Of Land and Heaven – Robert Saler reflects on where our citizenship lies.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3:17 – 4:1
The readings for this Sunday hinge on two of the most powerful biblical motifs for citizenship in the Christian canon. The vision experienced by Abram in Genesis is that of “the land”—the geographic stability that gives God’s people Israel not only a place to live and flourish, but also an identity. Meanwhile, the Philippians text presents what appears to be a contrast to this rootedness by describing the Christian’s “citizenship in heaven,” even to the point that “earthly things” are seemingly dismissed.
And indeed, Christian exegetes have played up this contrast throughout Christian history—often with perilous results. The notion that, while the Israelites were tied to a physical “land,” Christians must yearn for a higher, more “spiritual” land (a notion often filtered through Augustine’s discussion of the earthly vs. heavenly “cities” in his City of God) became a staple of medieval exegesis, with its fourfold method of literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical interpretations of scriptural texts. In this schema, the literal or “physical” sense of the text often was considered to be the lowest and least profound, while the anagogical sense (generally related to a spiritualized eschatology) was the most sublime. For instance, exegesis treating “Jerusalem” as a literal geographic location was insufficiently pious for most Christian exegesis; interpreting it instead as “heaven” was the more sophisticated option. The notion that Christians’ loyalty was to a disembodied heavenly ideal and NOT the Earth in its fecund physicality thus was buttressed by Platonic exegetical strategies that linked the “letter” of the text with matter and the “spirit” of the text with ethereal and incorporeal verities.
Lutherans bear a special burden for the ill effects of this history. Many of Martin Luther’s later, polemical writings against the Jews of 16th century Germany (writings which have been repudiated by the ELCA) accused Jewish exegetes of being insufficiently sophisticated precisely along these lines—that is, he accused them of holding on to “physical” readings of Hebrew Biblical texts instead of spiritualizing them along Christian lines (cf. Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-46. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). It is thus particularly incumbent upon contemporary Lutherans to appreciate this historical fact: when the physicality of Biblical imagery—including that of “land”—is denigrated, this often becomes legitimation for violence.
In this Lenten season, we can take this insight and realize that understanding Christian “citizenship in heaven” as somehow disembodied from Earth, as separated from “the land” that God has given to all citizens of Earth, is indeed the first step towards legitimating the violence that threatens us all today. Ecological degradation is in fact a form of violence—not only against animals, trees, and non-human ecosystems, but also against those poorest human populations that suffer most immediately from the impact of pollution and global climate change. For this reason alone, Christian preachers should avoid the temptation to further the contrast between “citizenship of the land” and “citizenship in heaven” in their preaching.
But the value of good exegesis is not simply a matter of promoting the right praxis–it’s also about identifying the right source of hope. As Barbara Rossing has pointed out in her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), the eschatological vision of Revelation is one in which “heaven” and the earth in all of its physicality merge—the fullness of the kingdom is the redemption of the earth AS earth. Meanwhile, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has argued forcefully throughout his writings that Christian should not entertain any notion of salvation that does not take as primary Paul’s vision (in Romans) of Gentile Christians being grafted by grace onto the tree of Israel. The boldness of the Christian claim is that, in Christ, we Gentiles are inheritors of the promises given to God’s people Israel. “Land” is our future and present hope.
To have as one’s eschatological orientation (encompassing both the present and the future) “citizenship in heaven” should, therefore, make us MORE attuned to Earth as the site of God’s redemption. Exegeting scripture—and preaching Christian loyalty to “the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15)—should direct our eyes, not upwards to an incorporeal heaven, but down deep into the soil of God’s beloved land, the land promised to Abram and granted to us by grace through faith.
In our day, when God’s earth and God’s children cry out for relief from the ecological violence to which we all have been party, the preacher—acting in the prophetic mode embodied by Jesus in the Luke passage—might have to take the risk of confronting directly our Christian tendency to dismiss “earthly things” in favor of the panacea of cheap spiritualism masquerading as eschatological hope. If God is the God of love whom Christians proclaim, and the cross is the shape of God’s salvation in this world, then surely God is at work deep in the soil of the “crucified Earth.” And where God’s cross is at its redemptive work, there also should God’s church be.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2013.