So far in this series, we've talked about where we belong and where we don't belong, where our allegiance is, and where our hope is. We've talked about the manner in which we, as aliens, interact with the government and politics of this world. And we've celebrated the fact that even though we might not belong "out there" we certainly do belong together.
But being an alien doesn’t just mean you belong to a different country or kingdom; it also means that you belong to a different culture.
The problem with our culture is that it is not a culture of this world; it is the culture of heaven, of the kingdom of Christ. And that is a kingdom we cannot see with our physical eyes.
We've looked already at this verse in Hebrews:
We are receiving it, but the writer of Hebrews just spent a whole chapter (chapter 11) convincing us that we take it on faith (what we believe without sight).
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul addresses this same idea, as he talks about living on this earth, and looking forward to heaven, which we cannot see. Verse 7 is a famous one:
To help us understand the challenges of living according to a culture you can't see, I'd like to share some experiences I've had.
In the early 2000s, I spent quite a bit of time fellowshipping with a church in the Portland area comprised of refugees from South Sudan.
Even though some of them have been in the US for twenty years or more, and some have raised families here, they don’t consider themselves to be Americans. They hope that someday, when the wars are all over, they will be able to return to their own land.
Therefore, since they hope to return someday, they want to raise their children to be South Sudanese, rather than American.
Can they see South Sudan? No! No wonder they fear for their children. It is far easier to live by what they see every day, than by what they see only in their dreams and their imagination.
Imagine what it must be like for the children of refugees, who are born here, yet are told of a land -- another land -- that is their own. It's a land they cannot see, yet they are encouraged to live according to its ways.
In a very real sense, this is us. We belong to a land we have never seen, and yet we are expected to live according to its ways, when all around us, we are surrounded by the culture of this world.
With this in mind, I’d like to look at a very familiar passage. But I want us to look at this passage from a very different perspective -- the perspective of an alien, who is part of a very different culture.
Romans 12 is preceded by several chapters of “culture wars” – two different ways of approaching life. We're not going to look at any of these in depth today, so I encourage you to jot down in your notes that you should read these chapters of Romans sometime soon.
And then Chapter 11 is all about how we have been grafted into a spiritual kingdom as heirs of Abraham.
So Paul follows all of this up by saying: Do not be conformed to this world. Don’t let the ways of this world be your ways. Don’t trade spirit for flesh, hope for curse, forgiveness for condemnation, mercy for wrath, or faith for unbelief.
Don’t act like the world; act like the church.
But it’s not just about the way you act. It’s also about what you believe. I don’t know if you’ve thought much about what culture is; we tend to think of culture as outward customs, but most dictionary definitions clarify that it is a combination of beliefs and actions. I’d like to suggest that culture is, at its heart, a set of beliefs, which combine to affect the way we approach the world.
To help you understand what I mean by that -- I'm sure you've heard me talk about my trip to Argentina and the adjustment I had to make to their very lackadaisical approach to time. If we said we were doing a meeting at 3:00, likely as not, it wouldn't actually get started until 4:30 or so.
We would say that the difference is a cultural one -- Argentines tend to be late for things more than we are. But that's just the surface of the cultural difference, the outward manifestation of it. Behind the visible difference in behavior, there's a mindset. For most of Latin America it could be said that they regard now as the most important moment, and the thing you are doing now is the most important thing. Whereas, for us, we have a tendency to have a future-oriented thought process. Don't believe me? Should I ask how many of you have glanced at your watches since I started preaching? No? Okay, I rest my case. If you think about it, it's easy to see how these manifestly different ways of thinking affect the outward behaviors that we see in these two very different cultures.
That’s why we’re told not to "renew our behaviors," but to “renew our minds.” Living in the culture of heaven, the culture of the church, requires a different way of thinking, not just a different way of acting.
If we can think again about my Sudanese friends, if I had asked them what their greatest fear was, I know that they would tell me their fear is that their children will forget the heritage. That they would become too American.
Why? The American country and culture is what is right in front of them 24/7. It's a tragedy in the making. Parents want to go home. Children and grandchildren consider themselves American, decide to stay. So parents must choose between home and family.
I could see this tragedy coming, but I couldn't see any solution. I still don’t see a solution, but now, much later, I see something about their approach to the problem.
They wanted to teach “South Sudanese customs” to their children. Teaching South Sudanese customs isn’t going to help when all of their surroundings are teaching them to think like Americans.
So it is with us. We are surrounded 24/7 with the world’s way of thinking; if we are not incredibly pro-active, we will succumb to the world’s way of thinking, and if we succumb to the world’s way of thinking, we have already lost the battle.
We can’t hide from the world (and we'll talk about that in the next session when we explore what it means to be an ambassador). We can't hide and say, “Oh no! If I rub shoulders with someone from the world, they might influence my way of thinking!”
We also can’t pretend that rubbing shoulders with the world won't influence our way of thinking. We are weak, and sinful, and like those South Sudanese children who have never seen their “home country,” we’ll gravitate toward what we see right in front of us.
This is why “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so important. But how are our minds renewed?
Much of Christendom (and the outside world) sees this as a book of do's and don’ts. But it is so much more than that.
It's not just the lawbook of my country. It's the history of my country. The literature of my country. The poetry of my country. This is a piece of heaven, right here! I must return to it again and again.
You return to it in the same way that you return your cell phone to the charger. Because you’ll be running on empty, depleted, if you don’t.
You return to it in the same way that you return your car to the car wash. Because the simple act of traveling the roads of this world is a dusty, dirty process, and we cannot let the dirt of this world penetrate and change us.
You return to it in the same way that you return to your mirror every morning. Not because the mirror has changed, and you want to see what it looks like, but because you have changed, and you want God to show you what you look like now.
You return to it the same way you return to a doctor when you are sick, knowing that the treatment may hurt, but also knowing that you will never be healed without the sharp scalpel.
Reading the word of God is about gaining knowledge, yes, but it’s about much more than that; it’s about refueling. About recharging, about cleaning up, and seeing who you really are in God’s eyes, and bringing healing to your heart and mind.
My suggestion: if the sum total of your immersion in God’s word is Sunday morning, you are already running on fumes. You cannot rely on the pastor to provide you with a week's worth of cultural recharge in one sitting.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this verse, and most of them are about “You have to come to church so you can hear the word of God.” And after what I just said, you know I’m not going to argue about that, and I’m going to say, “Why in the world would you miss church?”
But the verse doesn't mention the Bible, and it also doesn't specifically refer to church, either.
The key words to consider here are encourage and gather.
Whether that gathering is at church, or in someone’s home for a meal, or as a group going to help at a work day for a ministry, or serving in a soup kitchen together.
I would argue that if the purpose is to comfort and encourage one another, that happens more outside of church building than it does inside.
To see this, let’s go back a verse:
It’s about stirring one another up. It’s about a community of people living out the culture of the Kingdom, and getting each other excited about doing the same.
Tim Challies wrote this: "Maybe what we need is fewer books, and more friendships, fewer abstract principles and more applied principles. We need to be less willing to say, 'Read this and call me in the morning' and more 'Walk with me and I’ll show you. Come into my home and watch. Come into my life and see.' If it is true that in the Bible 'friendships of accountability and training are central to growth in holiness,' there is a necessary application: Mentoring programs in the church ought not to be something parishioners must seek out but rather something so prevalent that parishioners would have to intentionally avoid them."
And I would add to that, I'm not sure we even need mentoring programs, but just simply mentoring. It doesn’t require a program, doesn’t require assigning people to a mentoring partner – it requires people being heavily involved in each other's lives.
In one church I know, there was an unused parsonage, and the church decided to use that building to help support and encourage families that are struggling. They would offer the use of the home to a family in need (at one point, for example, it was a recently widowed woman and her two small children), with the stipulation that they would meet weekly with a family of the church who would help them with finances. The time two families spent around a dining room table working through finances and budgets probably provided more comfort and encouragement -- and perhaps more spiritual strengthening of the family than the Sunday morning church service.
Back in 2006, when I was traveling to many different churches to preach, sing, and do ventriloquism, I would always bring someone with me to run my sound system. That year, there were two young men: Ben and Tommy. These two young men swapped off, one would travel with me one Sunday, and the other the next Sunday.
One weekend while Ben and I were halfway across the state, we got word that Tommy had been in an accident and had died. Just a few days ago, on the ten-year anniversary of Tommy's death, Ben sent me a message: “Thinking back on it, I'm very glad that we were together when we got the news. There weren't many other people closer to me than you, and I think I learned a lot from watching you and how you handled it.”
I wasn’t even aware that he was looking and watching, I certainly wasn’t thinking, “I need to show Ben how to handle this.” We were simply together at a critical moment.
This is what the South Sudanese people needed: to spend a great deal of quality time together so that in the critical moments, the beliefs and habits of their culture were naturally instilled in the next generation.
We have an advantage over them: we have the powerful two-edged sword, and the spirit of God, but these passages make it clear that we have a huge responsibility in this battle to be intimately involved in each other's lives, in order to instill in one another the beliefs and actions of the culture of the Kingdom.
But really, how different is the culture of the kingdom from this world’s? Surely it isn’t that different? A list of comparisons:
I so often hear people talking about "winning the culture wars," and they're talking about the social and political divides in our country. But the biggest culture war you will face in this life is not the culture war of liberal vs. conservative. It is the internal war that you will face to let your life be saturated by the culture of one kingdom while you are living in another one. For the Christian that is the one culture war that matters most.