Do you ever have hymns come into your head for no good reason? "This World is not my Home" popped into my consciousness recently. It's an old standard in many evangelical churches, and Christians have sung it for over half a century now. But the message is at best misleading or perhaps even an unfortunate lie.
"This world is not my home
I'm just a-passing through..."
(J.R. Baxter, Jr., © 1946, Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Co. in Sentimental Songs)
This world is my home, at least for now. This time and place is where God chosen to put me. He has a specific purpose for my life that can only be fulfilled her and now. I can't say that I've completely figured out that purpose, but I know it's true. It's also true that someday this world will not be my home, but today it is.
That second line, "I'm just a-passing through," reveals at lot of what's wrong with the twenty-first century version of Christianity. When I was a child, my parents took us on several long driving vacations. Each day there were one or more destinations, but to get there, we passed through a number of towns. When we passed through a town, we usually didn't stop. If we did, it was just to get gas or eat lunch. Other than a gas station attendant or a waitress, we didn't talk to anyone. We didn't get to know them, learn about their struggles, help someone in need, or share about ourselves. We were just passing through after all. If my brothers and I were playing a game, we might not even notice the town at all.
Is that a model we want for Christianity? The world has many broken people needing hope, but we've got a ticket to somewhere else. We're just passing through. With that attitude, we won't interact with anyone other than when required for basic needs. We won't get to know them, learn about their struggles, help those in need, or share about ourselves.
That certainly wasn't how Jesus acted. Even though it was even more true (and certain) that He had a destination. But even though He knew where He was going, He didn't treat the world like He was just passing through. He stopped to talk to people about their lives and their struggles. He healed their physical and spiritual wounds. He fed them. He challenged them. He taught them. He offered them hope. During His earthly ministry, this world was certainly His home.
"My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue..."
The problem with these lines is their past tense, as if at some point we can pat ourselves on the back. We've gone to church, given to charity, gone on a mission trip, taken communion, tried to live decent lives. Our treasures at laid up--let's pack our bags and wait for heaven.
Paul wrote something similar to his protégé, Timothy:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course. I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Timothy 4:7-8, NASB).
But 2 Timothy is probably the last of Paul's letters. It's commonly accepted that he was likely wasting away in a filthy Roman prison cell. He was waiting for the inevitable consequence of having turned the world upside down. He didn't write anything like this in his earlier letters as he traveled the Roman world spreading the Gospel. All of his other letters are filled with his "what else can I do" attitude.
We might deny it, but some of us seem to think salvation is an event rather than a process. We've had out ticket punched in the waters of baptism, considering it the last step in a rigid formula. Important as baptism may be, it's still just one part of the larger process of becoming what God wants us to be. Paul told the Philippian church as much:
"So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB).
He was writing to Christians, presumably already baptized, and yet he tells them to "work out your salvation." Weren't they already saved? Paul clearly tells the Philippians (and all of us) that salvation isn't merely about baptism or praying Jesus into your heart--it's about a life of service to others, giving them reason to hope. When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I realize how far I have to go before my salvation is worked out.
"The angels beckon me
From heaven's open door..."
Really? If so, I suspect God wishes they would stop it. We all have a time when we'll approach the throne, but neither we nor the angels should be doing anything to look for a shortcut. Yes, the door is open, but remember, it's also narrow.
In the second century, some in the early church developed a desire for martyrdom. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writing about AD 108, for example, wrote a series of letters to churches as he was being transported to Rome for execution. He was apparently concerned that the believers in Rome would do something to prevent this, so he wrote to them:
"May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray that they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so…
"Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living [eternally with Christ], do not wish to keep me in a state of death [in this world]" (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chapters V, VI, The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. One).
In so obsessively seeking to attain Christ through death, Ignatius seems to display a passing-through attitude. Undeniably, he had sought to serve God during his life, and he had risen to the role of bishop in the great missionary church of the New Testament. To the early Christians, the manner in which believers faced martyrdom was a witness to the world, but it never should have been something to be sought. Who knows what other service Ignatius might have fulfilled had he allowed the Roman church to intervene of his behalf?
"And I can't feel at home
In this world anymore."
Who cares if you or I can't feel at home? The life of a Christian is not supposed to feel comfortable. In fact, in a significant way, it's supposed to feel uncomfortable. How we face discomfort has a lot to say about how well we work out our salvation. James wrote:
"Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4, NASB).
Whatever our situation on this earth, we are called to continue our Christian walk and understand that it won't always be comfortable. The response to discomfort shouldn't be a longing for compensatory reward. The response to discomfort, James tells us, should be joy.
"O Lord, you know
I have no friend like You.
If heaven's not my home,
Then, Lord, what will I do?"
It is certainly true that we have no friend as good and faithful as Jesus. "What will I do?" however, smacks of bewildered hand-wringing, as if the mission here weren't clear and as if getting to go to heaven is the only motivation for doing good. What will we do? To honor that faithful Friend, we should act like Him, turning our backs on legalistic religion that concentrates on trying to make believers comfortable rather than reaching out to those whose lives may make our stomachs turn.
Do you suppose for a moment that Jesus was comfortable with the lives of prostitutes? And yet on one of the occasions the religious establishment of the day sought to trip up Jesus, He told them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you" (Matthew 21:31b, NASB). Jesus sought those who were being excluded from the religious club, not those who were comfortable with their status.
"They're all expecting me,
And that's one thing I know.
My Savior pardoned me
And now I onward go."
My Savior pardoned ME? What about everybody else? Jesus' sacrifice, while undeniably personal, is also universal. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men" (Titus 2:11, NASB). The notion of a personal savior is only part of the story. God's Grace applies to all men and women--we've all been pardoned. The problem is that so many people haven't heard about the pardon.
In the context of the hymn, "and now I onward go" refers to heaven, but onward-going can happen right here, right now. Onward-going needs to be focused on going into the prison to tell those still there about the pardon., Too often, we evangelicals spend our time telling them about the consequences of remaining in the prison instead of the uncomfortable rewards of walking out of their cells, free men and women.
It does no good to fret about final judgment, but being cocky about our salvation because we think it lies in an event we’ve experienced is no better. If you know He'll take you through, I hope it's because you're continuing the process, not because you went through some event.
So I don't think I can ever sing "This World is not my Home" again or, if I do, I'll sing it with something very different in mind. This world is my home--it's my Father's world, and He wants me to make it a better place. I have a long way to go. Maybe if I substitute this verse I wrote, it will remind me of how to get there:
This world is where I am,
I'm not just passing through.
The treasures I receive
Depend on what I do.
And Jesus beckons all
To find the narrow door,
So we'll all free at home
In His world, evermore.
O Lord, you know
I have no friend like You.
And so I'm called to treat
The "sinners" like You do.
And Jesus beckons all
To find the narrow door,
So we'll all feel at home
In His world, evermore.
c 2005 Richard M. Soule. All rights reserved.
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