A Colony of Heaven
James Moffatt’s translation of the New Testament translates politeuma, in Philippians 3:20, as: “We are a colony of heaven.” The Jews in the Dispersion, and living in Babylon, understood this very well. They knew what it meant to live as “strangers” in a strange land. They understood that they were aliens trying to live on someone else’s turf (Resident Aliens, 11).
In the first century Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah understood what it meant to gather in the name of the Lord and sing the praises of the slaughtered Lamb in corporate worship of the triune God. They understood that they were a colony, a beachhead, an outpost in the middle of a foreign culture. When they gathered they did not seek to shape the culture so much as to encourage one another and catechize their new converts and children. Their calling was to learn the lifestyle of faith and to live it in a way that was countercultural. Rome was full of gods and many kinds of spirituality and worship. These Christian believers were seen as a sect of the Jews who were really “atheists” because they refused to embrace the civil religion of their age.
In March of 2011 I stood quietly in a small underground “living room” church in ancient Rome where early Christians worshiped Jesus in the second century. I was all alone. I surveyed the sights, simple as they were. There was seating there for 40–60 people, at most. There was a table in the middle (everything was made of stone) and a small stream of water was pouring into the room from one corner. I bowed my head as I stood in that room. Then I sat down and wept with profound emotion as I entered into the joy of these ancient saints at home with the Lord. I resolved right there to live intentionally as part of the “colony of heaven” no matter what transpired in the days ahead.
Aliens in a Strange Land
With Hauerwas (photo left) and Willimon I do not believe that the idea of “resident aliens” is too strong for us in 2013. In fact, I believe this very language expresses what we need in the wake of the analysis that we’ve read about the recent election. (In no way am I passing judgment on the winners or losers in the last election, nor am I pandering to a particular party. It should be apparent, by now, that I am using this dramatic development, and the exist polling that followed it, to argue that a much larger and more important narrative has evolved in America and this narrative cannot be understood in merely political terms.)
With Hauerwas and Willimon I also believe that “things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith” (Resident Aliens, 12). The church is a colony in the midst of an increasingly alien culture that has virtually nothing to do with vital and living faith in Christ. In our baptism we were transferred from one dominion to another. We were marked with sacred sign as “resident aliens.” In whatever culture we find ourselves, and it appears more and more that our culture will look like a modern version of Babylon much more than a Christendom-centered system of values and expectations, we must prepare ourselves to live as a colony of heaven in a strange land.