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December 19, 2013

Radical Worldliness: Outside the Camp (Jul-Aug 1997)

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Randy Harris
July – August, 1997

I work in that strangest of all possible environments – the university. It is often said that part of my task as a professor is to prepare my students for “the real world.” I suppose that means that while they are in school students are part of the “unreal world” in which I live. I am alleged to be a member of the “ivory tower” community although I can never quite located that elusive edifice.

To compound my strange existence, I not only work in the university world but I work in the most cloistered kind of the university – the Christian school – where we forbid drinking, dancing, cursing, illicit sex, and sundry other real-world stuff. So it will undoubtedly seem strange to some to hear me argue for a radical worldliness among Christians, but this I intend to do.

I am not, of course, going to plead for greater sinfulness and idolatry in our lives (though I have no doubt the troops are ready if someone wants to sound the charge!), but for a greater in-this-worldliness that is epitomized in the ministry of Jesus. But before coming to Jesus, let me remind you of the story of Jonah.

The old Testament book of Jonah confronts us today with two pressing questions, neither of which has anything to do with the fish. The questions are, (1) who are the Ninevites, and, (2) how are we going to respond to them? After Jonah’s success at bringing Ninevah to repentance, we read of his reaction to God’s loving kindness:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Never did one proclaim the graciousness of God with a worse attitude! Jonah hates the Ninevites. They are the enemy – the outsider. He is hoping for their destruction. In fact, he is willing to risk running from God to make sure they are not spared. The book of Jonah proclaims loudly and clearly that God loves the Ninevites as well as the Jews.

But again, the real questions for us are who are our Ninevites and how will we respond to them? Like Israel, we are too often content that God has saved our group and we have little compassion for the outsiders of the world.

The reason we must develop a greater in-this-worldness is that this is where those in need of God’s mercy are to be found. They are in Nineveh so to Nineveh we must go. This same attitude is expressed in the ministry of Jesus as well. Consider how the writer of Hebrews reflects on the world of Jesus:

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are lookng for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:11-14).

This is a strange and difficult text, but notice that it contains the exhortation to go to Jesus outside the camp. I believe this text is a call to move beyond the comfort and security of our religiosity and follow Jesus wherever he takes us – and that he will always take us outside the camp – a most uncomfortable place to be!

In other words, we do not set up a fortress to keep the outsiders out, but rather we leave the fort to go where he or she is. It is radical worldliness in the best sense of the term. But what does this mean in practical terms?

It means a church would not just be known for its stand against abortion but for its care for unwanted children and mothers who choose the difficult road of raising children in less than ideal circumstances. It means a church is not just known for its stand against promiscuous sex – but for its ministry to AIDS patients. It means the church loves sinners as God loves the Ninevites.

The phrase “the worldly church” could have either negative or positive connotations. It could mean the church has sold out to the values of the culture around it and has lost its counter-culture message (“For here we do not have an enduring city ….”). The church can simply become a reflection of the world. This, of course, is sinful and disastrous.

But it could also mean the church has been willing to do its work outside the camp where Jesus and the Ninevites are, and this is faithfulness to our calling. If you have been mounted on the wall defending the fortress, aren’t you ready for a new kind of ministry, the ministry of the trenches, the ministry of woe and misery, the ministry of disgrace, the ministry of Jesus?


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Randy Harris

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