On Saturday mornings American Movie Classics reruns episodes of the 1958 show “The Rifleman.”
It’s a Western genre show that features a widowed Dad, Lucas McCain, played by Chuck Connors and his son Mark, played by Johnny Crawford, working to make a new life together on the American frontier.
I’ve grown to like the show because of its simplicity—black and white format, good overcoming evil, morality teaching storyline, Western genre, all wrapped up in a half-hour. Simple.
But another point draws me in, just like Westerns do for many of us—The Frontier.
The frontier is a place that calls to mind images of dusty, gun-toting adventurers riding off the map into the unknown, uncharted wilderness. Since the days of Lewis and Clark, Americans have been fascinated with the frontier and pushing boundaries.
The popularity of movie and television Westerns like The Riffleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Little House on the Prairie, Dances With Wolves, and every Clint Eastwood and John Wayne Western movie, is just one indicator that we love a good frontier exploration, and we’re always looking for a new frontier with its coarseness and strength, it’s wonder and allure, its ruggedness and adventure, its calling to be tamed and settled through dominant individualism.
All of these American traits were the result of the influence of the frontier. And even though the frontier closed a millennia ago the mindset remains. In fact, we’ve continued to push those frontier boundaries from the “last frontier” of the Alaskan wilderness to the “final frontier” of space.
There is a downside though: One person’s “frontier” is often another’s “home” and the ensuing conflict frequently gives birth to sad historical consequences.
America’s own frontier expansion came at the expense of natives who were themselves citizens of the land. Consequently colonialism and frontier expansion still have negative connotations in the 21st century.
But what if there was a way to change that narrative— a way the frontiers of the world could be expanded while ensuring everyone felt completely “at home”?
That’s what Paul is pushing for in his letter to the Philippian church.
In the first century, the frontiers of the Roman Empire were continually being pushed outward, and some places where Paul visited and preached, like Philippi, were frontier settlements colonized by Roman citizens.
But instead of acting like a historian who either critiqued or supported Roman colonization, Paul, a dusty adventurer himself armed only with the Gospel, was pushing for the expansion of a spiritual frontier.
For him, the most important frontier was the one God had opened up in sending Christ into the world— a move to colonize earth with the life of heaven, breaking down the spiritual borders of sin and death and extending life and a new home to all through this invasion of love.
For Paul, the coming of Jesus wasn’t about taking people back to some heavenly “home,” but rather about bringing and establishing God’s kingdom on earth. It was about having a frontier mindset—one of exploration and discovery— all for expanding God’s presence and reign on the earth.
To understand Paul’s thinking, we first need a little history lesson on the place and the people to whom Paul was writing.
Philippi, located in northern Greece, was considered to be the frontier between Europe and Asia. It was a strategic location put on the map by the discovery of gold mines.
The city’s real claim to fame, however, would emerge in 42 B.C. when a major battle took place nearby. If you know your Roman history, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. by the conspirators Brutus and Cassius.
Marc Antony and Octavian, who were Caesar’s friend and nephew respectively, set out to get revenge on those who had killed their patron. The Battle of Philippi involved some 200,000 troops and resulted in 40,000 casualties, but Brutus and Cassius were defeated.
After the battle, Marc Antony and Octavian knew bringing nearly 100,000 troops back to Rome was a dangerous proposition—idle soldiers in Rome was not a good idea. Civil conflict was bound to ensue. So they settled many of their veterans in Philippi, giving them Roman citizenship and making the city a Roman colony.
Soon though Marc Antony and Octavian were at war with each other, and after another great battle Octavian emerged victor. –à
He renamed himself “Augustus” and became the first Roman emperor. He then, again, sent an influx of veterans to Philippi to settle there as Roman colonists.
The point is that Philippi was a Roman colony, even though many of these veterans (and many of the local residents) had never been to Rome, and would likely never go there. Still, this made them no less Roman.
There’s an old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But in the ancient world it was more like, “When anywhere, do as the Romans do!”
The point of a Roman colony was to extend the life of Rome to the frontier. To be a citizen of Rome meant you were a representative of Rome. Citizenship came with certain rights and responsibilities, all designed to strengthen the empire.
I realize this is a long, drawn out context, but hang with me because when we understand this background, Paul’s letter takes on a very different meaning.
In Philippians, Paul invites the church he founded there to “imitate” him. That’s not a narcissistic statement, but rather a call to lay aside their former lives, as he had done, in order to gain Christ and the power of the resurrection.
“Our citizenship is in heaven,” says Paul, but like those Roman colonists in Philippi, their real mission wasn’t to go back “home” to a place they had never been. Instead, the mission was to extend the life of heaven to the place where they lived.
See where Paul is going? He was artfully and meticulously saying the church is to be a colony of God’s kingdom— and when anywhere, do as Christ does!
And the next phrase reinforces this point: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Roman colonists could expect that if they got into trouble out there on the frontier, they could send word to Rome and the emperor would dispatch legions of troops to come and save them—after all, the emperor’s official titles included “Savior” and “Lord.” Which is why Paul picks up this imagery and applies it to Jesus.
Notice, it’s not about these citizens going to be where Christ is, but instead about Christ coming to save them— the eschatological kind of saving when he comes to set all things right and dwell with his people.
And how will he save them? Not by taking their disembodied spirits off to a spiritual heaven, but by resurrection from the dead. Look at verse 21: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is the prototype of what God will do for us.
The rest of the Bible confirms this hope.
Throughout the Scriptures, God dwells with God’s people in a garden, a tabernacle and a temple. And now God dwells with us in person, in Christ, who is “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
Rather than being “enemies of the cross” who are driven by base desires and whose minds are set on “earthly things,” Paul wanted the Philippians, and now us, to claim colonial heritage and citizenship but in allegiance to a very different sort of kingdom—not the kingdom of this world, but rather the kingdom of God.
Our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and our mission is to extend the life of that kingdom on earth.
This is a major shift of focus for most Christians who have read the Bible through the blurry lens of a spiritualized narrow minded worldview that all we have to do is get baptized and love Jesus until we are let in the pearly gates. Or, read the Bible through the blurry lens of a spiritualized narrow minded worldview that Christ only loves some, only died for the select, and all others be damned.
But Christianity is an embodied faith, not only a spiritual one, and certainly not an exclusive one. It’s not simply about heavenly bliss but about the renewal of all creation, which means our whole orientation to this life must be different—it must be in this world, but not of this world.
We are not to treat the earth as a throwaway, short-term reality, but as God’s temple and the place where God chooses to dwell.
We are not to treat our bodies as temporary shelters for the Spirit, but as the grounded reality of our creation in the image of God.
We are not to treat others—those who look different, speak different, live different—as outcasts to be forgotten and dismissed.
We are not to treat death as our escape from the physical realm, but we look at the resurrection and the renewal of our whole selves as the hope filled promise it is for all.
To be in the world but to be of Christ is the world-view Paul was looking to expand.
These are the spiritual frontiers we as followers of Christ must begin to explore further to discover the deeper truths that lead to the discovery of new spiritual frontiers unlike anything we’ve ever imagined—a place for all of God’s creation within God’s kingdom.
Our home is where God is, and God chooses to come and make a home with us forever. A citizen of God’s kingdom leaves a mark on the world everywhere he or she goes; extending the life of the kingdom to every place and to everyone they meet.
Our citizenship is in heaven, but our home and our work are here on earth because God’s kingdom is here, and it is still coming, and we are citizens of that kingdom— colonists who are to live the reality of that kingdom and expand its spiritual frontiers in the present while we anticipate the Savior’s coming.
Live in such a way, as those willing to explore and discover and expand spiritual frontiers, and we will no doubt find a whole new world. Amen.