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2 Corinthians 6:11-7:1
I don’t know about you, but this Bible text today puzzles me.
“Do not be mismatched or yoked with unbelievers…come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord…”
Paul seems to be telling the early Christians that they must stay pure in order to live faithfully in the world. And that means no mixed partnerships or marriages or relationships.
This is especially a hard word to hear if you are married to someone who isn’t like you in terms of your religious background. And what does it mean, anyway? How do you define unbeliever?
In the 1970s when y Presbyterian sister married a catholic, it was hard to find a priest who would be a part of the ceremony.
A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a Lutheran pastor friend who grew up very Southern Baptist. He was dating a Presbyterian and when they announced that they wanted to be married, his pastor said to him, “Doesn’t it bother you that you are marrying someone who is going to hell?” “What do you mean?” “She hasn’t been baptized by immersion. She is not a Christian. She is going to hell.” My friend said he told his pastor where he could go and he did not return to that church.
But what was the pastor affirming? Just what he read in the Bible: “Do not be mismatched or yoked with unbelievers”—(or people who do not believe as we do.)
It doesn’t sound very Christian. It doesn’t even sound like Paul to me. And some scholars would agree. Most say that this part of the text seems to be inserted… may even have come from the Qumran community who separated themselves in order to remain pure.
To confuse the issue even more, this does not seem to be advice Paul gave earlier to the Corinthians as they looked for guidance about what to do if you are married to an unbeliever.
In fact, Paul seemed more positive in his earlier letter about how believers are to associate with unbelievers. He supports believers being married to unbelievers… even wonders if the faithfulness of the believing spouse may have positive effects on the unbelieving spouse:
“If any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.” (I Corinthians 7:12-14)
Later in that same letter Paul encourages believers having social involvement with unbelievers…he contemplates that an unbeliever may invite a believer to dinner, and he has no problem with the believer going to dinner. (1 Corinthians 10:27)
It would be easy to criticize Paul for having different kinds of advice… or perhaps to believe that one of the pieces of advice comes from Paul and another does not.
But I know that I have given what looks like different advice in situations… We know how we speak the truth in different situations at home and at work…
So maybe we ought not be surprised… that he may offer what looks like different advice…
Instead, what I’d like to lift up is that Paul is trying to help his people navigate something you and I are trying to negotiate every day:
“How am I as a Christian—how am I to interact with the world?”
In our text today, Paul says separate yourself from the world.
And many have followed Paul’s advice… in attempt to stay faithful to God.There are many Christians who think this way.
A cause of many a church division is led by those who feel the need to separate in order to remain pure. Listen to the rhetoric of those who leave to form a new group. No matter what the issue over the years: circumcision, race, women, a way of reading scripture, homosexuality… some Christians have felt led to leave their denomination and either create or join a new denomination in order to remain pure.
Some denominations like the Missouri Synod Lutherans will not share communion with those who are not part of their church because that would be to mix and match. I knew a Pastor who would not even serve communion to his nonLutheran father!
Many Christians have withdrawn from the world in order to live a life of faithfulness: Quakers, Mennonites, many monks…
One of the groups to take this to an extreme are the Shakers. You won’t find many Shakers today. Most people know about Shakers thanks to their furniture, their music and museums. But they lived faithful lives to be admired as they cloistered themselves from the world. While they were around, they worshipped, tended gardens, crafted furniture, prayed, and worked—all together in community.
But one belief led to their downfall. They did not believe in pro-creation—having children.For a while they thrived and grew to number 6000 members in 1840… but over time they have dwindled—only 3 are left. Shakers are an endangered species, almost extinct. But say what you will, they were truly faithful in terms of not being mismatched with unbelievers!
Perhaps that is why other Christians have chosen the other path offered by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: Engage with the world. Be in the world but not of the world.
For some this means living and working faithfully in the midst of a secular culture while abiding by another set of rules… the great commandment, the beatitudes… the 10 commandments. Resident aliens they have been called.
Others go a step further and seek to engage the world by trying to transform and reform the world… John Calvin and Reformed Christians like Presbyterians have taken this approach.
Living faithfully in the world is hard work. One Presbyterian Pastor said, “If you sit down and talk to my people for over 15 minutes about their lives their families, their work, it is like talking to people who are under attack.”
Don’t fool yourself… living faithfully while engaging a secular culture is work.
There are dangers of course to this approach as well. While engaging with the world and living in the world, you may become assimilated by the world.
Your values may become confused with the world’s values. You may even take the worlds values on and try to dress them up with some Bible verses and prayers in order to make the world’s values seem holy.
It is sometimes hard to remember that the reason the church exists is not to promote the latest fad… or even to promote the ideals and goals of a particular nation… which is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany. Hitler wanted the church to baptize his movement… even encouraged prayer in the schools in order to teach children that the Nazi way was God’s desire. He knew the best way to deal with the church was to co-op the church.
For some, religion becomes a means to promote your political party… rather than having our faith speak to our politics which always includes self criticism of one’s own party or beliefs. If your faith never critiques your own political party or views—you have likely co-opted your faith.
You have to be on your guard when you are trying to engage the world… trying to transform the world… working to bear witness to the kingdom of God… if you are not careful, the world will change you.
This is why I get that some people prefer to withdraw from the world. It is easier.
And maybe for some that is the right way to go. Maybe that is a boundary they need.
Perhaps when you are young in your faith, you need to be protected from the corruptions of the world or maybe your faith is not yet strong enough to face the questions and doubts that come when you engage the world. You need to see the world in black and white. Good and bad.
Note, that when Paul gave his advice to the Corinthians in our text, he says to them “I speak to you as children.” As children.
And that advice was true for me when I was young. I sort of divided the world between good and bad. I needed to. Maybe not as hard as my fundamentalist Baptist friends, but it was still there.
My parents worked hard to keep me protected and teach me that faithful Christians do not drink or swear. The rules did have some flexibility. Christians could smoke because my mother was a smoker. That was an exception. Good Christians went to church and read their bible and prayed and served.Others, not so much. But I was a good Christian… so no problem.
Then, as I grew up, physically, emotionally and spiritually it became more complicated as I left the safety of home and interacted with a wider world.
During this time, I was blessed to find mentors to help me navigate this world faithfully. One was my dear friend Bob Dunham who was my campus minister. He is my friend, teacher and mentor today. Bob taught me the lesson he had learned from Karl Barth—that to be a faithful Christian is to read both the Bible and the newspaper… The trick was to nurture your faith while engaging in the world.
You have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time!
And the key… the key to engaging the world was very simple. Always remember who you really are … a child of God… a follower of Christ… In other words, remember your baptism and your confirmation.
The real danger is not in engaging the world… (you really have no choice) it is in forgetting who you are.
I’ve never heard this better said than by the mother of Will Willimon. In a book on baptism, he tells this story: “Back in high school, every Friday and Saturday night, as Will was leaving to go on a date, his mother, saying goodbye to him at the door would leave him with these weighty words, “Don’t forget who you are.”
Will says “You know what she meant. She did not mean that I was in danger of forgetting my name and my street address. She meant that alone, on a date, in the midst of some party, in the presence of some strangers, I might forget who I was.
I might lose sight of the values with which I had been raised, answer to some alien name, engage in some unaccustomed behavior. ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ was her maternal benediction as I left home.”
Perhaps you can identify with Will Willimon. I can. Many years ago I left home, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally and engaged the world. And Will’s Mom was right: It is sometimes difficult, as we engage the world- amidst the conflicting messages, advertisements, and busyness to remember who we are.
You will have other voices in this world trying to define you: Consumer, intellect, political animal, athlete… “You better work hard to be those things… that’s where you will find meaning and value!”
People will identify themselves not by their baptism but by the job they hold, the car they drive, the house they live in or the neighborhood where they live,the clothes they wear… the school or college they attend, their sports team, the political party they belong to, their race, their nation, their family… even their denomination. Almost everything except by their baptism.
Who are you? Sometimes it is hard to remember. And If you don’t know who you are, the world will try to tell you who you are… If you don’t know who you really are, you may define yourself in ways that ultimately do not matter… and if you don’t know it now, you’ll know it the day you die. You will learn what really matters and based on what I’ve observed, a lot of stuff you think matters now won’t matter then. If you don’t know who you are, you will lose sight of what really matters as you engage with the world.
So as you leave here today, and re-enter the world, let me offer you this word of blessing as you leave the door to go into the world…
Wherever you go, remember who you are: a child of God… baptized in Christ…
Wherever you go, remember who you are: a follower of Christ- you promised to be his faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love…
Wherever you go, remember God is sending you there to engage the world on his behalf…
Wherever you go, God has a reason for sending you there…
That the Christ who dwells in you has something he wants to do through you.
Believe it and go in God’s grace and power. Just remember who you are. Amen.