We have traditions of separation. In fundamentalism they have scriptural support. Like Jesus, when he said, “who is my mother, sister and brother, but he who hears the word of God and does it.” Especially in our Reformed tradition, we have used texts like this as a pretext for separation. We could add text after text to this, like Revelation, that says, “Come out from among them and be separate.” This is speaking about our heart, not embracing the commercial selfishness and violence of the first century world, but instead doing the will of our Father. Paul has often been used as a pretext for separation, like when he said to Peter, “cursed is everyone who preaches any other gospel.” Since the Reformation this text has been used over and over, to justify continual fragmentation in the church over the silliest issues. This whole process is the exact opposite of God’s intention for his church, and this was Paul’s point. Peter was breaking table fellowship with those he didn’t agree with, and this is what Paul was rebuking him for. Despite our different views, we are one body and table in Christ. This is the gospel Paul insisted upon.
How can we possibly justify separation when Jesus lived the exact opposite life style? This is why he was lambasted by the people of his time, because he refused to separate from sinners, or from foreigners, or from enemies. It’s true that the one who does the word of God is our relative, but this is the word of God that we are to do. We are to follow Christ to our neighbour, to our enemy, into the world, to give our lives for others just the way he did. This is the word of God. This is who God is, what his word speaks to us through the incarnation of Christ. Those who live for the world, in this way, are Christ’s brethren, for they are followers of God, but those who live for themselves, cut off from those in need, are not part of Christ, but are of this world.
Another text we may like is that where the disciples asked Jesus about how to correct those who have wronged us. Jesus said go to the brother, don’t talk about it with others. If your brother does not hear you then take in a witness and finally the church. If he does not hear the church, then let him be to you as a heathen, or a sinner. This is where we may justify separation. Those who wrong us personally, or in some important issue of doctrine, we can separate from. We can treat them like sinners. But how did Jesus treat sinners? He didn’t separate from them, rather he reached out to them. He turned the other cheek for them. He gave his life for them. He came to carry out acts that would turn them around, reconcile them to his house. So that is how we are to treat them. This isn’t separation. This is passionate desire to see the lost found.
The very concept of separation is the opposite of what Jesus came to do. He came to reconcile, to draw together. It isn’t we who should separate, but those who don’t want God’s way separate. God doesn’t separate himself from people, but people separate themselves from him. His judgement is that he allows them to in the end, because of free will. But God does not do this. Neither do his people do this to others. We have a heart of mercy and forgiveness to others, following the way Jesus has treated us, in hope that others will turn. The very centre of Jesus’ nature and activity is reconciliation, never separation.
This can be seen in his teaching about going to pray at the temple. He said if someone has something against us, we should leave our gift to God at the temple, and first go and be reconciled to that person, and then come to the temple and offer our gift to God. So here we can see that reconciliation is at the very heart of what it means to worship God. We cannot be reconciled with God if we refuse to reconcile with others. And this isn’t just speaking of being reconciled with our brother. It means with anyone we have wronged.
Jesus is saying that worship isn’t about individualism. We don’t come to God just as a set of individuals for worship. We come together with our brother and sister, and with the one we have wronged. If that person is not a believer, then we still come together in the sense that we have sought to put things right with that person. We come to worship with love in our heart for others. If our enemy sees we have wronged them and then see us go to worship, they will know it is hypocritical. This is not worship. It isn’t honouring God. It isn’t being like God, for he seeks to reconcile with those who hate him. Then so should we, if we come to worship this type of God.
If we see that our neighbour or enemy is languishing, and is living in poverty and danger, and we do nothing to show compassion to help to them, then how can we worship God? Care for our neighbour, whether local or far, whether friend or enemy, is our duty. If we don’t pay that duty to others, then we are in debt to them. They have something against us, as Jesus said. So, if we just live our private lives with our friends, and ignore those in the world, those on the outside, those who don’t believe, in their sufferings, then how can we worship God? We may say those people don’t accept our faith, or they do abortions, or they have life style choices we don’t accept, and have only themselves to blame. But Jesus linked worship to social justice, and this is exactly what the Prophets before him did. In the Prophets, worship was always linked to our acknowledgment of the sufferings of others and what we do to address them. This was primary and foremost in the Prophets’ message. Especially for example, Isaiah 58, where the worship that God has chosen is that which seeks out neighbours in need and assists them. This, Isaiah says, is what will heal our nation and world. This is the overall message of Isaiah and it’s amazing how much we overlook that in our “worship.”
This is also true on an international level. We are largely ignorant of the harm our nations do to people in other lands. So in our worship we should seek mercy towards these people and try to help, or even to address these injustices. This is worship. This is better than calling these same people enemies and promoting unjust wars against them and their families, destroying further their lives, homes, jobs and infrastructures.
The whole message of Jesus militates against separation, towards serving, and reconciling with others by selfgiving attention to their needs. This is what builds our communities and this is the nature of the kingdom of God.