Christ Above All
Robert C. Shannon
(c)opyright 1989, Robert C. Shannon.
Spiritual Arsonists

    Listen!  Jesus is praying, praying in Gethsemane, praying under the shadow of the cross!  He is praying for His disciples, He is praying for His church, He is praying for you!
I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth
                                                                                                                                         (John 17:15-17).
    In these three brief verses, we can learn something about the church and something about the world.

    First we learn that the church is in the world.  Jesus said, "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world."  Many people do not realize that this is where the church belongs, in the world.  There has always been the temptation to withdraw from the world.  Sometimes the church has withdrawn from the world physically and gone behind great stone walls to hide away in monasteries, lest the church be smudged by the world.  If you have ever traveled through Pennsylvania or through Ohio, you have seen another way of withdrawing from the world, not physically, but socially, economically, and practically.  Here you will see people driving buggies, dressed as their great-grandparents dressed; people who do not have television sets or radio sets; people who pay no attention to what goes on in the community, the nation, or the world.  It is a monastery without walls.  They have withdrawn from the world.

    At a convention, one of the speakers was assigned a topic:  "The Stained Glass Ghetto."  Is that what the church is?  A stained glass ghetto?  Are we drawing apart behind the safety of stained glass windows?  If that is the case, that is not what Christ intended.  Christ wanted the church to be in the world.  Some of you can remember a song once popular, "I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart."  Christians want to set the world on fire!  That's the very purpose of their existence.

    When there is a forest fire, sometimes the greatest protection is another fire.  A man builds a little fire in a circle and when that burns off, he'll get inside the burned out circle.  The fire he has built will protect him from the forest fire.  So we want to set the world on fire for Jesus Christ, in order to protect the world from the fires of destruction that threaten it daily.  Yes, we want to set the world on fire, and we want to do it by starting a flame of faith in every individual human heart.  That's why Elton Trueblood entitled his book on the church, "The Incendiary Fellowship."  That's why I'm calling this chapter, "Spiritual Arsonists."  That's what we're out to do, to commit arson, to build fires in this old world that will protect us from the fires of Hell.

    After the resurrection, our Lord walked with two along the road to Emmaus.  They were prevented from recognizing Him, so that Jesus could have opportunity to explain to them the Scriptures.  After He had done that and they got to their house, then they knew who Jesus was and He vanished.  They said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32)."  This is the way to set the world on fire for Jesus Christ: to open to them the Scriptures.

    "Flaming hearts make flying feet."  Those disciples whose hearts burned within them, raced back to Jerusalem to spread the good news that Christ was risen indeed.  On the day of Pentecost, there appeared over the heads of the twelve apostles tongues of fire.  But the symbol was nothing compared to the substance.  Those men had flaming tongues as they went first into Jerusalem and into Judea and then to the uttermost parts of the earth with the message that Christ was alive forevermore.

    Yes, there are many examples to show us that God wants the church in the world because the only way you can start a fire is to put the flame where the fuel is.  We can never set the world on fire by withdrawing from it but by rather getting into the middle of things.  You can see that illustrated in the life of Jesus.  Where do you find Jesus?  You find Him going up and down the busy highways in Galilee.  You find Him in the marketplace at Capernaum and at Jericho.  You find Him on the streets in Jerusalem and in the temple.  Wherever there crossed the crowded ways of life, wherever people were gathered, there you find Jesus in the midst: at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, in the holy city on the feast days.  Jesus was in the midst of things.  This is where you find the apostles, and this is where you find the early church.

    The Christians did not shun the forum, or the arenas, or the amphitheaters, or the modern life of their day.  They moved among the people because that's where God wants the church to be.  When the church gets out of its walls and into the community, then things happen.

    The Bible also teaches us to view the church versus the world.  "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (John 17:15).  There is a sense in which the church is set over against the world.  While the church must always be in the world, the world must never be in the church.

    A lot of people do not understand what it means for the world to get into the church.  Some people think if we adopt a new style of music, that the world has gotten into the church.  Others say that if you adopt a different form of architecture, you've brought the world into the church.  There are some people who say that if we dress differently, or if we wear a different hair style than we did a few years ago, that the world has gotten into the church.  None of these fits .the description.

    The world is in the church when sin gets in: jealousy, anger, lust, greed, dishonesty.  That's what Christ wanted to prevent. So He said, "I pray that thou shouldest keep them from the evil."  It happens this way.  The church becomes contented with the world as it is and no longer tries to change it.  No longer is its heart broken by the world.  Contentment is followed by compromise.  The church says, "We have to give a little somewhere.  Life after all is one big compromise.  Everything in life is give and take."  So the church begins to compromise with the world and yield to its standards.

    Then at last there comes peaceful coexistence with the world.  When that takes place, then the church has ceased to be the church.  The church has a twofold task.  One is that the church must continually call the world back to the moorings from which it has been loosed.  The church must continually call the world back to principles now forgotten.  It is also correct to say that the church is out ahead of the world, beckoning the world on.  We're not resisting all kinds of change.  We're only calling for change that is redemptive and renewing.  The church calls to the world, saying, "Leave the dead life of the past and come with us into a bright and shining future."  We have seen in this text that the church is in the world, but that it is also a case of the church versus the world.

    Furthermore in this text we see the church serving the world.  Jesus said, "Sanctify them."  The word "sanctify" means to set apart for a holy use.  Sanctification means sharpening the blade; putting the handle into the axe.  People are not sanctified for the good it does them.  We're sanctified in order to be of use to God and to others.  It is the business of the church to serve the world.

    There are two kinds of people, introverts and extroverts.  The introvert turns inward and would rather read books or listen to music; the extrovert is more interested in other people.  It doesn't make any difference which kind of person you are, but it does make a difference whether a church becomes an introvert or an extrovert.  As long as the church is introverted, looking only at itself, at its inner life, at its mechanism, it will never get anywhere.  The church must always be extroverted, looking out to hearts who are hungry and in need.  Someone has said, that it is only in moving outside itself, that the church can truly be itself.

    The church does not serve the world by being "Little Sir Echo."  That's been the case all too often.  The church has waited to see which the wind is blowing and then set sail.  The church has waited to see what public opinion is going to be and then jumped on the bandwagon.  That's been the case with a lot of social changes that we are seeing.  The church had nothing to say about them until they began to take place and then suddenly we hear churches and churchmen saying, "Me too! Me too!"  The church does not serve the world by being "Little Sir Echo" to what the world is already saying.  The church serves the world by saying, "Thus saith the Lord!"

    Nor does the church properly serve the world by being the Lord's lobby in the courts of Caesar, by becoming a pressure group, another force to push people into this direction or into that.  That's not the way the church is to serve the world.  The church serves the world the same way fire serves man.  Fire serves man by giving light.  We know of no light that is not a result of fire - firelight, the light of the candle, the light in the incandescent bulb that comes from a little filament that is aflame, but like Moses' burning bush, almost never burns out.  So the only spiritual light this world will ever know, will come from a church that is on fire with the truth of God.  Then the light shines.  We are to shine a light first of all upon the problem so that it can be clearly and properly understood.  Then it is the church's job to shine the light of God's Word on the solution.

    A wise man said, "No minister knows the solution to all the problems of the world, but every minister ought to know where to start."  We start with the Word of God and the light it gives to men's lives.

    Fire gives warmth.  This is a cold and lonely world and people long for the warmth that can only truly be found in Christian friendship and in Christian fellowship.

    Laski, who was not a Christian but a famous socialist, was discussing England during the days of the French Revolution.  He said that England escaped the violence and bloodshed that France knew during that same period, even though England went through the same kind of changes.  Then he said a surprising thing.  He said the reason that England did not know the violence and bloodshed that France did was because of one man.  He said it was because of the preaching of John Wesley.  John Wesley never discussed in his sermons one of those social evils.  John Wesley called men back to God, and to their moral accountability before Him, but the result of it included great and sweeping changes in the life of a whole nation.  That's the way the church serves the world.

    The church loves the world.  How can I reconcile that with the statement of Scripture that says, "love not the world, neither the things in the world"?  I think both of them are looking at the same problem from different sides.  God loved the world.  "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son."  The church must love the world - not sin, but men and women lost in sin.

    Too often we are like the man who met an old acquaintance.  He asked, "How's everything with you?"

    The other man said, "Terrible.  You know my wife just died."

    `The first man said, "Well, it could have been worse."

     The other man said, "Not only that, but my son has been sent to jail."

    The reply again was, "It could have been worse."

    "Well," he said, "not only that, but I've just come from the doctor's office and he says I have an incurable disease."

    Again, the man said, "Yes, but it could be worse."

    By that time he'd had it.  He said, "How in the world could it be any worse?"

    The fellow said, "Well, it could have happened to me."

    The church must never be that indifferent.  The church must love the world and feel that the problems of this world are its problems too.

    An old legend says that the apostle Thomas went to India.  He was sold as a slave to the king of India and in this manner he was able to establish the church in India.  And, so the legend goes, the king gave Thomas directions to build him a palace.  Thomas would come to the king for money and then he would take the money and give it to the poor, or use it to spread the gospel.

    The king asked, "When am I going to get to see my palace?"

    Thomas said, "One of these days.  One of these days."

    Later the king asked, "How's my palace coming along?"

    Thomas said, "Just fine, Just fine."

    Finally, the king called Thomas in and said, "I do not believe you are building me a palace at all.  When am I going to see my palace?"

    Thomas said, "You will never see it in this life, but when you depart this life, you will see your palace, for it is built in the hearts of men."

    It's only a legend, but what a lesson for life.


The Cup of Suffering
Table of Contents
The Fox and the Lamb

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