The Sunday after Ascension Day: John 17:6-19
Life in this world can be very difficult. Each day we have to adapt to changes and make choices and sometimes it’s difficult knowing which way to go. Perhaps a helpful analogy of our journey through life in this world is that it’s like walking through a maze. I like walking through a good maze, one with thick high foliage walls so you can’t cheat and go through them or peek over them! I like the suspense, trying to find the way, not knowing whether you’re making the right choices but forging on ahead anyway with determination.
In life, we may find the path we’ve chosen has led to a dead end, and when that happens, we have to back up and re-assess. It can be frustrating and unsettling having to change the direction in which we’re going. If we’re really lost, we may need to call on someone to help us out. Even though finding the right path to the finish can be difficult, it’s very satisfying when we finally reach that goal.
Jesus knew that life in this world was going to be difficult for his disciples. That’s why he prayed for them when the time was coming for him to leave this world. John chapter 17 is the great prayer made by Jesus at the end of his ‘farewell address’ in the upper room. He knew he was going to be killed; and he knew he was soon going to return to the Father. In the first part of his prayer, Jesus prays for himself. In the final part, he prays for all believers. And in the middle part, which is today’s reading, Jesus prays for his disciples, as they are gathered around him.
Jesus refers to ‘the world’ quite a lot in his prayer: ‘Out of the world’; ‘for the world’; ‘in the world’; ‘of the world’; ‘into the world’ – in fact, Jesus uses the word ‘world’ 12 times in this passage. But what does he mean by ‘the world’?
John 3:16 says that “God so loved ‘the world’”, and we can take that to mean all of humanity; but in other places of the bible, ‘the world’ has a different meaning. In John 16:33, Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world”; and here in John 17, he prays that his disciples would be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ - ‘the world’ here means everything that’s in opposition to God – the systems and powers and traits of humanity that tend to work against God; that are hostile to God’s ways and to the flourishing of God’s creation.
Because we’ve heard the prayer of Jesus, we know that as Christ’s disciples we’re called to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ the world. How does that work out in practice in your life? I think its boils down to three things: the way you treat people; what (or who) you rely on; and what (or who) is the central focus of your life.
To me, it seems that being ‘of the world’ is about disregarding the effects of one’s actions on other people. Being ‘of the world’ is about being unmoved by injustice; it’s about crossing over to the other side of the road when faced with the messiness of life; it’s about being ‘part of the problem’ rather than ‘part of the solution’. Being ‘of the world’ is about believing that appearances matter more than integrity. And when a person is ‘of the world’ they’re unconcerned about the evils that go on in our communities and in the world, because they’re happy focussing on attaining worldly goods and worldly success. They’re focussed on consumerism and materialism, and the only question asked is, ‘what’s in it for me?’
Worldliness is tempting, and Christians face the same temptations as everyone else. We can all think of well-known leaders, Christian or otherwise, who have caved-in to the temptations of ‘the world’: fraud, adultery, abuse, phone-hacking... corruption of all kinds... we hear these kinds of stories in the news all too often. Or there’s the post-modern attitude of ‘if it feels good, do it!’ or ‘whatever floats your boat’. Maintaining good relationships can be hard work; but unless you’re satisfied in every way, the worldly attitude is ‘easy come, easy go’. To be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ the world is to recognise that although God wants us to be happy, it’s not meant to be at the expense of our calling to faithful and sacrificial love, and the hope of transformation. Being ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ the world puts God at the centre of our lives – our relationships, our work and our play - and his grace is the glue that can fix all brokenness.
To be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ means standing up and speaking out against destructive activities that the world often sees as acceptable or at least inevitable – like gossiping, cheating, self-indulgence, abuse and neglect. To be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ means that we are witnesses to another way of living – the way of Jesus – the way of the cross - the way of the kingdom – the way of the ‘new creation’. As ‘new creations’ in Christ, we want to encourage the flourishing of life and speak out against the culture of death - not from a platform ‘six feet above condemnation’, because we wrestle with these things, too – but always pointing up to the Risen and Ascended One who has the power to transform us and raise us up.
Jesus says in his prayer, 15 ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world ...but that you protect them from the evil one’. The world is full of violence, and yet, this is the world that God is redeeming, and one day this world will be fully renewed. The temptation is to flee from the world - to hide in the cosiness of the upper room - but the Holy Spirit won’t allow that, because this world is the arena of God’s redemption. Jesus says, 18 ‘As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world’. His body has ascended, but his body is here. By God’s Spirit, Jesus was sent into the world, and by the same Spirit, God’s people are sent out into the world, not to conform to the world, or even to condemn the world, but to transform the world.
How do we find our way through this maze of a world? “Love your neighbour as yourself” is a good place to start. And F.R.O.G. – fully rely on God! – put God at the centre of your life. Next Sunday is Pentecost, when we’re reminded of the fact that we’re guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, and then the church calendar moves into what’s liturgically known as ‘ordinary time’, when the focus of our bible readings are on discipleship. It follows on beautifully from today’s prayer that we be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ – living as faithful disciples in the world witnessing to God’s love in our everyday lives. And perhaps it’s a God-incidence, that on June 11th, at the beginning of ‘ordinary time’, we’re starting a six-week course on how to live as disciples in our everyday, ordinary lives, out ‘in’ the world. The course is called ‘Life on the Frontline’, and I hope many of you can make it. The Christian life may not be easy, and we might still head down a few dead ends, but with Jesus praying for us in heaven ‘at the right hand of the Father’, we have a sure and certain hope that we’ll never be truly lost.
Prayer: Father, as we search for the path that will lead us safely through this world, we place our trust in you, and ask for your guidance and protection as we witness to your love in the world. In the name of our risen and ascended Lord, we pray. Amen.