Friday, May 28, 2010

Reflection: Pentecost and Immigration

Hospitality or national security, baptismal seal or citizenship papers, national borders or kingdom of God: these dichotomies collide head-on at the intersection of faith and practice, at the corner of church and state. It is ironic and fitting that as the church celebrates Pentecost the United States Congress debates immigration policy. Jesus’ voice echoes once again in sacred assemblies, in halls of power, and across borders: “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” And this voice calls us – if we have ears to hear – to distinguish carefully between the two.

One major theme of Pentecost is the destruction, by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, of all national, cultural, and ethnic barriers to the gospel of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles chronicles the struggle of the church to understand and implement the Spirit’s mandate. (The history of the church chronicles the ongoing struggle.) Every step along this journey was contentious: Philip preaching to the Samaritans, Peter and Paul and Barnabas and Silas preaching to the gentiles. Grudgingly, haltingly, the church tenuously grasped the truth:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph 4:4-6, NKJV).

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28, NKJV).

Unity in Christ, through the one Spirit, supercedes all arbitrary distinctions and loyalties based upon national, cultural, or ethnic identities. There simply are no borders in the kingdom of God. There are, of course, such borders in the kingdoms of the world, and it is quite reasonable for any government to control their borders. Arizona has legitimate concerns about illegal immigration from Mexico, concerns about safety and increased demands upon infrastructure. The United States has legitimate concerns about porous national borders, particularly given the present terrorist threat. But, none of these concerns are Christian concerns. Whatever the states and nation decide, the Christian ministry is still reconciliation; the Christian mission is still the proclamation of the gospel to all the world; the Christian mandate is still to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, to care for the orphans and widows; “to do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10, NKJV).

All those baptized into Christ are fellow-citizens with us in the kingdom of God, the only citizenship that truly matters, the Spiritual citizenship that trumps national citizenship. Many the United States might call illegal aliens, we must call brothers and sisters.

And what of those who are not in Christ? Are they hungry? Then we must feed them? Are they homeless? Then we must shelter them. Are they sick? Then we must care for them. We do not, we cannot expect – nor is it reasonable to demand – that the government do these things or even approve of these things. It is much more reasonable to expect the government to make every effort to exclude such people. These actions – these acts of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ – are demanded of the church, not of the government. But, its obedience may well place the church in conflict with the government, and will certainly place the church in conflict with strong public opinion and state and national self-interest. It is not easy to live in the season of Pentecost.

The church stands witness before the governments of the world – pray God it does so – that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, that all governments must either kneel in submission to the Lord or else rise up in rebellion against him, that all governments must give account for their stewardship of the temporal power given them by Jesus Pantocrator – Jesus the Almighty. The church stands witness before the nations of the world – pray God it does so – that there are but two kingdoms – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world – and that we must each give account for our citizenship. The Spirit stands witness before and within the church that the church must indeed render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor (cf Rom 13:7). The state has valid claims upon God’s people, but not all the state’s claims are valid.

I am grateful that my earthly citizenship is in the United States, but I rejoice greatly that

our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved (Phil 3:20-4:1, NKJV).

Such is the promise and challenge of Pentecost. Amen.

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