ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 14, 2016
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WHAT IN THE WORLD
Romans 12:1 & 2; John 1:1-14
This morning we’re going to wake up our brains with a few minutes of “table time”. The topic for discussion is: Do we live in a good world or a bad world? And what makes you think so?
We began with that conversation because today’s question is: “I read Romans 2: 1 – 2 and am wondering: how do we define ‘of the world’? Do I need to sell all my belongings? Is it wrong to own a cottage? Should I get out of business? If I enjoy a hobby like golf or fishing – is that worldly?” (FYI the worldly hobby of fishing should be cast off and forsaken by all who love fishing, especially clergy.)
In Scripture, “the world” describes God’s good creation and all that’s wicked about life. “The world” refers to places like the universe or planet Earth. Additionally, it refers to people in general, to that which God is saving and to the demonic order opposed to God. “The world” can also mean a time rather than a place or people, as in “world without end”. In most of the OT “the world” refers to God’s good and lasting creation. Not until the Prophets do we find “the world” referred to negatively. Isaiah 13:11 parallels the words “wicked” and “world” saying, “I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity.” The NT affirms God created the world, but with one difference – God created through Christ, “All things came into being through him (Christ), and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1: 3 & 4). In the NT 3 words are used for “the world”. Aiwn – a “long duration”; In Matthew 12: 32 Jesus speaks of “this age/world and the age/world to come”. Oikoumenj – the “inhabited earth”; in Luke 2:1 a census went out to “all the world”. Kosmos means the order of creation and is used 188 times, mainly by John and Paul. While acknowledging the goodness of creation, both men believed something was terribly amiss about the world. Paul believed the world was in the grip of demonic powers, “…following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:2). John agreed, “…the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1John 5:19).
This creates a dilemma. If the world is good and the world is corrupt, how do we relate to the world? What part of the world are we to interact with and what should that look like?
At first glance, Scripture advices us to avoid the world. Romans12:2 tells us “do not be conformed to this world”. Jesus said it profits us nothing if we “gain the world and lose our soul” (Matthew 16:26). Those who deal with the world are to be “as though they had no dealings with it”since the affairs of the world produce anxiety (1Corinthians 7: 31 & 33) 1John 2:15f says “Do not love the world or the things in the world” James 1:27 defines “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” as “keeping ourselves from the world”. Peter referred to “the corruption that is in the world” (2 Peter 1:4). The world is either a place where people selfishly pursue riches and pleasure, or they suffer hardship and grief. Christians are to avoid what the world offers. However it’s pretty difficult to “deal with the world as if we have no dealings with it.” What does it mean to be friends with the world and what is it we’re being called to?
Romans 12 offers a picture of the aspects of the world we’re to shun. To be friends with the world is to act like people who are unredeemed; who don’t know or follow Christ. It’s to be proud, self-seeking and self-absorbed as well as lazy, vengeful, and snobbish. It’s to degrade the body of Christ, or your own body which is part of God’s good creation. It’s to live as though your life belonged to you. And many Christians do. Addressing Church leaders, George Gallup said, “We find there’s little difference in ethical behavior, knowledge or commitment between churchgoers and non-churchgoers … The levels of lying, cheating, and stealing are similar in both groups. Eight out of ten Americans consider themselves Christians, yet only half of them could name the person who gave the Sermon on the Mount, and fewer still could recall five of the Ten Commandments. Only two in ten said they’d be willing to suffer for their faith”. I hope you find that as disturbing as I do. We “were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20) and we’re called to live accordingly.
The world may not be a safe place but, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, it’s a place that’s being saved. The world at enmity with God is the same world which “God so loved” and for which “He gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Christ is the “Saviour of the world” (John 4:42) and the “payment forthe sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2). Paul affirmed, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19) While we’re not to behave in unredeemed ways, we’re also not to hate, shun, fear, judge or condemn the people or the world God loves. The Reformers discouraged withdrawal from the world. We live in this world. The question is not “are we of the world?” We are. The challenge is learning to live in holiness resisting the temptations of the world. If we don’t engage the world, we can’t introduce people to Christ. The Holy Spirit is active in this world to redeem it through Christians. We’re not to escape the world, but rather than being conformed to this world, we’re advised to, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.(Romans 12:2)
So what does this mean in practical terms? Can you enjoy your hobby – golf or even fishing? By all means. To enjoy God’s creation in healthy, life-giving activities honours God and refreshes our souls. As with the Olympics, sports can provide a wholesome form of competition in which people seek to be their best or it can lead to cheating and brutality. We’re called to enjoy life without being proud, belittling others or seeking revenge. If you can do this and play golf – then go for it! In fact, think of it as a spiritual practice, a time not only to exercise your body but your spirit – in humility, love and honesty.
Should you get out of the business or work world? We’re not told to do that. To have Christians who can work on welfare would be a poor witness and terrible stewardship of our gifts. We’re to engage the world without getting caught in the false hopes of power, fame, glory or riches that tantalize us. We’re to be careful not to follow idols or crave things God doesn’t want for us. As living sacrifices, we belong to Christ so we let our light shine. We work ethically, honestly, humanely, with respect for others and for the earth. We live counter to our culture, in ways that honour Christ and please God.
Should you sell your belongings, your cottage? The accumulation of material goods is a key area in which 1st world Christians are prone to deceiving ourselves. The short answer is: God expects us to be good stewards of the earth and of the riches he’s given us – riches that are meant to benefit not only ourselves but the whole world. Only you can prayerfully discern if your stewardship is pleasing to God. John Wesley said, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Before we purchase anything we need to ask how God would want us to use our money. We also need to ask, “How can I use what I own to glorify God and share Christ’s love?” Cottages for instance. For many years a woman who was not a member allowed my congregation to hold retreats at her cottage for free; she did it to honour Christ with her possessions. Renting out a cottage provides income – are you tithing on that income? Not only are we to “present our bodies to God as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) but everything we own belongs to God and is to be offered for his purposes.
By the Holy Spirit we can live as God originally intended, although wary of the temptations around and within us. We do this in the same way a scuba diver lives in the water. The diver lives in that alien environment by breathing canned air – he takes his environment with him. Christians live in a world alienated from God by bringing our source of life with us – we breathe the Spirit of Christ. We bring our spiritual environment with us into the unhospitable environment of the world, which we dwell in. We can live safely and freely in the world knowing “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Christ is redeeming “the world” and, insofar as it’s redeemed, it ceases to be the corrupt cosmos and becomes instead the “Kingdom of God”, the “world to come”, the “a new earth”. In Revelation 11: 15 we read, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will reign forever.” It is this kingdom Christ invites us to live in, to share with him, to co-create and to enjoy. May that emerging kingdom be the world we live in, of and for.