On September 20, 31 years after we were married and 28 years after she was eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, my wife Helen became a citizen at a ceremony in Peoria, Illinois. (For those who might not know, Helen was born and raised in England.) If you have never attended a naturalization ceremony – I never had – you may not be aware of just how it works. Like other ceremonies, there are speeches and a little pomp and circumstance, but at the heart of the ceremony is the oath of citizenship and the circuit judge’s pronouncement that those who have sworn the oath are now citizens. And at the heart of the oath is a two-fold promise: 1. the renunciation of allegiance to all other states (countries) and rulers, and 2. a declaration of allegiance to the United States and its constitution. Now that Helen is a citizen, she can do things she couldn’t do before. She can vote in national, state, and local elections. She can serve on a jury. (In 31 years she has been summoned for jury duty at least three times and couldn’t serve. I on the other hand, an eligible citizen, have never been summoned. Go figure!) She could, with the proper training, now teach U.S. history to high school students. And she can now use the fast lane at immigration even when she’s traveling without me. In addition to these rights she now also has new responsibilities. She can be called up to serve in the military (however unlikely) or to perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces or “work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law” – all of those are part of the citizenship oath. Aside from these rights and responsibilities, on a more symbolic level she has claimed this country as her own, and this country has claimed her as its own.
Experiencing this event and thinking about what it means led me to obvious comparisons with being naturalized as citizens of the reign of God, which is what happens to each of us in Holy Baptism. In each of the first three Gospels, among the very first things Jesus does publicly is to announce the nearness of God’s kingdom and to call for a change of heart and mind. In the Gospel of John, Jesus famously tells Pontius Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” That, together with the fact that the Gospel according to Matthew repeatedly refers to the Kingdom of Heaven, has sometimes led Christians to imagine that Jesus is talking about the place we will go when we die, the place where God lives. But the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God in Mark and Luke) is not really about a particular geographic location. It is really about the reign of God breaking into the kingdom of this world and reclaiming the world as God’s. Presumably God could do that in the conventional way, by sending in an army and taking it by force, you know, the way we humans usually operate (see John 18:36). But God’s ways are not our ways. God does not wish to rule by violence and threat. God wants genuine, heartfelt allegiance.
In a recovery of ancient Christian practice, the rite of Holy Baptism in our current hymnal has those being baptized doing something similar to what Helen did at her naturalization ceremony. They first renounce their allegiance to all other powers aside from God, and they then declare their faith in God using the words of the Apostles Creed. We should see this as a monumental step in a person’s life, for surely it is much more significant than moving one’s citizenship from one earthly kingdom to another. Those of us who have been baptized into Christ have claimed him as our own. We have switched our allegiance from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. But what make this a reality, like the judge’s declaration of Helen’s citizenship, is that in Holy Baptism Jesus Christ has claimed us as his own. It is God’s action in this sacrament that connects us to Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection that makes the crucial difference in our lives. May we rejoice and celebrate our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and may God continue to strengthen our allegiance.
☩ Pastor Repp