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New Horizons

People Who Say and Do Strange Things

A. Craig Troxel

Although the language of rap music is always changing, one thing remains constant. It is "virtually indecipherable to those outside the rap world" (Tonya Pendleton, "Under Raps: Decoding the Hidden Meaning of Hip-Hop," Philadelphia Daily News, July 28, 1997, p. 37). For instance, if someone says that he is "crazy straight" and that he is speaking "word life," he is talking about making good money and claims to be telling the truth (interpretation provided by Pendleton).

Of course, this is intentional. When the rapsters use their insider language, those on the outside won't understand what is being said, especially those who aren't hip (i.e., parents). While holding the outside world at arm's length, this subculture can continue to fortify and pass on its vision, narrative, and identity.

As crazy as this may sound, in one sense the church is not that much different. In the church, we constantly say and do things that perpetuate the vision, narrative, and identity of Christ's body. We employ certain vocabulary and engage in certain rites that inform and remind us of our Christian heritage and beliefs. While some of our language and ceremonies may not be immediately accessible to those who are outside the church, they do serve to reaffirm our religious heritage, promoting its rich and distinctive spirituality.

For those of us who affirm and appreciate our heritage, which is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, there is much to be gained from it. Yet many church members and children of the covenant are not sufficiently aware or appreciative of what is available to them for their Christian pilgrimage. Moreover, some in the church are saying, with good intentions, that for the sake of evangelism we ought to talk in the language of the present culture and not use the in-house language of the church, or "Christianese," as some put it. But have we become unnecessarily bashful about saying and doing things that the world may not understand or appreciate? Being sensitive to unbelievers is one thing, but neglecting the body of Christ is another. We should not be serving the needs of either group at the expense of the other. And we should never feel embarrassed by, or ashamed of, the vocabulary of the Bible and the sacraments of the church.

There are two things that we need to understand. First, God has established the church to be a peculiar people who are distinct from the world. Second, God has given his church his appointed means through which she maintains her identity and vision and realizes her spiritual communion with God. In other words, God calls the church to be separate from the world, and he provides the understanding and means by which we can rightly maintain our identity. This comes into sharper focus when we consider the church as a heavenly people, a separate people, and a spiritual people.

Earthly Pilgrims, Yet a Heavenly People

"These ... acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.... They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:13, 16).

In his polemic against the Judaizers in Philippi (Phil. 3:1-4:1), Paul reminds his readers that the bottom-line difference between him and the Judaizers is that they are "earthly minded," while he maintains the biblical perspective of heavenly citizenship. Christians are residents of this world, but not citizens of it. From this perspective, we know how to "stand firm."

This attitude, then, directly impinges on how Christians go about their pilgrimage as the disciples of Christ. This is simply another way of underlining what theologians call "the already-not yet motif" of the Christian life.

The importance of this for spirituality is first that we must adjust our expectations for earthly living accordingly. As those who have "set their hearts on pilgrimage" (Ps. 84:5 NIV), we know that earth is no longer a paradise. This is not Canaan. This will not be heaven. We anticipate something new.

This heavenly perspective has another implication for Christian spirituality: while we are in the wilderness, we remember to expect "manna," not heaven's pristine nectar (Heb. 3:7-13). In the wilderness, Israel was "already" promised Canaan, but had "not yet" arrived there, and they were fed appropriately (that is, no milk and honey). The same thing is true of the Christian church. She must maintain her heavenly hope as the supreme and constant reminder that Christians are not like the people of this world, "whose portion is in this life" (Ps. 17:14).

The Reformed faith puts an emphasis, then, not on finding nourishment from what is "out there," but on drawing strength from what we have "in here" through the means of grace—the preaching of the Word of God, the sacraments, and prayer. These are the substance of the church's "manna" while she is in the wilderness. Furthermore, God has given his people the Sabbath day, like an oasis in our weekly wilderness, which both affirms our heavenly longing and also reinforces our mandate to think, speak, and act consistently with such a belief. The Lord's Supper, baptism, preaching, prayer, benevolence, and diaconal service all instill this mandate. They affirm the Lord's teaching that his kingdom "is not of this world" (John 18:36).

They also do two other things. They serve to distinguish the people of God from the world. They also show, ironically, that the true relevance of the church is found in her irrelevance. Our heavenly citizenship always guides and goes before our earthly commitments, and our unbelieving neighbor is drawn to these appealing glimpses of paradise in a world that is anything but appealing.

Earthly Pilgrims, Yet a Separate People

"But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written: 'You shall be holy, for I am holy' " (1 Pet. 1:15-16).

If Christians are set on a heavenly pilgrimage, then our path is different from the world's. Israel's mandate not to intermarry with the Canaanite nations or worship their gods was grounded in the fact that Israel was to be holy to the Lord (Deut. 7). Their holiness mandated this inner moral purity, but it also served to distinguish them from others. This is no less true for the church. The Christian church must "go out from their midst, and be separate from them" (2 Cor. 6:17), and so retain her distinction from the world. The Lord Jesus Christ said that his disciples were "in the world," but "not of the world" (John 17:11, 16; see also John 15:19; Jas. 4:4; cf. Heb. 11). Thus, he sent his disciples out "as sheep in the midst of wolves." They had to be "wise as serpents," on the one hand, and yet "innocent as doves," on the other (Matt. 10:16). This sharp distinction must pervade the church's thinking, so as not to compromise her heritage and lose her way on the pilgrimage.

The Lord's call to be "in the world, but not of the world" is challenging to follow. It rules out escapism: "not in the world and not of the world." It prohibits worldly isolation: "not in the world, but of the world." It forbids compromise: "in the world and of the world."

This last prohibition is an important reminder of how the church's spirituality can quickly become worldly. Christians do not become worldly by being in the world, but by letting the world get into them. Ships sink, not because they are in the water, but because the water gets into them. Reformed spirituality is not ashamed of this fact. We recognize our need to catechize our children and to encourage them to imbibe of the church's narrative and then pass it on to the next generation.

This does not mean that the church should cease engaging with the world as "good Samaritans." Nor does it give the church an excuse to look down on the world like Pharisees. It does mean that the church may not "sell its soul" to the world as she carries out the Great Commission in the world. The church is to be set apart. She aspires to discern the world and its ways like "serpents." But in order to be "innocent as doves," the church must also refuse to be enamored with the world that crucified her Savior.

Earthly Pilgrims, Yet a Spiritual People

"For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:3-4).

As a pilgrim people, the church recognizes her founder's teaching, that his kingdom is "not of this world." The nature, function, and mission of the church is spiritual. While she is "in the world," she must hold fast to something that surpasses a supercharged moralism. The church must uphold her commitment to the supernatural working of the living God and his divinely appointed means that are expressly set apart for his work.

The church's methods must match her convictions and function. "Spiritual means for spiritual ends" was the motto of the Southern Presbyterian James H. Thornwell. The world says preaching is foolish. But God says it is the most powerful spiritual instrument the church possesses for salvation. The world says worship is boring. But God says it is his appointed time when he gathers with his people in the person of the Holy Spirit. The world says the Lord's Supper is a hollow ritual. But God says it is spiritual food that nourishes his church until the day when she will sit at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

The Christian church will not pass on her vision through worldly gimmicks and other impotent means. If she is going to retain her heavenly, holy, and spiritual identity, she must keep in living contact with her ascended Head through his appointed means, not by following the world and its ways. In doing so, the church will be a bright light in a dark world. Then, and only then, will the church truly be able to help the world.

The author is the pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2002.

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