For the World

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Biblical faith is not escapist. Neither is it world-hating. Because, however, love moves from the particular to the whole – from the person loved to the world loved – it always has been tempting for those who feel chosen or called to isolate themselves in some sort of purity and security, closing their hearts to the rest of humanity and the rest of creation.

Biblically, to be chosen means to be called out from among the many, not honored as superior, and then to be sent back among the many as a servant of God’s love for them, even when that love is angry or grieved. The Creator loves the creation. Israel is called to become a light to the nations, a banner of hope, a representative of God’s steadfast love for all earth’s peoples. The human is created in God’s image and likeness for the stewardship of representing God’s love and care for all the creatures and the very earth itself.

Salvation is always personal because love is personal and particular. Parents recognize the pricelessness of all children through their love for their very own children. Their empathy for strangers’ children draws strength from their compassion for their own. That’s how love works.

Jesus Christ sends his disciples into the messiness of the world, just as God sent the earlier prophets into the messiness, suffering, and corruption of the marketplace and the centers of political power. Salvation is not escapist, and when Christianity presents salvation as escape from this world, we have corrupted our message and thwarted our calling.

If we are chosen, it is because God’s eye is on the world. Yes, we are called to be different – to think and act differently from the ways of the society in which we live – but for the sake of that society. If, instead, we retreat into Christian enclaves, surrounding ourselves with (like-minded) believers and avoiding others except, perhaps, to give them aid in our benevolence (most often from a distance, without actually going among them), we are putting the light Christ has given us under a basket (Matthew 5:15) so it illuminates nothing for anyone but shines only for itself and likely soon goes out.

Current end-time Christianity is both escapist and world-hating, longing to be “raptured” out of the world, leaving (the “late, great”) earth to be burned to a crisp. But that end-time sectarian Christianity is only the extreme of Christian escapism, popular and dangerous as it has now become. Any Christian faith turned inward upon itself and seeking to keep its hands clean from the dirt of the world is aborting its calling to follow Jesus Christ. We are not chosen for obsession with our own purity, neither of morals nor of doctrine. We are not called to be self-consciously better than other people.

What we term the Incarnation (the becoming flesh of the Word, the relational Truth of God) means God’s truth got dirty with the dust, muck, and slime of our humanity’s degradation and suffering. Jesus never turns away in disgust from the wretched, the shameful, or the degraded. In anger he does confront the self-righteous, those contemptuous of the rabble whose sins and failings stand out in plain sight, but his anger is their chance to take another look at themselves and realize their own humanity.

If anyone is chosen, elected, saved, or called, it is not to be raptured out of the world but to be sent back into it to love it and suffer with it. The only perfection to which Jesus calls his disciples is that of love (Matthew 5:44-48). That call is to service not sentiment, to empathy not pity, to solidarity not benevolence, and to humility not grandstanding.

Now that the churches (especially but not only the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches) are being humbled by their loss of both popularity and prestige, maybe – just maybe – they can find themselves anew within the movement launched in the early church, before the Roman emperors drafted the church into the imperial systems and structures and transformed it into Christendom. For what does it benefit a church to gain the whole world but lose its soul? Maybe now that we are losing what we thought we had gained, we can discover the truth in that question.

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