The Church Exists By Mission As Fire Exists By Burning
Recently a friend shared with me an article clipped from a Dallas newspaper. It was an interview with several kindergarten children, each of them having been asked one question, “Where do babies come from?”
Listen to their priceless replies:
Linda Staley (age 5) said: “Mommies go and buy them at stores. Girls cost five dollars and boys cost fifty cents.”
Michael Sale (age 5) answered: “I’m not real sure, but I know Moms have to get them. If you’re kind of handsome it means you’re a boy, and if you’re wearing lipstick, you’re a girl.”
Alicia Crews (age 5) responded: “From fairy Godmothers. They make them out of yarn and crayons…”
Kelly Sweat (age 6) replied: “They come from the frozen food counter in the supermarket… just like TV dinners. All the mommies have to do is warm them up when they want them.”
David Joyner (age 6) said: “My mama told me storks bring them, but I know that isn’t true ‘cause we have lots of babies around here and no storks. I think they come from the post office!”
Well, we can see from this interview with kindergarten children that right answers are important. But I wonder if you have ever stopped to think that right questions are just as important. This morning I would like to raise and deal with what I think is a right question—namely, how does the church relate to the world? We talk of being “in the world but not of the world”—but what does that really mean? How should we as Christian people and as a Christian church relate to the world? Over the years, three basic answers have been framed by the church. They can be summarized like this: reject it, resemble it, redeem it. Let’s take a look at each…
First, some say: “Reject the world.”
The idea here is that because the world with all of its temptations, enticements, and pressures is evil and because the human body is weak, therefore, the only hope is to flee, to escape, to forsake the world, to reject it. There are many dramatic illustrations of this in history.
For example, remember the Monastic Movement early as the fourth century, monks by the thousands began retreating from the world, taking up residence in caves out in the hills or in the wasted places of the desert or even in old tombs in deserted graveyards. They thought they had a better chance for salvation by leaving the sinful world and so they ran away to lonely, desolate, or inaccessible places. One of the most famous of these monks was a man named Simeon Stylites. He retreated from the world by sitting on top of a column that was 60 feet high. The top of that column was only a yard square. He stayed there for 36 years and never came down once. Food was hauled up to him by a rope. When Simeon Stylites left this world, he really left! Of course, later on the monks realized that that kind of rejection of the world was not productive. So they began to live together as groups in order to do helpful, creative things like running hospitals, orphanages, and schools.
Another dramatic example of world rejection is seen in those religious groups who constantly emphasize the second coming of Christ to the neglect of everything else. All that matters they say is “to escape this world.” For example, here in America in the 1800s a religious leader from Vermont named William Miller announced that Christ would return on a precise day in 1843. As the appointed time approached, Miller’s followers got caught up in it all. Farmers quit farming. Children dropped out of school. Merchants gave away the goods in their stores. Fear of the last judgment caused many to commit suicide. Others were driven insane by the pressure of the deadline. Of course, the day came and went, Christ did not return, and the Millerites were discredited and disgraced by the society around them.
Yet another illustration of rejecting the world is found in the Amish people in our own day and time. Last summer it was my privilege to speak at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference up in Western Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country. I was so intrigued by these people that I tried to learn as much about them as I could. They are wonderful people, deeply Christian, but the basic premise of their lifestyle is world rejection. They do not use automobiles or electricity. They use hooks and eyes on their clothing instead of buttons and zippers. They want their own schools so that their children will not come into contact with the evils of the world. They keep to themselves and remain uninvolved in the communities around them. Now let me say that there is much about them to admire. We can learn a lot from them about the sanctity of the family and the value of hard work and the necessity for moral training for the young. Yet when you stop to analyze it, their faith leads them to reject the world.
So how do we relate to the world? Some say, “Reject it.” But there is a problem with this answer. It is not the biblical answer. It is not God’s answer. In the Book of Genesis, we are told that when God created the world, He looked upon it and called it “good”. Not only that, but in John 3:16 we read these words which we all know by heart. “God so loved”—what?—”the world that He gave his only begotten Son” to save it! If God loves the world that much, then we as Christians cannot reject it. So that is no answer.
Next some say: “Resemble the world.”
In other words, identify with the world, blend in, just go along in order to get along. The idea here is to accommodate to the standards of the world rather than the standards of Jesus Christ. One character in a modern novel captures this mood and encapsules this view when he says, “Find out what they are thinking and think it. Find out what they are drinking and drink it. Find out what they are saying and say it. Find out what they are doing and do it.”
Bishop Arthur Moore once told about a college student who became a Christian and joined the church. The next summer he was scheduled to work in a logging camp up in the Northwest woods. His friends in the church were concerned about this new Christian being exposed to the rough, tough worldly life in the logging camp. When he returned at the end of the summer, his friends quizzed him, “Did you make it all right? Did the lumberjacks make life tough for you because of your faith?” The young man replied, “Oh gosh, I made it fine! No problem at all! They never even found out that I am a Christian.” They never even found out…
Now contrast that young man’s experience with the experience of another young Christian named Jim. His story is told in an advertisement which appeared in a number of magazines several years ago. The ad pictured this young man with a six-day growth of beard, his shirt ripped and hanging open, and a canteen on his belt. When you looked down, you noticed that his pants are rolled up above his knees and that he is wading across a swirling jungle river. Just beneath the picture is a caption which reads: “Jim was voted the most likely to succeed at his school, and now look at him!” Farther down on the page in smaller print were these words: “Too bad, Jim had it made. Personality, initiative, a college degree with honors, success, and the good life were his for the asking. Now look at him! Backpacking across some jungle river. Giving his life to a bunch of pre-literate people barely out of the Stone Age. Working night and day translating the pages of the New Testament. Exposing the senselessness of superstition and ignorance. Relieving pain and introducing the possibility of health. Building a bridge of love to a neglected people. And to think Jim could have been a success.” And then right across the bottom of the page in even smaller print were these gripping words: “If you’re interested in Jim’s kind of success, contact the Wycliffe Bible Translators!”
Well, let me ask you something: Can people tell that you are a Christian? Do you stand out in a crowd because the spirit of Jesus Christ is radiant within you? Or do you just blend in? Are you making a difference in the world? Or are you just accommodating yourself to it? How do we relate to the world? Some say, “Resemble it”. But there is a problem with that answer. It is not the biblical answer. It is not God’s answer. In the Book of Romans, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Instead the scriptures call us to be the conscience of society, the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the leaven in the loaf. To resemble the world, to blend in, to go along in order to get along, is no answer.
Finally, there are those who say: “Redeem the world!”
Change it! Improve it! Make it better! Transform it! Yes, like most of the rest of the civilized world, I watched the Super Bowl, and one of the announcers said something that fired my thinking. You perhaps are aware of the fact that Leon Lett, the big defensive tackle of the Dallas Cowboys, was involved in two of the biggest bonehead plays of all time—one in last year’s Super Bowl and the other against the Miami Dolphins last fall. In all of the pre-game media focus, the unwelcome glare of attention fell upon Leon Lett, who was labeled an all-time goat! But then at a critical moment in this year’s Super Bowl game, Leon Lett caused Thurman Thomas to fumble, and the announcer said—and listen to this—”Well, Leon Lett just redeemed himself!” Well what does that mean? It means he changed things. He overcame the odds. He converted a bad situation into a good situation. He got a new life, another chance, a fresh start.
That’s what Jesus Christ came into this world to do—to redeem us and to redeem the world. He came to deliver us, to save us, to turn things around, to give us a new life and a second chance, to transform what is bad in the world into what is good in the world. And He calls us to join him in his redeeming work. He calls us to go into the world and He promises to go with us. That means that where there is a problem, with the help of Christ, we can solve it. Where is there is a wrong, with the help of Christ, we can right it. Where there are hungry people, with the help of Christ, we can feed them. Where there is no hospital, with the help of Christ, we can build one. Where there are people living without Christ and dying for want of Him, with His help, we can win them. This is our task, our calling, our great commission. Emil Brunner put it like this, “The Church exists by mission, as fire exists by burning!”
How do we join Christ in His redeeming work? Well, you could be called to be a missionary. Let me say a word, especially to any young people listening. If you have a little goal for your life, then you will have a little life. If you have a dull goal for your faith, then you will have a dull faith. But if you ever catch the vision of winning the world for Jesus Christ, and you give yourself to that great cause, then both your faith and your life will become exciting, dynamic, thrilling, and adventurous! So give God the chance to call you into mission service if that is His will. Be open to becoming a missionary. But if you are not called to be a missionary, then at least you can support missions with your gifts and your prayers. No matter your age or your circumstance, you can pray that the church will reach the unreached peoples of this world for Jesus Christ. No matter your age or your circumstance, you can make a gift to the great world mission enterprise of the church. Of course, if you can’t pray and give sacrificially, then let me gently suggest that you need to get converted, because you haven’t learned yet what Jesus called his disciples to do. You see, He said, “Go into all the world…”
Some years ago, Ed Beck was an All-American basketball player. After his great athletic career ended, he took a group of fellow athletes on a mission work trip to Korea. When the project was completed, they were saying good-bye to the Korean villagers. In the midst of that emotional time of farewell, a little Korean girl brought flowers to give to Ed Beck and the other members of the mission team. Struggling with her English, she said, “These flowers will fade and die, but you will smell here forever!”
Well, I hope that we in this church “smell forever” in those places where our people and our money are working for Jesus Christ in the world. I hope we “smell forever” in Jamaica, in Mexico, in Russia, in India, in Korea, in Kenya, in Zaire, and right here in Orlando. I hope we can share with the world the saving, healing, caring, redeeming fragrance of Jesus Christ. Our call is not to reject the world, or to resemble the world. Instead, our call is to go into all the world, to redeem it in the name of Jesus Christ, because the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning!