In Jr. High I had a lime green t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “This world is not my home.” It was a billboard advertising my holy longing for heaven. My pastors would say things like, “When we suffer, we find hope in knowing that this world is not our home, our true home is in heaven and one day we will join God there and everything will be perfect.” And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
I wore my t-shirt proudly, secretly hoping that carrying the words on my body would make them true. Because, try as I might, I could never seem to muster up enough hatred for the world to really feel like I was a stranger wandering in a foreign land. I knew I was supposed to pray for Christ’s swift return, but secretly I sometimes prayed that he would wait just long enough for me to go to Jessie’s pool party, or to learn to drive, or to go to college, or to fall in love. I felt an urgency to see and experience everything I could before God took it all away.
Even as a child, I saw this desperation as a moral failing. It was undeniable proof that no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I loved the world too much and loved God too little. “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” the pastor said and I shuddered in fear.* I worried that my hunger for life meant I wasn’t really saved. I asked Jesus into my heart again and again, hoping it would stick eventually.
As the church I grew up in grew and expanded, the focus shifted from evangelistic, fundamentalist values to more seeker-friendly messages of what God can do for you (another problem for another time), but those early impressions had taken root in my heart.
My church and school weren’t alone in these beliefs. In fact, there is a whole sector of Christian merchandise that capitalizes on the concept that this world is just a temporary annoyance that we endure without investing in until we can shake the dust from our feet and move on to the place we truly belong. (The song, “This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through,” anyone?)
Like all good Christian kids, I memorized John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” but the Christianity I grew up in only seemed to care about the second part of that, the part where we needed to believe in Jesus. How could they miss what this most foundational of evangelical Scriptures spells out?
“For God so LOVED THE WORLD,” it says. God SO loved, not just individual people, you and me, but the world itself and everything in it.
But we didn’t treat the world like something God loved, much less like something we should love too. We treated the world like a place we feared, a place we wanted to separate ourselves from, or a place we wanted to escape from, bringing as many people along with us as possible.
A few weeks ago I listened to this sermon by Australian professor Ben Myers during our house church meeting. It’s part of a guest sermon series he preached on the Apostle’s Creed, specifically the phrase, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Myers points out that to treat the world as a place we need to escape from, a place where we are just biding our time as we wait to be delivered, is denying God as a good creator. He points to the Scriptures’ depiction of the end of time when there will be bodily resurrection and where Christ will bring his kingdom to earth and reign. “Salvation will never be an escape from this world, but God’s loving restoration of a good creation.”
St. Francis of Assissi (patron saint of hippies and vegetarians) understood this so well that he wrote about the natural world as if it were part of his family – Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He doesn’t say this in a pantheistic, God-is-in-everything way, but in a way that acknowledges himself as a part of this wildly beautiful and good creation that he is at home in for as long as he is on Earth. His mission isn’t to escape the world. It’s to bring redemption and healing and reconciliation, working to restore creation to the perfectly good thing it was created to be.
This really struck me because I’ve lived most of my life believing that I wasn’t really meant to love this world as much as I do. I’ve never longed for heaven as a relief from this world, even in moments of suffering. The world is far from perfect and it certainly isn’t divine. There are broken bits that make my heart ache. But I still believe that it can be redeemed. I believe this world can be restored. And I want to be part of that work.
Jesus didn’t just come into the world and head straight to the cross. He came and he lived. He healed the sick, he raised the dead, he showed compassion, he taught another way. If his purpose was only to rescue us from a world that is beyond hope, why waste his time with these acts of redemption?
I believe we have a responsibility to work for justice and restoration in the world precisely because this world IS our home and because the Creator has given it value. God said he is making all things new, NOT all new things.**
* John 12:25
** I didn’t come up with that pithy phrase – my friend Laura actually reminded me of it, but I can’t remember where it came from.