that we celebrate. I’ve been focusing on the notion of freedom. Nelson Mandela, of course, is the epitome of someone who struggled for freedom. Pier 21 is the symbol of the freedom of people coming to a new land. Freedom is important, but it is also dependent on other things. It is dependent on people being good citizens. If you do not have people who act responsibly then you can’t have freedom within a society. I would also like to suggest that our freedom is guaranteed by our recognition of accountability to a higher power; our accountability to God. The guarantor of our freedom is that everybody and every form of government, is accountable, ultimately, to something and someone greater than itself.
With that in mind I want to turn to our passage today from the Book of Acts. This is a great story that needs to be heard because in many ways the Apostle Paul, who is really at the centre of all this, is the apostle of liberty. The great Richard Longenecker, who taught New Testament at McMaster, has said that almost every aspect of Paul’s life ultimately led to him developing this notion of liberty that comes from the faith. You see that embedded in his ministry, in the Book of Acts; which, of course, was written primarily for gentiles to understand the flow of the Christian faith from its origins in Christ and, of course, in Pentecost, right through to the spreading to the gentile world and the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
In this passage, we’re now reaching almost a climax, where the Apostle Paul finds himself in prison. But while he is in chains, he does something very powerful. He makes an appeal to freedom through being a Roman citizen and a true follower of Almighty God. It is in his encounter with two of the great people in this passage that really highlight both the importance of being a citizen and of believing in God. The two characters are Festus and Agrippa. Festus was the governor of Judea. He represented the Romans. He followed a very famous person called Felix. He was someone who was convinced that Paul had done nothing wrong, was innocent, and had this mission to the gentiles.
Festus seemed okay with this, up to a point, but he was an honourable man, so when Paul says to him, “I appeal, as a Roman citizen, directly to Caesar,” which is what Roman citizens had the right to do, he took him seriously. Festus listened to Paul. He respected the notion of being a citizen. The other character was Agrippa, and he was the seventh king from the line of Herod, and the last one. It’s no wonder, because he was corrupt. He was scandalous. He had an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice. He was a wicked man, in many ways, and he claimed to represent the Jewish tradition.
He claimed to represent the power of the religious leaders because he was the king. But really, he was just the monarch who didn’t seem to have a lot of faith. So Paul makes an appeal to them that his mission has been to the gentiles, that although he comes from the tradition of the Jews and recognises his Jewish heritage, and he talks about the prophets, nevertheless his mission started, as he said, in Damascus, a reference, of course, to his original calling, and that it is actually expanded and is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the gentile world. He’s passionate about this, but he’s also passionate in reminding Festus that he is a Roman citizen, and he takes his citizenship seriously.
The two of them didn’t really respond that well to Paul. Festus says “Are you out of your mind? With all this learning of yours have you got a little clouded in your thinking?” Festus puts him at arm’s length. Agrippa says “Do you think in this short time that we have I’m going to become a Christian?” In other words, don’t be silly. I’m not going to listen to you. So, both dismissed his argument. Then Paul says, and there’s a degree of humour in this, but also a very profound statement, “I wish you could all be like me. I wish the whole gentile world could believe what I believe. I want you, Festus and Agrippa, to be like me;” and then the quip, “but not necessarily in these chains.” In other words, he’s letting them know exactly what he feels.
He wishes they would follow his example and listen to the gospel that he is bringing. But the two powers, the Roman and the monarchy were not listening to Paul. Did that deter him? No, it did not; for Paul was an apostle of freedom and he lived as a free person, and this is important. Whether he was accepted by the icons of culture, Rome and the monarchy, didn’t bother him at all. He says, “I speak freely.” Paul knew that he stood on good grounds. That he was being a faithful citizen of Rome. Most of all, he was being faithful to God’s encounter with him through Jesus Christ. He understood that his very freedom rested on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul had no need to fear the likes of Festus and Agrippa.
In fact, Festus and Agrippa were two men who lived in captivity to their own political powers. Paul was the free one here. He was the one who did not fear death, because of the resurrection of Christ. He did not fear what humanity might throw at him, because he had Christ. He knew that because he had Christ he was free. Free to be a citizen. Free to be a servant of Jesus Christ. To me, the Apostle Paul is the ultimate symbol of what Longenecker called, an Apostle of Liberty.
So, how do we live in the light of Paul’s example? Is there a way, as Canadians, we can learn from what he had to say? Well, one of the things that I think we need to understand first comes from my reading of a wonderful philosopher called Jacques Ellul, who would look at what he called, “The Politics of God and the Politics of Man; The Politics of Humanity” and suggested that we are born as independent creatures and that independence is part of who we are. It is the part of having the liberty to live as creatures, created by God, who can turn either towards God, or away from God. We can decide for ourselves. We’re independent. We’re even independent to criticise God.
I love a humorous story – you’re going to be seeing videos about golf and our church and some of them are very funny – but I have to throw in a golf analogy here, from Tommy Bolt, who was a golfer who tried to putt in seven different holes, and every time the ball went around the rim and flicked out again. Seven times, until finally he looked to the heavens and said: “God, why don’t you come down here and fight me in person instead?” He was blaming God for missing his putts. We are independent. We can do that. We can challenge God. We can question God. We can believe in God. We cannot believe in God.
Ellul says that does not mean we are free. There is a difference between independence and freedom. In fact, we are in bondage to everything except God. Our bondage, as people, to our own sinfulness, manifested through our own independence, is a sign that we’re not free. That is an integral part of the human condition, to be in bondage, to be a slave to sin, to our mortality.
How we use our independence, how we respond to the call and the initiative of God gives us the opportunity to decide who we’re going to follow. The fact is, we are not free. Martin Luther always made that point; we are often in bondage to other things. Look at the last few months as classic examples of that. We might be independent creatures, but we certainly haven’t been free. We haven’t been free from our own mortality and we have lost too many people in the world, to Covid-19. We have not been free even to move or to associate. No matter what we put in a constitution, what we say about our own freedom, we live in a bondage over which we have no control because we are mortal human beings. We live in the flesh. We are limited. Despite all our independence, we are limited.
We have even been confined to our own homes. It’s a sign that we live in bondage. We also live in bondage to the vestiges of the past. We live in bondage to the injustices that have occurred and continue to occur. We are not perfect human beings. For all our independence we still fall short of God’s glory, God’s justice, and God’s righteousness. We do things to one another based on the colour of our skin. We do these things in an inhumane and in an unjust way because we’re in bondage to the things that hold us.
We’re also in bondage to the stresses and the strains of life. We think we’re free, but as Voltaire said of the English, “They think they are free but everywhere they are in chains.” We think we are free to live life and to be independent, but often times the stresses and the strains of life weigh on us, and I’m sure many of us are feeling that right now. This Covid thing has been very stressful and has put enormous pressure on so many of the aspects of our life that we cherish.
I read a wonderful piece in The Atlantic Magazine that I might have mentioned to you many years ago, but it is worth repeating. It says the following:
“The world is too big for us. There is too much doing, too many crimes, casualties, violence and excitements. Try as you will, you get behind the race, despite yourself. It is an incessant strain to keep pace, and still you lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. The political world witnesses new scenes so rapidly that you’re out of breath, trying to keep up with them. Everything today is high pressure. Human nature just can’t take that anymore.”
That was written June 16h, 1833!
The human condition gets stressed. We are not alone in that. It is part of our human condition. We still do not have freedom from the things that bind us. As those who are followers of Jesus Chris how do we then live? We live as good citizens and as people who put our faith first. It seems to me that part of being a good citizen is to understand that we really are, as Paul was, a citizen of the world. He claimed his Roman allegiance. We claim our Canadian allegiance. Paul’s mission was to the whole world. It wasn’t just to his own people, his own nation. It was the recognition that the world, Jew and gentile alike, are beloved by God and need the liberating power of Christ; the liberating power of faith.
A reminder of that came to me yesterday. I received an email from the former moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Reverend Doctor and Senator Lois Wilson. In this incredible email she had written a prayer. Now, I can’t go through the whole prayer, but the gist it was to remember the 70th anniversary of the freedom of South Korea. In part, she says:
“We bless you for past mercies. For the rich history of partnership between the PROK and the United Church of Canada; for the faithful witness that so many displayed during the struggle for democracy in South Korea; for the comfort you offered to so many who enjoyed pain and undeserved suffering, for the sake of a better country. Let us pray a new future into being, to those who wield power the wisdom to use it wisely; to those who would disrupt and divide us; arms to enfold and unit us with love; to those who would wish us to be enemies a refusal to be enemies.”
She bases this, at the end of her prayer, on the power of the resurrection. She reminds us we, Canada, you, me, live in a big world. If there’s been one problem over COVID it has been that it has made us look inward and to forget that the rest of the world is also the world for which Christ died. It seems to me for Canada to be a good citizen, for us to be good citizens we need to see that world broadly, in God’s hands. To be a good citizen means to also act compassionately and responsibly here and now.
At times we find that hard, don’t we? But we need the power of God. We need the power of Christ to help us do that. We can’t do that alone. We need to be reminded as Paul reminded Festus and Agrippa, that he was free because he had something greater than himself. Something to which he ultimately was accountable, but in his heart and soul loved and freed by. This was Paul’s great witness to the world and to the church and to you and I, and it needs to a witness in our world, in our nation, right now.
There’s a wonderful writer called Richard Arnett, who has written extensively on India and on issues of religion and culture. He said this: “Humanity is good enough to make democracy possible. Humanity is bad enough to make it necessary. Humanity is alike enough to make it universal.” For democracy to work the people must realise that there is something greater than themselves. If the Apostle Paul, were here today, and my I wish he was, he would say to us that we are free. We are free when we’re good citizens. We are free when we acknowledge the sovereignty and the power of our God. May this God be with us, with our nation and yes, with our world; Amen.