Monday, November 16, 2009

The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity, Part I

For the most part, our Prayer Book Epistles and Gospels are given in the “King James Version,” more accurately called the Authorized Version. We would not have it otherwise, since that version remains a great literary monument. But very occasionally the 1928 editors of the Prayer Book corrected a word, here or there. We have such an example in today's Epistle from Philippians. Where the KJV reads “Our conversation is in heaven,” the Prayer Book reads “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Here we have a Greek word politeuma which is founds nowhere else in the New Testament. How the KJV got “conversation” out of this word is a long story which need not detain us here. But politeuma (a word related to “politics”) can be translated correctly either as “citizenship” or as “commonwealth.”

Within the Roman empire a politeuma referred to a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans. Think of a community of people with the same background, living together in a foreign country. Frequently the Roman emperors paid off their soldiers by given them grants of land in the conquered territories, which led to the creation of such communities. These “commonwealths” enjoyed special prestige and privilege in the Roman empire. Philippi itself was a politeuma.

If the Philippian Christians were tempted to take excessive pride in their political status or to find their security in an important earthly city, Paul was warning them and us that such gloating was a false hope.

Today's Gospel reminds us bluntly that Christians have a real obligation to support our earthly political systems, “Render unto Caesar...” But ultimately we belong to no earthly nation but to the Kingdom of God. When earthly political systems crumble (as the Roman empire surely did, as our own system may crumble before our very eyes), His reign remains secure.

To be a citizen is a great privilege. This was as true in St. Paul's time as in ours. A citizen has certain rights and can look to his government for protection. Paul's message in the use of this word is that we Christians enjoy amazing privileges as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We may trust in the protection of the King who has subdued us to Himself and now reigns over us and defends us. With sure confidence we may pray, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, “And grant us life that shall not end, in our true native land with thee.”

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