Sunday, 28 February 2016

Holy people in an unholy world

“Therefore come out from them and be separate… Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the Lord Almighty. Since we have these promises… let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit… 2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.” Do you find yourself agreeing with that quotation?

Apparently George Washington said it. I must admit that what I know about George Washington could be written on the tiniest of post-it notes. But I reckon he was spot-on with this. It certainly chimes in with Paul’s severe, uncompromising words to the Corinthian church: Come out… be separate… touch nothing unclean… purify yourselves from any contamination.

In fact, go back a little to 1 Corinthians 15:33 and you find him saying very much what George Washington said: “Bad company corrupts good character”.

You don’t have to read far in the letters to Corinth to see that the church there was a pretty ugly mess: factions and divisions; gross sexual immorality; quarrels that ended up in law courts; compromises with idol-worship; disorderly worship services… welcome to the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth.

The problem lay partly in the fact that Corinth, as a city, was known for its corruption and vice. And the Christian community was right there, in the thick of it. However true their conversion experience may have been – and, strikingly, Paul never expresses doubts about it – that nasty taint of unbridled paganism didn’t just go away. So no wonder Paul pleads with his fellow-believers to distance themselves from every hint of “uncleanness”.

I’m sure he would say just the same to us.

But how are we to put this into practice? Some Christians have seen this as a call to complete withdrawal from the world around us. But that surely can’t be right. Didn’t Jesus live his thirty years on earth in the thick of things? Paul himself wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in the business of evangelism and church-planting (what else was he doing in Corinth in the first place?).

No: Christians who adopt the “withdrawal” policy tend to end up sanctimonious and self-righteous, and that’s not a good witness for Christ.

When I was a teenage Christian I was taught a little motto which I think isn’t at all bad: we are to be “in the world but not of it”. 

Certainly, Jesus doesn’t call us to be hermits – he wants us involved in making known the good news and announcing the kingdom of God. But he also insists on total purity of life, motive, speech and behaviour. It’s a great challenge: how can I be truly godly in a godless world?

Well, it’s a question each of us must answer, prayerfully and thoughtfully, for ourselves.

But the point of Paul’s words is to sound a serious warning to anyone who wants to follow Christ: every waking minute of every day the devil wants us to get sullied, contaminated, by what goes on around us. And if we are not wise in the choice of people we mix with this process will take place without us even noticing it.

A friend was invited to the office Christmas party. He didn’t really want to go – the alcohol would flow freely, inhibitions would be lowered, people would end up doing and saying things they would never have dreamed of in the normal office setting. So what would he do? “I’ll go along for a bit and enjoy it as much as I can, but I won’t stay too long.” I think that was about right. And, who knows, like Jesus at the wedding at Cana, he may have brought something of the presence of God.

Another friend came to me once after a meeting where we had been stressing the need to be active in witness among our non-Christian friends. With a guilty look on his face he said, “Colin, you know, I don’t think I have any non-Christian friends!”

He was a dear, good man, deeply committed to the life of his church – but he hadn’t realised how, little by little, the church had gobbled him up and taken over every moment of his spare time. (To his credit, he set out the very next day to redress the balance in his life.)

Balance. I think that word (blessed word!) sums it up very well. As Christians we are walking a tightrope every day. And when you’re on a tightrope, well, balance is everything. Lord God, help us not to fall off on either side!

Heavenly Father, I want to be pure and Christlike. But you have placed me in this sad, soiled world, and I am glad of that. I want to live for you. Help me, please, to get it right! Amen.

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