The First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.
Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth– everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”Isaiah 43:1-7
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers.” “Name Two Cabinet-Level Positions.” “If both the President and Vice-President can no longer serve, who becomes the President?” “What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?” “Name one right [that is] only for United States citizens.” “Name a state that borders Canada.”
If you answered: “Alexander Hamilton”, “The Attorney General”, “Secretary of State”, “the Speaker of the House”, “Jury Duty”, “Vote in a federal election”, and “Vermont”. Congratulations! You’ve just met the minimum requirement in passing the civics section of the United States Citizenship & Naturalization test.
Since as early as 1802, questions such as these have been posed to hopeful immigrants as part of the long road of obtaining citizenship in the United States. Their aim is to assess whether the applicant demonstrates “attachment to the principles of the Constitution” before being granted all the privileges and protections that the Constitution offers.  For those born into US Citizenship, who have rarely if ever been expected to demonstrate “attachment to the principles of the Constitution”, citizenship is easy to take for granted. So much so that a 2018 study showed that only 36% of Americans can pass the citizenship exam expected of immigrants. Even I am ashamed to admit that when I took an older version of the exam for a history class in high school, I only passed by one question. Most of my classmates failed entirely.
Now before we start blaming the education system for failing to properly teach civics, or “kids these days” being too lazy to pay attention, taking citizenship for granted is not a problem with our education or individuals, rather it is a problem with our culture. As a society, we are so transfixed on ourselves as individuals, we forget what it means to be a citizen. This is the natural progression of a society that rewards competition and punishes cooperation, we think only of ourselves and forget the common good.
But what does it mean to be a citizen? Often, we hear only about citizenship or civic duty in the context of debating immigration policy or encouraging voting. Yet citizenship is so much more than shibboleths and electoral engagement. Broadly speaking, citizenship is a contract between a state and an individual. Individuals in exchange for loyalty and other responsibilities such as taxation or military service, receive privileges, protection, and political voice by the state. Additionally, citizenship is a contract between people living together as a nation: that we will live peacefully together, hold each other to account, that we are all responsible for our collective well-being. In other words, citizenship is the contract that states who we belong to, and how we live together.
But as you may have guessed, this isn’t a civics class. For one thing we’re completely over-dressed. But I call upon you not as citizens of the United States, or any other nation of the earth, but as citizens of that heavenly country, the Communion of Saints, people washed in the waters of baptism: Christians. This Sunday, the first after the Epiphany, we remember the baptism of our Lord. In remembrance and celebration of His baptism, we welcome new believers into our heavenly nation and renew our own citizenship in the Baptismal Covenant.
Baptism is many things, but we are most apt to forget that it is citizenship. Due to bad church teaching and wicked attempts at monopolizing God’s infinite Love, many mistakenly believe that baptism is little more than fire insurance; a “Get out of Hell Free” card. Baptism has been twisted from an act welcoming all who wish to dedicate their life to love and service to others to a purity test, a tool of exclusivity, and yet another means to put up false walls between God’s beloved. Much like earthly citizenship, in our competition and tribalism, we forget the rights and responsibilities bestowed upon us as citizens, forgetting the common good in the pursuit of our own salvation.
What then, does it mean to be baptized, to be a citizen of heaven? Just like any citizenship, God promises to protect us. As we heard in Isaiah,
“Thus says the Lord, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Unlike the nations of the earth, God promises not only to protect us, but to love us, to redeem us, to be with us, coming into this world not to condemn it but so that we might be saved. All of God’s promises are embodied in Christ, who in His own baptism showed us the way of becoming citizens of heaven.
As for us, as citizens we to are expected to uphold our end of the covenant, not only to God but to one another. When we renew our Covenant, you will notice that we also have a citizenship test, though a key difference between our citizenship test and the kingdoms of the earth is that we insist on printing the answers for everyone. In the Examination and Covenant our responsibilities as heavenly citizens are spelled out.
From the Examination, our first responsibility is freely choosing to be part of this heavenly country. Second, renouncing Satan and Evil. Third, to renounce sin that draws us away from God. Fourth, to turn to Jesus, accept Him as savior, trust in His grace and love, and follow Him as Lord. Finally, for us to do all in our power to support our fellow Christians in their life in Christ.
In the Covenant, we recite the Apostle’s Creed: the earliest and longest-standing summary of our faith that binds our commitment today with the commitment of Christians in all times. Additionally, we are responsible for continuing in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We are responsible to persevere in resisting evil and repent when we stumble. So far, these commitments are culturally quite familiar to us, a contract between an individual and God, and what many have construed as mere fire insurance. The last three commitments bind us to the fullest sense of citizenship, and beyond what any nation on the earth would expect: our commitment as God’s people to all people. It is our responsibility as citizens of heaven, as the communion of Saints, as Christians, to proclaim by word and example the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. All this we do with God’s help. Amen.