March 4, 2007
17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.
18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:
19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)
20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
If you go down to South America during Lent and drop into a restaurant on a Friday night, you will likely be confronted with a curious menu choice. In these largely Roman Catholic countries, you might expect to see some kind of fish listed, given the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, but this is not a fish.
In the seventeenth century, South American Catholics, who found themselves in a unique environment outside the abundant fishing waters of the North Atlantic, decided to petition Rome for a different dining option during Lent.
The dish you will be enjoying on a Friday night in Caracas does spend a lot of time in the water. It swims and dives really well, and it has webbed feet, but it is not a fish. It is a mammal, a capybara. The capybara is called a “water hog,” though, in fact, it is not a hog. It is a rodent, the largest, living rodent. An adult may be four feet long and weigh one hundred pounds. That is one big rat. I have no idea what it tastes like, probably chicken. [See: Miller, John J. “What’s on the menu?” The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2006.]
Imagine the confusion in the Vatican four hundred years ago, when they received this request to eat capybara during Lent. They had probably never heard of a capybara, nor have most folks today, unless they happen to see one in a zoo or on Animal Planet. It is a delicacy in South America, though, so you can see why people would want to celebrate the holidays, or observe Lent, by sharing capybara, even though it is a distant relative of the rat.
And that is not the only bizarre feast item that our faithful Catholic friends around the world have petitioned to add to their Lenten menus. Over the years and in different places, beavers, geese, puffins, and even muskrats have been approved, though as one Michigan bishop put it, anyone who will eat muskrat is “doing penance worthy of the greatest saints.”
It is interesting to read how colonists in lands far from the center of the Christian world began to change their practices and diets to suit their new surroundings. But while the forms and menus change and adapt, the message remains the same.
Lent reminds us that what goes into our bodies is less important than what goes into our souls. There may be many things that we should eat or not eat for our physical well-being. That is not what Lent is about. Lent is not about a new diet or a new dish. Lent is about our spiritual well being.
During Lent we remember who we are. We are sinners who have been reconciled to God by the Lord Jesus Christ, and we now live as citizens of his kingdom.
Nothing wrong with observing Lent through various practices and disciplines — even those that may involve eating “water hogs.” What is critical, however, is that we remember where we come from.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is essentially a word of encouragement to fledgling Christians living the colonial life, living in this world when they belong to another. In 42 B.C., almost a hundred years before Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, the Roman generals, Antony and Octavian, (By the way, Octavian later became known as Augustus, the emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth) won a great battle near Philippi during the Roman civil war, which occurred after the death of Julius Caesar. Having won the battle, and with no further fighting necessary, the two generals found themselves feeding a large army which had nothing to do. Rather than risk taking that many soldiers back to Rome, where they might change loyalties, the generals gave the soldiers the land in and around Philippi as a reward for their service. Thus, they made Philippi a colony of Rome.
Paul himself had planted the Christian church in Philippi. Acts 16 reveals the wonderful story of the merchant Lydia who first responded to the gospel (Acts 16:11-15), and also the conflict that Paul and Silas had with the city officials over their conversion of a local fortuneteller — a conflict that landed them in jail, from which the two missionaries were miraculously sprung by an earthquake.
Though they could have escaped, Paul and Silas refused to leave. As Roman citizens, they claimed the right to a fair trial from the officials in this Roman colony. The mention of their Roman citizenship caused the magistrates to quickly change their tune, and the missionaries were escorted away from the prison (Acts 16:16-39).
Some time later, when the fledgling church at Philippi received this letter from Paul, they would have understood that he was one of them. He was a Roman citizen as they were citizens. He was also the citizen of another kingdom, as they were citizens of another kingdom. They were all colonists together in this world. Thus, Paul could make the case to them that his example was worthy of following. He says, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). He is a model of purpose and perseverance. You might wonder if Paul is not too full of himself, and things too much of himself. But remember the context. Paul himself is trying to imitate Christ, who is the primary model for faith and life. Thus Paul writes, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). And again he writes, “Every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:11). For Paul, imitation was not about flattery, but about faithfulness. He is faithful to Christ. He calls us all to that same faithfulness.
Apparently, though, some of the Philippians had skipped the lesson Paul was trying to teach. Rather than embrace the example of Christ, they became “enemies of the cross” through their self-indulgence, gluttony and by “setting their mind on earthly things” (3:18-19). Paul’s accusation reflects a similar argument he laid out in 1 Corinthians 5-6, where members of the church held Christian beliefs but engaged in immoral practices, gorging themselves in self-indulgent lifestyles rather than following the humility and love spirit of Christ.
By contrast, Paul reminded the faithful Philippians that their basic identity was not of this world, but he urges them to remember that “our conversation is in heaven.” That is the KJV. Since 1611 when the KJV was written, the word “conversation” has changed its meaning. Today it means “your talk.” In 1611, it meant “your walk.” It meant your life, your whole being.
In one sense, we obviously live here in this world. We have physical bodies. We live in a certain place and time. But what Paul is saying is that we are only colonists here and our real citizenship is in heaven. The United States of America, however much we may love it, is not our real country. We are colonists who are living in this place but still faithful to our homeland. That does not mean that as citizens of heaven, we are simply slumming it here on earth, biding time until we go back to our true home. As colonists, we have a definite job to do on this earth, we have an important life to live here and now. Paul is well aware of that. That is why he urges us to follow his example, as he is following the example of Christ.
The people in Philippi considered themselves to be Roman citizens, but they were not necessarily looking forward to moving back to Rome some day. They intended to live their lives in Philippi, but they still believed they were Romans. The continuing focus of these Roman colonists was to bring Roman culture and influence into the place where they were presently living. As Roman colonists, they also expected that no matter where they were they could count on the protection of the emperor. When threats from barbarians or civil war were raised, help would be dispatched from the homeland with salvation assured and peace restored.
The same is true for the citizen of heaven. The goal of a Christian is not to eventually wind up back in the clouds somewhere, strumming on a harp and wearing a halo. Rather, as citizens, we are to colonize earth with the culture of heaven. And, as Paul said, it is from heaven that we are looking for “the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (20) who will ultimately defeat the powers of this world, transforming our physical bodies that they “may be fashioned like unto his glorious body,” so he writes in v21, “According to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” Christ will fashion our bodies, he will make our bodies, like his glorious body in the same way and at the same time he is refashioning the whole universe into a new heaven and a new earth.
Paul’s conclusion then is found in chapter 4:1: “Therefore, my brethren, dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved.” You may know that chapter divisions and verse numbers were added to the scripture. The Apostle Paul certainly never divided any of his letters into chapter and verse. Well, whoever made the chapter divisions of Philippians, missed it. Chapter 4:1 is actually the conclusion of chapter 3. Paul says, as a child of God, you are a citizen of heaven, but God has called you to be a colonist here right now. What then should you do? “Stand fast.” Live and work as citizens of God’s kingdom where you are right now.
Lent is about opportunity. Lent gives us a significant opportunity to renew our heavenly citizenship papers no matter where we find ourselves on earth. During Lent, we should take a hard look at ourselves, and ask God for guidance.
Some people fast during Lent, Some people give up certain things, and that is all right, but we ought to go beyond that. Rather than just thinking about taking things away during Lent, we should be adding some things as well — like prayer, like serving others. During Lent, we should do something that will get us thinking beyond ourselves.
Perhaps the last thing you want to do during Lent is to bite into a big chunk of roast capybara, and that is fine, but we should be asking for new perspectives on how we might bring a bit more heavenly culture to our little corners of the world. Lent is not a time for splitting hairs about what we can or cannot eat, what we can or cannot do—although we appreciate and understand if we have some Christian brothers and sisters that want to do that. Instead, Lent is more about a re-examination of what it means to be faithful in a land where we are essentially colonists.
Lent is also an opportunity for Christians to discuss what it is that unites us rather than divides us. While we work in different denominational tribes and colonize different patches of ground, we need to recognize that we are all citizens of the same kingdom. Even as in the United States, we are all citizens of different states, but we have one country, as Christians we belong to different denominations, but we have one heavenly kingdom.
Let us repeat what we said earlier: Lent reminds us that what goes into our bodies is less important than what goes into our souls, and that no matter where we find ourselves, whether dining on muskrat in Michigan or capybara in Venezuela, we are all part of one kingdom made possible by the sacrifice of one Lord. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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