The holiness of belonging to *this* world (with @BrianZahnd)

In Brian Zahnd’s May 26th sermon “New Creation (Not Evacuation),” he confronts the neo-Gnosticism of the evangelicals who think we can trash the Earth because God’s just going to blow it up anyway, taking on in particular the key prooftext of the rapture fan club, 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Zahnd uses the analogy of going to the airport to receive a relative who’s been away on a long trip, like a military deployment. People who read rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 are like someone who goes to the airport to pick up Jesus, except that they’ve packed their suitcases to get on an outbound plane rather than getting their house ready to receive Him. There’s a lot of good stuff in Brian’s sermon but the best part is a poem he wrote about the holiness of belonging to this world.

Zahnd points out that there’s a big difference between “the world” that Jesus stood against and the physical creation that we’re called to be stewards of. When Jesus talks about “the world” (ha kosmos), he’s talking about the power systems among the “Gentile princes” whom he critiques in Mark 10:42-45, a social order whose beneficiaries are designated by the word privilege in today’s discourse. The “friendship with the world” that James 4:4 describes is the acceptance of less-than-Christlike assumptions about “how things are” in the privileged normative paradigm of our society that cause our behavior to be “worldly” (except for a token set of “moral issues”), and reduces our “discipleship” to Bible verse memorization and quibbling over ideology which becomes our loyalty test. One of the most incredible ironies of our time is the way that many evangelicals justify their privilege and worldly behavior by redefining “the world” Jesus opposed to mean solidarity with the people and ecosystems outside their gated communities that actually defined Jesus’ ministry.

In any case, preaching against this attitude, Brian says, “One of the holiest things we can do is belong to this world.” He offers an astute explication of the “We’re just pilgrims passing through” prooftext in Hebrews 11:13-16 that often gets pulled out in these conversations. Zahnd says, “Abraham was looking for a city whose builder and maker is God but he wasn’t looking for it in heaven; he was looking on Earth.” To be a pilgrim seeking a heavenly city whose foundations are laid by God does not justify being a nihilistic Gnostic who is indifferent to the creation God has called good. Abraham’s faith doesn’t have anything to do with an otherworldly place anyhow, but rather laying the seeds for a people whose fruit he had to trust God to provide in the distant future. It’s about time, not space.

The one thing that should define us as Christians is that we are the best at showing solidarity to others because the holiness we have received from Christ removes the distracting baggage of sin that keeps us from loving our neighbor. I actually preached on this topic down here in the Dominican Republic this past Sunday using Ephesians 4. If we are Christians and not Gnostics, we should hope to gain a greater and greater capacity to enjoy humanity because insofar as others are really human, they are icons reflecting God’s glory in all the particularities of their human beauty (the degree to which we don’t glorify God is the degree to which we have been dehumanized). Zahnd captures this sense of the holiness of belonging to humanity and God’s good creation in the following poem:

(Antidote for Gnosticism)

Let Christ inform all of life
Don’t be a religious cliché
Be a real human being
Belong to the human race
Belong to the woods
Belong to the city
Go for long walks
Learn to appreciate art
Take up the violin
Cultivate culinary skills
Read War and Peace
Laugh more than you do
Weep now and then
Listen to live jazz
Eat a peach
Do something ridiculous
Go dancing
Stop judging
Start loving
Plant a garden
Climb a mountain
Memorize a long poem
Learn some astronomy
Become a bee-keeper
Go back to college
Take up a new hobby
Make some new friends
Read the Bible
In a new translation
Get rid of bumper stickers
Learn a foreign language
Watch a foreign film
Change your mind
Drink only good coffee
Trust the sommelier
Talk to your neighbor
Not about religion
Go to church
Go to the circus
Don’t confuse them
Be human

14 thoughts on “The holiness of belonging to *this* world (with @BrianZahnd)

  1. Pingback: Musings | Resurrected Living

  2. Its not the issue of using every day language, its the issue of name calling and demeaning people. If you called yourself that I wouldn’t object. (and I am not suggesting you are one!) there’s some good stuff here! Christ never went in for that about one of his disciples, even though He knew what was coming. Through it all He still loved Judas and treated him as such. The other danger is that people (like me maybe!) end up focusing on the wrong part of what you are trying to say.

    • Jesus certainly wasn’t as prudish as his followers about speaking the language of every day people and making genteelishness into a substitute for morality.

  3. So how can I lay the “gospel of guilt” that I’ve somehow internalized (even though it’s killing me) which says, “Why waste your time and money on doing things you like when there are people out there who need it more?” I’m asking this for serious… it’s become my recent agony.

    • Think of the woman who dumped perfume on Jesus’ head. It was extravagant and it offended Judas but it wasn’t wasteful. If your purpose is to delight in life and so doing worship God, then do not feel guilty. Take an underprivileged person with you when you go out to listen to your live jazz. If you’re consuming out of anxiety or addiction, then it’s not worship and you should stop doing it. The point is to delight in the Lord and invite others to share in that delight. Don’t feet about being ideologically consistent or defensible. That’s self-justification and has no place in healthy discipleship (yes it’s really hard to get past it!). Make sure that the poor are in fact “always with you” and then make the stewardship decisions you make out of what God tells you within those concrete relationships rather than out of abstract malaise. Hope this helps!

  4. I agree with you that we should be good stewards of the earth. So many people are deceived into believing that we’ll live in heaven for eternity. But that’s not what the Bible says:

    Rev 5:10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.

    But one thing I do disagree with – we were originally created in the image of God (icons if you will), yet we are currently NOT the image of God. We were so severely corrupted from that image that God decided to destroy all the earth with a flood:

    Gen 6:5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
    6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved [fn]in His heart.
    Gen 6:11 Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.
    12 God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
    13 Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.

    Do you see beauty in all the violence, death, discrimination, sickness, disease, suffering you see in the world? Do you think this is what God meant when he declared the world “very good?” I don’t think so.

    The world is currently marred by death and the Curse that God pronounced on this world because of Adam’s sin. In fact, all of us have sinned, and fall short. This world is a corruption of that original, perfect design. It will be restored one day and death and suffering will be abolished, but until then it’s damaged and corrupted.


    • So what about James 3:9?
      I agree that the image has been damaged, humans are cracked Eikons as Scott Mcknight calls it, but I see no reason why the Imago dei would be completely lost..

      • I don’t think it’s completely lost. I see it like 1Cr 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly;” We are similar, but now a corrupted image. A faint representation of what once was. Certainly when we were made we were very good as God called us, and we will be again after Christ’s return.

        The problem is to look at a fallen, sinful human and imagine that this is what God meant by “His image.”

        Rom 8:21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
        22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
        23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

    • Nope. Noah doesn’t work as a prooftext for Calvinism. The point of all the teaching we receive about sin is not so that we will feel confident saying presumptuous things about other people whose hearts we can’t see but so that we will be suspicious of our own motives and blind spots. I certainly engage in my share of presumptuousness. I don’t think by any means that we should be satisfied with the broken world as it is, but we do need to love everything that God has made and continues to make and it’s a farce to say we love anyone who we don’t feel uncomfortable writing off dismissively. Jesus said whatever you do for the least of these you do for me. He also said that the kingdom of God belongs to children (and not just children who have made a “decision” — he didn’t specify). It seems clear to me that we’re supposed to *be* Christ to others and treat others *as* Christ. It doesn’t matter if the sin living in them is burying the icon; they are still the property of their creator and of infinite worth to Him. To the degree that we gain the strength to resist temptation, we should not withhold ourselves from fellowship with anyone. Otherwise our Luciferian self-image has been revealed.

      • I’m not sure this is directed towards me, because I am certainly no Calvinist. It isn’t presumptuous to say that all have sinned, it is the truth (and the scripture says it).

        Pro 8:13 The fear of the LORD [is] to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.

        Never would I advocate hating a person. But just as God hates sin, we are to hate sin. You have moved into error if you think accepting a person means accepting their sinfulness. You can love and accept a person without loving their sin. For example, say you have a loved one who is caught up in drug or alcohol abuse. It is easy to see that we love that person, and want them to be clean and sober. We can easily hate their addiction out of our love for them because we can see how the addiction is destructive toward them. You wouldn’t, for example, tell an alcoholic that “it’s ok to drink, go ahead and drink all you want… in fact, I’ll come drinking with you, and later we’ll celebrate your alcoholism with a party.” That’s preposterous. It isn’t unloving to say to an alcoholic “I love you – you need to stop drinking.” Sin is similarly destructive in people’s lives because it separates them from God – the source of all life, joy, peace. It is loving to say “I love you, stop sinning.” Jesus himself demonstrates this concept when he was praying in the garden and his disciples fell asleep on him. He could have been angry that they let him down, or said that it was ok for them to just keep sleeping, but instead he says:

        Mat 26:41 “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

        As far as “fellowship” I am reminded of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

        2Cr 6:14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?
        15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?
        16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.
        17 “Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,” says the Lord. “AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you.
        18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.

        There is a difference between friendship, acquaintance, and true fellowship. Certainly we are not asked to ignore, belittle, berate, or eschew anyone. But neither are we supposed to have deep, intimate relationships with those who have rejected Christ.

        In 1 Cor 5, Paul goes further and talks about a person caught up in fornication (with his father’s wife, no less). He actually delivers that person into Satan’s hands for their destruction, and then warns the Corinthians that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” He then goes on to say,

        1Cr 5:9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;
        10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.
        11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
        12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?

        So we are asked not to be unequally yoked (Married to an unbeliever) nor have deep fellowship with unbelievers, and not to associate with a believer who is caught up in immorality (sexual sin). However, Paul acknowledges that if we avoided all unbelievers, we would have to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, which isn’t what he’s getting at. He’s talking about true fellowship. So yes, there are situations we are asked to withhold ourselves. However, nothing in 1 or 2 Corinthians says that we should treat anyone in an unloving or unkind way. We should always treat everyone with God’s love, especially sinners. That doesn’t mean we accept or even adopt their sinfulness.

        • I guess what concerns me is that you seem very focused on other peoples’ sin and you make very sweeping generalizations about categories of people. What total depravity means is that we can do no good apart from God. The question is not whether God can accomplish good through non-believers. He does this all the time. The question is whether we give Him the glory and thus enjoy genuine fellowship with Him. There’s a difference between spending time with other people and letting them disciple you. I would not let someone disciple me if they were living an immoral life that would be a threat to my walk with Christ, but I could still treat them with the utmost respect and not disdain to spend time with them. All of Paul’s admonitions are pastorally contextual. To try to make universal proof-texts out of them is where you go wrong.

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