February 21, 2016 Text: Philippians 3:17-4:1
Dear Friends in Christ,
In 304 AD, the Roman emperor gave a command that all the people in Iconium had to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. A Christian woman by the name of Julitta decided to leave the city with her three-year-old son, Cyricus, in order to escape persecution. In Tarsus, however, she was arrested and brought back to Iconium and had to stand before the governor – man by the name of Alexander. She admitted she was a Christian and consequently she was tortured.
She endured the torments with great patience, but her little son cried loudly when he saw his mother suffering – he desperately wanted to go to her. Even the hardhearted governor was touched by the boy’s tears and went so far as to take the child in his lap with an attempt to calm him down. Still the boy cried and called for his mother. Finally, the boy began to imitate the words of his mother by saying over and over again, “I am a Christian! I am a Christian!” With this the governor was filled with sudden rage and hurled the boy to the ground head first, killing him instantly.
Julitta was full of grief but actually thanked God with a loud voice that her little boy, Cyricus had gone on before her into heaven and would not have to witness her death. After that, the governor increased her torture and eventually had her beheaded. Before she died, Julitta offered up this prayer, “I thank you, O my God, that you first transferred my son into your kingdom. Grant also that I, your servant, though unworthy, may likewise be received there. Lead me, like the wise virgins, into your wedding chamber!”
We can have a lot of reactions to a story like that. Sadness for the mother and son. Anger at the governor. And what an example for every Christian. These Christians really lived and demonstrated what our text says. They knew their citizenship was in heaven and they were able to stand firm in the Lord.
Who among us would do the same thing? We might be quick to say “yes” but we are the same people who live in this luxurious society and panic at the first sign of anything that might intrude upon our comfort zone. We grumble at God, yet build ourselves up that we could stand firm like Julitta and Cyricus.
The deeper question is this: What was it that gave them strength to endure what God had allowed to happen in their lives? Paul addresses that in our text as he encourages us to . . .
“STAND FIRM – HEAVENLY CITIZEN”
This epistle of Philippians is mostly upbeat and encouraging, even though Paul himself is in chains for the gospel. The threat in our reading is walking apart from Christ. It is easy for us to fall back on the Law and cling to the confidence of our accomplishments. What did you give up for Lent this year? Soda? Potato chips? Social media? Alcohol? Political debates? It is fine to practice self-discipline but we take it too far if we hold it over the head of God or our neighbor. You want to impress God and your co-worker. It may seem harmless on the surface, but ultimately it rejects the cross and all that Jesus accomplished for you there.
We stand firm because we are citizens of heaven. Citizenship in verse 20 can also be translated “homeland.” We have “homeland security” not because of some cabinet position in Washington, but because our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, opened heaven to us by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. By grace, God has made us citizens of that heaven through Holy Baptism. This is our present reality.
As heaven’s citizens, we anxiously await our Savior’s return. We occupy our minds with heavenly thoughts through worship, devotion, bible study, and prayer. We eat heavenly food as the true body and blood is fed to us for forgiveness and a taste of the feast to come in our eternal homeland. We walk according to those examples of citizens of Christ’s kingdom. We stand firm to the end, anxiously awaiting the transformation of our bodies to be like his glorious body.
So what gave Julitta and Cyricus the strength to endure what happened in their lives? They were looking ahead to a glorious future that was far greater than anything they could have on earth. Their hearts and minds were set on heavenly things and nothing was more important than their eternal salvation. It is really that simple. They died for the faith because they knew they would live.
May the Holy Spirit continue to strengthen us in this same faith. May He lead us to stand firm even as we see the signs around us that may call us before government officials and judges. Our homeland is in the distance, but possibly nearer than we think. The Lord is our strength, so STAND FIRM – HEAVENLY CITIZEN.