This week a friend spoke of his anxiety about attending a ‘family wake.’ He has put his faith in Jesus and now his values and lifestyle are quite different from his family’s. He dreads the language and the coarseness that he expects. He realises that now that he is ‘in Christ’ he is not the same and he could not participate in the same old ways. His thoughts revolved around being ‘set apart’ and being ‘in the world but not of it.’ He felt a deep sense of separation from those who do not yet share his faith.
Such feelings of differentness or peculiarity are natural but though I want to pay attention to this dynamic, I want to remember that Jesus was incarnate and “a friend of sinners.” No one was more set apart or holy than Jesus, yet he identified with sinners. He did this in his baptism and in his friendships. In fact, if Jesus had not befriended sinners his life would have been a frightfully lonely one and ineffectual. Sometimes we think of the sinners that Jesus ate with as ‘repentant sinners’ and contrast them with the unrepentant pharisees peeking through the windows. Not all at the party would have been Jesus followers when the came in the door, but these were the very ones he came to ‘seek and to save.’
The tension of being a Jesus follower is the same he met. How do we continue to not only associate but genuinely befriend those who are not yet in the same relationship with him as we are? It is not easy! It requires humility. We lay down our agenda and actually listen to hear our friends. The onus is on us to ‘as far as lies within you be at peace with all people.’ We cannot demand others change especially since they have yet to tap into the power necessary to change. We cannot enter into behaviour that would enmesh us in sin and damage our ‘witness,’ but neither can we isolate!
I advise my friend not to swear or enter into crude behaviour but not to absent himself either. We are not the good silver only brought out in polite company. We are the everyday flatware ready to serve on all occasions. Paul writes “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” In his incarnation Jesus gives us an example to follow and a cross to bear. Crosses are not easy nor are they intended to be. How we navigate these uncomfortable encounters make all the difference.
My prescription is to begin with prayer, long before we meet others. In prayer we ask for help to avoid giving or receiving offence. We ask for hearts set to listen to others and for a guard for our tongue, that we might be quick to listen and slow to speak. We pray to for the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and guard us. Then we risk being uncomfortable for Christ’s sake!
In the world of recovery, we learn of the dangers of isolation. If we Christians retreat and isolate from the world we endanger or relevance and our friends’ opportunity to witness the difference Jesus is making in our lives!
Meetings especially with family ought not to be thought of as ‘one off events’ but one of many opportunities. We are not under pressure to unload the whole message when our friends have not yet developed a ‘thirst.’ We continue to build friendships and trust that God is at work, even behind the scenes. It is not my business to convert anyone. God makes those who are dead in their trespass and sin, alive! God alone can.