Be Ye Separate

Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-7:1 to start.

I know what you are probably thinking, and yes, this might sound familiar. That’s because I spoke on this same passage last month. You might remember, the topic was unequal yokes, about believers being joined in partnership with unbelievers, and how problematic that is. There is more to the passage than that, I only discussed a few of the verses that we read. Today we are going to look at something different, although something no less important.

You might also remember how I talked about cars and tractors, and how they are not the same, they are not compatible. Don’t worry, this morning I’m not going to talk about cars or tractors. I’m going to talk about boats.

It’s lobster season, and that means there are a lot of fishing boats out on the water. On my way to work I have to drive by a fishing wharf in Sturgeon, and in morning all the boats are out, and then when I get down to the Panmure causeway I can see maybe a dozen lobster boats out on the water, some of them closer to the beach than you would expect, like only a few hundred feet out, and some of them are a long way out there. They’re all doing the same thing, pulling traps and gathering up the lobsters to bring back and sell so they can end up in a pot of boiling water, and then maybe on your plate or in a lobster roll, or maybe the Buddhists will buy the lobsters and let them go so this can happen all over again.

No matter what happens to the actual lobsters, I know what’s going to happen to the boats. When I drive back home after work the boats will all be sitting at the wharf, waiting for the next morning when they go out again. Depending on which direction you drove here this morning, you may well have seen some lobster boats yourself, there are a bunch down in the Montague river not far from the bridge. And they’ve put in the floating docks at the marina, so there are other kinds of boats there as well, or will be soon.

No matter what kind of boat we are talking about there are a couple of things they all have in common. They’re all in the water. Sure, they may get stored out of the water, lots of the fishing boats will come out at the end of the season, some might stay in for the summer, but boats are only useful in the water. You might happen to see a boat in a parade, for example, but it’s not really doing the job of a boat, is it? It’s just a fancier and more expensive trailer at that point.

Boats are meant to be in water. It is where they are intended to be, and where they belong. Remember Noah? People no doubt mocked him for building a big boat nowhere near a body of water, because they did not believe that water was coming. Boats are meant to be in water, it’s a good thing when they are.

Water, however, is not meant to be in boats. Aside from drinking water for the crew, of course, and if there is a toilet on board then water for flushing it and washing your hands. Otherwise, water in the boat is a problem, and a serious one. Boats go in the water. Water does not go in the boat.

Most of the people here this morning who are adults are likely familiar with the idea of being in the world but not of the world. That is how we are to be as followers of Christ, we live in the world, it is where we have our residence, but we are not to be a part of it, not to be conformed to its ways nor fit into its mould. You younger folks may not have heard this so much, or not heard it explained so directly, but this is an important basic principle of the Christian life.

As I said last time about being unequally yoked, these fundamental concepts are taught and preached so often that we assume that they are understood by all. Even if they are well known, younger generations may not know these principles, or not know them well, and we can all likely do with a reminder from time to time.

In the verses we read to start, after Paul talks about not being unequally yoked, about how light is different from darkness, and how righteousness cannot have fellowship with unrighteousness, in verse 17 he advised the Corinthian believers to come out and be separate, and to not be contaminated with the uncleanness of the world. Touch not the unclean thing is what the verse says. What does that mean? What does it tell us in regards to how we are to live?

As mentioned a moment ago, while a boat is intended to be in the water, it is not part of the water. It exists in contact with water, but it remains separate. If it doesn’t, if water starts to fill the boat, then something has gone very wrong. The boat is in the water, but it is not of the water.

A fish is of the water. A fish cannot live outside of the water for more than a few minutes. It needs water, or it will die. It is both in the water, and of the water. Likewise a whale, or an oyster, or the lobster as we talked about to start. Those all live in the water full time, and if one of them should find itself out of the water then that creature is likely having a very bad day, probably in fact a very last day. Aquatic animals belong in the water, that is their nature.

We all live in the world, on this planet called Earth, and for the tiny number of people who have left the planet, whether to go into orbit or to walk on the moon, they were just as much part of the world while briefly away from it. All those who are born in the world are likewise of the world. It is our nature, it is the type of creature we all were the moment we entered this life.

However, when we turn from our sins and turn to Christ, when anyone does that, then our nature is changed. Look back to the first verse I read, in chapter 5, verse  17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. That is a fundamental change. When we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are saved from this world, from the promise of death that we each received when we were born. We are instead given the promise of eternal life, which is of course far, far better. Being in Christ means being new, being different, being changed. This is a change in terms of relationship with God, in terms of position before God, and in terms of citizenship. Not by nation or passport, but as Abraham looked for a promised land, for a city that was not of this world, so those who are in Christ are no longer of this world. This world is where we came from, where we started, but it is not where we belong. Not in the long term.

In John’s gospel, chapter 15, during those last hours before the Lord’s arrest and trial, He informed the disciples that they were not of the world. We read at verse 18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.  

This applies to any and all who would follow Christ, not just the 11 disciples who were present that night. It is both a reminder and a warning. It’s not only that we are no longer of the world, it’s that the world is not happy about it. The world does not appreciate or approve of those who do not conform to its ways. Oh, people talk about how it’s great to be unique, to be non-conformist, but that’s not true at all. The world is like that impossible-to-please friend who says that they don’t care what to have for dinner, but when you suggest pizza, they say “Oh, not that.” And so you suggest tacos, and they say “No, not that either.” Ever have that happen to you? It’s frustrating, isn’t it? The world is like that. The world is fine with not conforming so long as you only are non-conformist in the ways that it approves, and none of those ways involve actually following or representing Christ.

The world hated Christ when He was born, King Herod attempted to have the child born king of the Jews murdered as an infant upon hearing the story brought to him by the wise men. It hated Him when He challenged them to repent of their evil ways. It hated Him when He disrupted their business of selling sacrifice animals and exchanging money in the temple courts, hated Him so much that the religious leaders conspired to have the Roman civil authority execute Him on trumped up charges. It hated Him to the point that the crowd chanted “Crucify Him,” when asked what to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

If you align yourself with Christ, then the world will have a problem with you, with what you say, with what you believe, with who you are. Those verses I read a minute ago serve as fair warning. The world is not okay with believers, not when we make ourselves and our beliefs known.

This is not an invitation to be intentionally offensive to the world, to be harsh and heavy handed in presenting the gospel, or to go out and seek occasion to provoke anger, certainly not, but it is rather a reminder that if we are truly separate from the world, then we should not fit in. There should be some concern that we are different, some bewilderment, and indeed, some offense, if we refuse to endorse the sinfulness of the world around us. If we are not of this world, if we are citizens of a different allegiance, then we cannot be okay with sin. We are to be ambassadors of Christ, as Paul says at verse 20 of 2 Corinthians chapter 5 which we read to start. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.

What does it mean to be an ambassador? Our former Premier, Pat Binns, for a time he was Canada’s ambassador to Ireland. That meant that he was in Ireland as a representative of Canada, to be as it were the face of Canada in Ireland. If you were in Ireland and needed to do some manner of business with the government of Canada, you would go to the embassy and deal with Mr Binns, or perhaps one of his staffers. And likewise, if as a Canadian I wanted to do some official business with Ireland, I would contact the Irish embassy here, where their ambassador is stationed. Considering that I have ancestors on my mother’s side that came from Ireland several generations ago, it’s not impossible that some day I might have to do that.

Recently, I almost had to contact a different embassy, the Serbian embassy, about my father. As most of you likely know, my father passed away in March. As part of dealing with his affairs, a question came up if dad would have a pension from Serbia, because that is where he was originally from. It was somewhat of a complicated question, because the country wasn’t Serbia when he left there, it was Yugoslavia, Serbia became its own country years later. Thankfully, we didn’t actually need to pursue that in any length, because it had been 50 years and change since dad had come to Canada, trying to find employment records from that long ago would be nearly impossible.

My father, like my Irish ancestors, came to this country not as ambassadors, but as immigrants. They came here and became Canadians. While they originated elsewhere, they became citizens of this country. They did not represent their homelands, at least not in any sort of official capacity. That’s an important difference.

When we profess the name of Christ, when we put our faith in Him, and in particular and most publically noticeable, when we take the step of believer’s baptism, which is at its essence to openly declare that we are identifying with Christ in His death and resurrection, when we do those things we are becoming witnesses and ambassadors for Him. We represent Christ to the world at large, a world that is damaged and broken, and desperately needs the Saviour.

In fact, in a lot of cases people are looking for any saviour at all, because they know that things have gone wrong and are beyond their means to fix. It may well be that the image of Christ that you present is the best one they ever get. Or knowing the uncertainty of this life, how no one really knows when we will leave this world behind and pass into eternity, perhaps yours will be the last image of Christ that someone else receives.

This raises a challenging question, but one that we cannot ignore. If you are going to represent Christ, what sort of representative are you?

We read in 2 Corinthians chapter 6, at verse 3 Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: 4 But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, and then Paul gives a list of the various attributes of his ministry, including challenges and hardships that he had in particular suffered. The idea of giving no offense, that does not mean to bother someone or to offend them in the way that we think of that today, people get offended at all sorts of things. People get offended when they are told that they are sinners, which of course they are, and generally could do with the telling. No, this means to cause someone else to stumble, to provoke or direct someone into error or sin. Paul was highly concerned to ensure that his words and deeds would not do that, that his ministry would not lead others astray or give anyone an excuse to refuse Christ.

Looking back to what I said earlier about being separate from the world, that also goes hand in hand with being an ambassador. If there is no discernable difference between the believer and the unbeliever, if there is no distinction in word or in deed, in lifestyle or in behaviour, then how could there be any hope to be an effective representative? How are we to show Christ to the world if we look just like the world, if we act just like the world? Clearly, that is not going to work. If we are not separate from the evil of this world, then we can’t be ambassadors at all. Not useful ones, at least.

If anything, a believer who does not look any different from the world will more likely cause damage to the gospel. If you profess the name of Christ, then people will hold you to a higher standard, often much higher than they would ever consider for themselves. A believer says one offensive word, or says something that isn’t entirely true? That is shocking and shameful and worthy of scorn. An unbeliever swears like a sailor and lies like a rug? Well, he’s just a bit rough around the edges.

I’ve personally experienced this. Once at work I answered the phone during lunch, the caller was looking for my boss, who was also having lunch. My boss told me “Tell him I’m not here,” and I, to my regret, said that. No sooner was I off the call then I immediately the boss said “I can’t believe you lied to that caller.” Even though he had specifically asked me to do exactly that. I did what the world wanted me to do, and then was criticized for it.

For the record, if I happen to take a call at lunchtime now, and the boss doesn’t want to talk, I would instead inform the caller that my boss was having lunch and would likely be available in a half an hour or whatever. Also, I try not to answer the phone so often unless I’m expecting a call.

It’s so easy to cause damage to your testimony when you interact with the world on a near-constant basis, and unless you happen to be a hermit or a monk, you most likely do have that kind of interaction on a daily basis, or close to it. And no matter how much we may try to stay separate, the world does contaminate and pollute. That is also inevitable.

You might ask why does God not remove His followers from this world with all its toxic stain of sin. Why does He not bring us home to glory straightaway so that we do not run the continual risk of damage and derailment by the world? It would be a lot more simple for us, would it not?

Of course, were the Lord to remove us the moment when we trust in Him, how many children would be left without parents? How many parents would be left without children, or husbands and wives without one another, how many friendships ended abruptly when one turned to Christ? And were He to remove us, who would then be His ambassadors? Clearly, we are needed here, at least for a time, because life on this world would be so completely derailed were those who follow God taken suddenly away.

The day is coming when those who follow Christ will be removed from the world, and that will be a day of great trouble for those who remain, and the start of far more troubles, but that is a topic for another day. For the mean time, we remain. We remain in a sinful world that continually corrodes and corrupts, and cares not that we want to remain separate and blameless.

That’s even assuming that we do. Sadly, all too many believers make very little effort to be all that separate from this world, and are content to merely be a little better behaved than average, or to be loudly offended at gross indecency and deep immorality while having a heart that is deceitful and desperately wicked. If you indulge in the pleasures of this world with little care for how they will ruin you and drag you down, then to return to my boat analogy, you will be like a vessel that is taking on water. A useful boat is in the water, like we are in the world. And likewise, the water remains outside the boat, as the world must remain for the believer to be an effective witness. Being both in the water and with the water coming onboard is a good way to sink.

The world is so prevalent, so contaminating, though, that like a boat on rough seas, some of the water is likely going to make it on board. That’s why most boats have bilge pumps, which are dedicated pumps to remove the unwanted water. At my work, one of the things we do is vessel management systems for boats. There’s one particular series of boat that we have done a number of these installations, all basically the same. That vessel type has seven distinct bilge pumps, and we install an alarm for each one so that if there is too much water coming in, the crew can know where it is and how much there is. This isn’t even a big boat, it’s only 47 ft long. You could likely fit two of them in this room with space to spare, it’s that small, but it has seven bilge pumps. That’s a lot of bilges for not a lot of boat. It’s important to keep the water out, and get rid of it when it goes get in. Otherwise, the boat is going down.

Water is pervasive. Sin is pervasive. The way this world pollutes all it touches, well, that aspect of the world is like, well, glitter.

What do you think of glitter? Some people like glitter, and when I say some people, I mean children, and by children I largely mean preteen girls. They like how sparkly and shiny it is, and how there is nothing like it to decorate art projects. But glitter is pervasive. Imagine ten children working on some sort of craft, maybe a craft that involves glue like macaroni art or decoupage or something. One child breaks out the glitter to use on her craft, and she uses it liberally. When everyone is done, how many of those art projects are going to have some glitter? Probably all of them. Maybe not much, especially at the far end of the table. But odds are good that even the most careful child who sat the farthest away will still have at least a few specks of unwanted glitter glued in there with the macaroni.

Glitter is shiny metallic garbage that is nearly impossible to get rid of. It goes everywhere and sticks to everything. Did you know there is actually a website that you can pay $10 to ship an anonymous envelope of glitter to someone if you feel the need to exact some petty revenge? Glitter is that bad. And the contamination of this world is exactly the same. Try as you might to avoid it, there’s going to be some.

The last verse I read to start this morning, verse 1 of chapter 7 reads 1 Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. No matter how much we may try to keep clear of worldly influence, it’s inevitable that we’re going to experience some of it, probably more than we expect or realize. We encounter the sinfulness of this world every single day, we’re going to get some on us. As water gets into boats, and as glitter sticks to everything, so the world gets its filth on us and in us, and we need to cleanse it away.

I’m not going to give you some sort of seven step program to remove worldly residue, although I’m there are people who have done that, and would do a far better job than me. What I will say are three simple things, and if you take nothing else home from this sermon, remember these.

First, don’t love the world. The world does not love you. It does not care about you. In fact, if you stand with Christ, the world will hate you. If you fill your time, your mind, your heart, your life, with worldly things, you will sink like a stone.

Second, confess your sin, bring your failures to God. Large or small, it does not matter, confess and repent. Do it early, do it often. If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Finally, and I’m saying this for everyone’s benefit, as much as the older people have no doubt heard it before, fill your heart and fill your mind with the things of God. Think on things above, not things of this world. If you draw near to God, He will draw near to you. The best way to reduce this world’s influence on you is to increase the time you spend in prayer, in reading and studying scripture, and in communion with fellow believers. There is no self help program that works like turning to God, and turning away from the world.

We are all in the world, but let us not be of the world. Let us chose rather to be ambassadors and witnesses for Christ, rather than blending in to the background noise of this world. The world will hate us for it, but better to be hated by this world than to be corrupted by it. And if the world hates us because we stand with Christ, then we know that we are standing where we should be.