Perhaps you’ve met the extremists: Susan Separate and Andy Activist. You’ll find them in most towns and in many churches. See if you recognize them:
Susan is not one to be contradicted. This world is not her home; she’s just passing through. She is quite comfortable with her church meetings and her Christian TV channels. She regrets having to work in the world, but it does give her a chance to witness. Her vocabulary is littered with spiritual jargon, and her conversation is more Christian than Christ’s. She worries that she doesn’t see more people come to Christ, but we do live at a particularly godless time and the Lord is in control, so everything will work out, even if we don’t understand it all. Life would be easier if she could meet a godly man, but that single life is very … spiritual.
Susan is in cultural retreat, and she is perverting the biblical idea of holiness.
Andy Activist is on a mission to rescue planet earth single-handedly. He is going to save the lost, fight injustice, save the whale, save the rain forest, and save the planet, and if you don’t join in, you’re just part of the problem. “What is the point,” he enquires, “of hiding away in a church having prayer meetings when there are mouths to be fed, AIDS victims to be educated, broken hearts to be bound up, and rainforests to save?”
Andy is in cultural advance, but is losing his faith moorings as he increasingly denigrates the very things that would inform the compassion he seeks to exercise.
These are, of course, unfair caricatures, but I’m sure they sound familiar to us all. But they beg the question of whether it has to be an either/or choice between the spiritual and the mundane. Jesus didn’t seem to see any tension between intimacy with God and a vigorous involvement in the everyday things of life.
Would it be possible to be culturally present and infused with true holiness?
THE GOSPEL OF PRAYER
Luke, the writer of the third Gospel, is renowned for his eye for detail and historical accuracy. A golden thread running through Luke’s Gospel is the private prayer life of Jesus. It’s worth noting that the Gospel writers simply presumed the reader would have knowledge of the daily habits of prayer and blessings that marked the contemplative life of any devout Jew. Jesus and the disciples maintained such rhythms of prayer. But in addition, Jesus would often withdraw for solitary prayer:
• Luke 5:16—But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
• Luke 6:12—Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God.
• Luke 9:18—Once when Jesus was praying in private and His disciples were with him …
• Luke 9:28—He took Peter, James and John with Him and went up on to a mountain to pray.
• Luke 11:1—One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.
• Luke 22:39—Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives. He withdrew, knelt down, and prayed.
Here was a man defined by intimacy with the Father. It was the indisputable key to all He did and all He said. He did not neglect the spiritual disciplines that fed the flame of love that characterized all He said and did.
THE WILDNESS OF THE ORDINARY
But Jesus wasn’t a withdrawn, otherworldly spiritual mystic locked away in perpetual prayer. He embraced the justice and compassion tradition already declared by the prophets as the will of God. The prophet Amos warned about dishonest weights, selling the poor for footwear, and taking bribes to corrupt justice. He called out on behalf of God, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”1 Jesus, as we will discover, echoed this call, but He made the very ordinary habits of His daily devotional life a springboard for countercultural involvement with humanity.
A quiet melody buried in the symphony of the Gospels carries the scandalous story of Jesus’ eating habits. As we hear the stinging rebuke of the Pharisees regarding Jesus’ willingness to eat with “publicans and sinners,” we perhaps hear it through the ears of our experience of faith. Are we hearing the patronizing voice of the self-righteous? Are we hearing the voice that fears that too much time with a non-believer will pollute our minds? It leaves us ruefully shaking our heads about the proud Pharisees.
But the reality is that Jesus was undermining the rigid caste system of His day. He was mixing with the unclean. He was supposed to be a Messiah, but He wouldn’t observe the rudimentary purity laws designed to produce a holy nation for God. The religious authorities had added more than 340 additional laws to the scripture. More than two-thirds of these related to food.
When you hear Jesus inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house, where it was inevitable He would eat, you’re hearing the voice of revolt. The message is that God will be involved with people, even if they are in a group—tax collectors—deemed ritually unclean.
When you hear Jesus inviting the disciples to eat fish with Him after His resurrection, you’re hearing a God who will remain involved in the everyday intimacies and patterns of life, even as this group of eleven are prepared to shape world civilization.
When you read the Gospels and note all the references to food, you discover a Savior who takes what we view as mundane, but the society of the time regarded as highly symbolic, and uses it as a sign of acceptance and a bridge to friendship, dialogue, and spiritual change.
He also let an unclean woman weep over His feet, when the expedient thing to have done was to ask her to find a local female sympathizer to counsel her. He touched the diseased, dead, or dying, rendering Himself unclean, but rendering them clean, healed, and forgiven.
AN INVITATION TO WORSHIP
Jesus was involved with people. He reminded His disciples that their involvement with people would be like an act of worship to Him, talking about a day when the King will say:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ When the bewildered faithful ask when this happened he will reply: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”2
Jesus had made it clear from the very start of His public ministry that involvement with the poor and marginalized was to be a foundation of His message. Speaking shortly after His forty days in the wilderness, He announced to the Nazareth synagogue:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor.3
It is clear Jesus wanted us to be involved with people. What has the Church done in response to this over the millennia?
In the U.K., it is estimated that our 49,000 churches are involved in more than 144,000 social compassion projects (Oasis, Faithworks Survey, 2003). While sections of the Church may well live in the proverbial “holy huddle,” isolated from the world and only “raiding” it for potential converts, the witness of history suggests that movements of revival and renewal, sparked by prayer, are the engines of Christian compassion for decades after the spiritual passion was at its height.
Timothy L. Smith, writing in Revivalism and Social Reform, reflected at length on the fruits of the 1857 prayer revival, which was to spark hundreds of thousands of conversions. A prayer meeting of six men became the foundation of a prayer movement that swept New York, America, Northern Ireland, and Scotland from 1857-1859. This involved thousands in daily or weekly prayer meetings and fueled the 1959 Ulster Revival.
He comments: “The prayer of all disciples, ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ took on new significance as the soul winning impulse drove Christians into systematic efforts to relieve the miseries of the urban poor. Individual churches soon joined the inter-denominational societies in distributing food and clothing, finding employment, resettling children and providing medical aid …. The revival of 1858 was in many respects the harvest reaped from this gospel seed.”4
Revivalists were active in the formation of caring institutions such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA); Charles Finney and others were vigorous in their denunciation of slavery. This is just the tip—writing about the roots of social compassion could fill up a book in itself.
Jesus was intimate with the Father in prayer. This gave Him, and will give us, the passion to continue whatever the odds, in “loving our neighbor” in whatever contexts God places us.
The challenge for those who would seek to follow Jesus is this: Can we be in the world but not of it? Jesus, even as He prepared for the cross, prayed to the Father: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”5
Jesus was present in the culture of His day but not in thrall to its values. Asking ourselves some questions may help us be the same.
How can we be separate but present?
The Scripture tells us to come “out from among them and be separate.”6 We are also encouraged to “love not the world.”7 For many, these two texts are enough to justify cutting themselves off from the world. The two verses need further explanation. Paul is writing to the Corinthians, who seemed fond of taking the grace of God for granted as they got drunk at the communion service and indulged their sexual passions outside of marriage. He urges them to stop mixing institutionally, or in formal relationships, with people of other religions and uses images of worship and marriage to bring the message home. He is urging them to be distinct and principled, not invisible and marginal.
The call to love not the world should also be seen as a call to look to God in Christ as the root of all wisdom and to find delight in Him. This is in contrast to believing in the thought patterns of the culture around us and having an idolatrous relationship with God’s good gifts of fine food, beautiful creation, and sexuality. The Greek of the passage infers that it is the philosophy of the world that is to be avoided.
Scriptures such as these need to be read in the light of other scriptures. For God so loved the world that He sent His Son. His Son was constantly mixing with the wrong people. His disciples and followers remained in their conventional occupations as tent makers, fishermen, and tax collectors. They maintained friendship ties with the poor (Dorcas fed them), the needy, the widowed (the deacons were appointed to look after them), the rich (Lydia), and the learned (Paul debated with them in the marketplace). Their churches grew daily.
I believe that this growth was partly related to daily informal contact with non-Christians. Jesus practiced it. What other argument do we need?
What is our job in the world?
Why are we here? The book of Genesis suggests that we are to “fill the earth and subdue it.” The creation mandate includes the encouragement to work and take care of creation.8 We are stewards or keepers of creation and can view our role on this earth as an act of worship. Whatever our jobs in life, we can in some way contribute to the health and good of our community and the land in which we live. We will be culture formers, using our God-given creativity to reflect Him in the way we do our jobs, raise our families, and treat other people, and in the music, poetry, and art we create.
While we will be rejected by some and they will separate us out from them as Jesus warned, there seems to be no New Testament precedent for creating closed communities isolated from the rest of society. The Christians remained involved in the everyday lives of their towns and cities even when they withdrew from the pagan temple worship.
This is inferred by Paul’s discussion about eating meat offered to idols. He clearly indicates that he believes that no harm will come to those who eat it. He further suggests that you are innocent if you did not know it had been offered in this way. He cautions against knowingly eating it, lest you be seen to be giving credence to the pagan belief system. The very fact that he is offering these guidelines for friendships with pagan people would seem to infer that the believers remained involved in the day to day lives of their communities.9
Holiness is a heart attitude. It is not a mere avoidance of sin. Jesus cautioned against the complacency that looked at sin in a forensic legal way and encouraged people to examine the attitudes that fueled sin.10 A lifetime of discovery of the attitudes that motivated Jesus will change our hearts and incline us toward an instinctive holiness that is as natural as breathing. This book is a simple description of what I’ve discovered so far.
IN COMMUNITY, FOR OUR COMMUNITY
We have a responsibility to be salt and light in the communities we find ourselves in.11 Within those communities we will have four spheres of influence:
• Our family—the place of most influence.
• Our workplace—where our lives are on show daily.
• Our neighborhood—the people we greet in the street, the people at the local shops, the people who clean our streets and deliver goods.
• Our voluntary associations—the friends we choose to be with, the community activities we choose to surport.
The weakness we often suffer is that we regard work as a necessary evil, and the neighborhood as full of sinners, and we often have no community links or non-Christian friends. We are holy on our own.
Changing that involves examining our view of life in the light of the Bible and making a deliberate choice to connect with those who do not know Jesus.
We are here to make and lead culture. We are here to bless our communities. We are here to be a prophetic voice when injustice or evil seek to have their sway. We are not here to survive. This is not God’s waiting room. We can make a difference whether we are in conventional positions of power or not—the final chapter of this book will describe how we can engage with society and influence every sphere of life.
We can do none of this alone. It’s instructive that Jesus had one close friend, three in His inner circle, twelve as His disciples, seventy-two as His followers, and 500-plus who witnessed His resurrection. We cannot be holy and present in the culture in isolation. We need each other. We learn from one and other. We are accountable to one and other.
We need to follow Jesus together.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Pete Greig, Awakening Cry (Kingsway, 2004)
Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence (Zondervan, 2001). This book examines the role of Christianity in shaping hospitals, education, science, human rights, art and architecture, workplace justice, and several other important spheres.
1. Amos 5:24
2. Matthew 25:31-40
3. Luke 4:18
4. Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (John Hopkins University Press, 1989).
5. John 17:15
6. 2 Corinthians 6:17
7. 1 John 2:15
8. Genesis 1:26, 2:15
9. 1 Corinthians 10
10. Matthew 5:22
11. Matthew 5:13-14