[ALL GROUND IS HOLY GROUND]
Both the Old and New Testaments describe people who sought God’s heart by participating fully in His creation. But the most comprehensive, compelling vision of holy worldliness comes from Jesus Himself.
The Gospels tell the story of God with us, who made His intentions for the world known with the first public proclamation He made. Invoking the prophecy of Isaiah 61 and the promise of the year of Jubilee found in Leviticus 25, Jesus announced His ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19). Clearly, this is not a theology of escape. Jesus’ pronouncement meant that His kingdom is not of this world. But it is for this world, confronting the evil that pervades creation and correcting it.
When Jesus walked among humans, He did just that. He healed lepers and paralytics who had become ill not because of their own sin, but because sickness exists when things are not as God intended them to be. He cast out demons with unsurpassed authority, giving people back lives that had been literally invaded by evil. He even reversed the ultimate consequence of the Fall: He raised the dead and He defeated death, showing up three days after His own crucifixion to walk and eat with His friends.
The implication of these accounts is clear: the world mattered to Jesus. The language He used and the stories He told were earthy and restorative. His miracles demonstrated that the Kingdom of God was about healing and redemption of this world, not flight from it. And because the world mattered to Christ, it must also matter to the ones who call themselves by His name. Frederick Buechner, a storyteller of biblical proportions in his own right, gives a gripping indictment of Christians who mistakenly pietize Jesus’ ministry:
“‘The Word became flesh,’ wrote John, ‘and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ That is what incarnation means. All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earthbound, are themselves denied. Incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves. … One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.”
With Jesus as the model for our own pursuit of holiness, we can no longer make this blunder. To become holy as Jesus was holy, we must also become worldly as Jesus was worldly. In this context, it doesn’t make much sense to pray that God whisk us away to heaven, where we won’t have to deal with the problems of this world. Rather, we pray with Jesus that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Our hope is in heaven coming to earth (Revelation 21), making right everything that has gone wrong.
[WE ARE THE WORLD] But though this world was made for us, we won’t always feel at home. The Scriptures often speak of believers as strangers and aliens, and many Christians (including those quoted in this article) have eloquently expressed a sense of loneliness and displacement as a consequence of the fall. This is different, however, than saying that we were never meant for an earthly life in the first place. We are strangers here, but not because the creation itself is bad—rather, our sense of alienation comes from our own rebellion. We mourn for what the world has become under our influence, and we long for what is meant to be.
Our membership in the human race bestows upon us an inheritance of violence and rebellion—essentially, we can’t escape the world because we are the world. But we are also part of God’s redemptive plan for the world. Two kingdoms vie for possession of this world and everything in it, but the city of God will ultimately prevail. As God’s people, we participate in this victory; while we can’t speed the Kingdom’s coming, we can notice signposts of the world to come and actively embody a once-and-future faith. If we are to be the hands and feet of the Gospel, we can no longer pretend that certain activities are inconsequential or unbiased. Holy worldliness has profound implications for every area of life. There is no such thing as neutrality in the world God created and the reality humans corrupted.
If salvation matters in the here and now, for instance, we can’t ignore the poor or the marginalized, because Jesus’ ministry was to them first and foremost. Discipleship is inextricably bound up with justice and mercy. Or take entertainment: there’s no longer a clear-cut or content-based system by which Christians can designate which music is “good” and which is “bad,” because both the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of death course through all art. Where we live and how we treat our neighbors becomes vital to our pursuit of holiness, as does the food we eat and how we get it. As songwriter Pierce Pettis puts it, in the Kingdom economy, “everything matters if anything matters at all.” This makes our task more complicated—if there are no rules, we must engage with and assess all forms of culture—but ultimately more rewarding.
Obviously, attempting to be worldly in our holiness (and vise versa) is a daunting task. Try as we might, we will never be able to be circumspect about everything. The tightrope-walk of being in the world but not of its spirit requires a delicate balance, and we will fail time and time again. But every once in a while, we will find that because God loves us, we are empowered to love His world and everything in it.
This is what holiness accomplishes in us through the Spirit. Only when Jesus returns to redeem our rebellion and renew His creation will we see the Kingdom in all its glory. But in the meantime, in small ways, in every part of life, we must peel back corners of the darkness to glimpse the Light of the World.[Kate Bowman is Student Activities Coordinator and Ken Heffner is Student Activities Director at Calvin College, where they help students look for God in art and popular culture.]