It’s the morning after the night before. Citizens of the United Kingdom are wakening to the news that, by a narrow majority, the die has been cast to leave the European Union. This is no small or light thing, and one gets a profound sense of living through important times – a period of history which will spawn great interest for the generations to come.
Inevitably some are deeply despondent this morning, while others are exuberant. Like boxers at the end of the twelfth round, the bell has sounded but some futile blows are still being traded. Regardless of your Leave or Remain preferences at the ballot box, all of us now face an unpredictable period economically and politically, and these are exciting and terrifying times to be engaged with our wider world.
Something that has shocked me in the wake of the vote is the degree of triumphalism, or rancour and acrimony, which Christian believers have been expressing. Brothers and sisters whom I love have differed deeply on this, and in the wake of the voting result bruised consciences or elated spirits mean that politics is high on the agenda on social media and daily conversation. We might have opinions about the outcome of the vote (and I for one was dazzled by the arguments and counter-arguments which both camps put on display), but for the believer there is surely a better way to handle all of this.
As is so often the case, my thinking at the moment is filtered through the passages of Scripture which I’m preaching. We are presently working our way through the book of Philippians in Millisle Baptist, and this book – perhaps more than any other in the New Testament – makes us acutely aware of where our true citizenship lies. Paul was writing to a people who lived in an architectural and cultural scale model of the city of Rome, people pressured by their surrounding neighbours and legislative bodies to conform to, and invest in, the priorities of Caesar’s kingdom. And this situation makes Paul clear in marking out where the lines should be drawn by the Christian.
Shockingly, Paul is not keen to draw lines horizontally along political borders, but vertically across spiritual borders. The citizenship of the Philippians is in heaven (3:20), and the eagerness for a new day when Jesus Christ is fully seen and known is what must drive these believers. Paul does not enter into the politics of Rome and human rulers – although he quietly subverts them with the image of Jesus Christ as Lord, honoured on bended knee by all (2:10-11) – but instead brings the mind and the heart of God’s people back to where the real lines are drawn: between the now and the not yet, between earthly rule and Christ’s eternal reign. “This is where your hope is”, he says, “this is where to fix your heart, and focus your energies”. If believers are to contend for anything, it is the cause of God, not their political points of view. In fact they are to do so ‘standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel’ (1:27).
We do well to remember this. Like the Philippians we are present-oriented and earth bound, we are inclined to invest our contemporary events with far too much significance and place our hope in the broken reeds of earthly rulers. We are not to detach ourselves from the world in an unhelpful isolation, but our hope isn’t here, it can’t be. The events of history are the wind and wave which carry humanity to the shore of God’s choosing, but they are not the boat. We might have strong and passionate feelings about politics, we might pray earnestly for God to be honoured through the channels of governance, but this isn’t our ultimate hope.
If we are excessively vocal and divisive about these mere temporal things, what weight are we placing on the eternal? If our neighbours see our hopes dashed on the rocks of present circumstance, what are we saying about the rule of our King? If union with Europe is more on our minds today than union with Christ, then our shame is evident. Kings and rulers will rise and fall, each epoch will have its Nebuchadnezzers and Cyruses, but the rule of our LORD will last forever.
Let’s place our hope there, and let’s stand side by side while we do so.