The Rev. Peter Faass
Seminarians often hear the phrase “to be in the world, but not of the world.” The saying’s roots are found in today’s passage from the Gospel of John and are part of what scholars call Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This prayer occurs on the last night of Jesus’ life, in the upper room where he gives the disciples the humbling act of foot-washing, the Lord’s Supper, and the New Commandment, “To love another as I have loved you.” Knowing that the end is near, Jesus crams a lot of final gifts and advice to his friends.
The disciples listen to Jesus’ extemporaneous prayer. These words are prayed out loud and without written text. Jesus is clearly not an Episcopalian!
We can liken his prayer to a dying parent or spouse who gathers their loved ones close by for a final conversation. This final conversation imparts wisdom, strength and confidence to those who will soon be left behind. The dying person wants to offer strength and hope to those who will need it after their passing.
Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
Jesus asks God the Father to guide and sustain the disciples once he is gone so they will continue to be in the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ message. He also asks God that they not be of the world, comprised of the immoral practices, beliefs and behaviors that defy God’s word, referred to as “the evil one.”
Professors at seminary impart these same words of advice (to be in but not of the world) to future clergy leaders to fashion their lives in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel, not those of the evil one. This is not an easy task for the clergy or laity.
Christians have often responded, with some confusion, to be in but not of the world. Some have totally removed themselves from the greater culture to avoid being influenced or tainted by it. We have seen this in cloistered religious orders where the nuns or monks either partially or fully remove themselves from any outside contact with the world.
A more recent manifestation has been the conservative Christian homeschooling movement. Parents, afraid of the influences of the greater culture, try to protect their children by controlling what they learn and what they see on television or the internet.
Many mega-churches do the same thing by offering the services of a small city within their church complexes. These churches contain restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, athletic facilities, day-care, ATMs, coffee bars, and shops of all kinds. The goal is to offer an all-purpose alternative (literally a refuge or fortress, depending on your point of view) to the same facilities outside their walls. The goal keeps members from going anywhere else except home for all their needs. This prevents them from exposure to the greater culture, being in the world, but not co-opted by its immoral behaviors.
While these folks are striving to follow Jesus and live his Gospel, they have taken it too literally and have pushed the proverbial pendulum too far to one extreme. Jesus himself was deeply immersed in the culture of his time and often criticized for it. But he met and pastored people where they were.
The idea of removing myself from the world to not be co-opted by it is tempting at times, especially with the daily barrage of craziness we are experiencing. Walking away from all of it is seductive. I keep hearing Dean Martin’s song “Make the World Go Away” in my head when I think this. But if the world went away from my life, it would not be true to what Jesus is asking God for us to do.
Other Christians are just too daunted by the prospect of having to always be on guard against the ways of the world. They toss their hands in despair and throw in the towel. Following Jesus may feel too hard, boring, or weird, especially when others in their social circle or family or workplace don’t think it’s important or valued.
The majority of us compromise our resistance to the ways of the world little by little. The ways of the world whittle away at us, wearing us down. Often, we don’t even realize it’s happening. We straddle the fence over here. We give slightly in another area over there. Next thing you know you’re not only in, but you’re of the world.
This is not the worst thing, as long as you become aware of it happening. One of the best things about following Jesus is that when that evil one does seduce us to be of the world and compromised by it, we can acknowledge it, repent, and be forgiven.
There is a third way - to live by Jesus’ words in the world. I know, easier said than done. Remember, Jesus asked God to protect us, so we do so with God’s help.
We who follow Jesus are different from the rest of the world. Our values and standards (given to us by Jesus) are different. The new commandment is succinct and easy enough, almost facile. Have you tried to love everyone you encounter in your life for even one day? Whooie, it’s tough work. The Beatitudes are elegant, beautiful and hopeful. But when’s the last time you were persecuted, bullied or gossiped about and felt that the kingdom of God was yours?
As followers of Jesus, there is joy in struggling against the tide of the world’s ways; of battling the storm of evil when you know in every fiber of your being that Jesus’ words are the way the life and the truth. When we face the insidious hostility of evil in the world (knowing we are in alignment with the Gospel), we find true joy. This true joy fulfills Jesus’ prayer, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
Jesus doesn’t want to take us out of the world; he wants us to participate in the victory of his ways in the world. It is in the rough and tumble of life (not the cloister, barricaded in our homes, or in the enclosed culture of a mega-church ) that we must live our Christian faith.
My friends, Christianity is not an easy faith to follow. Despite attempts by some to paint it as a religion for the weak-minded, or worse, as the opioid of the people, it is far from that. It is not a magic bullet or an elixir we drink once and then poof, all is well. The Christian faith is hard, challenging work. But following Jesus saves gives us the strength to do so as he protects us from the corruption of the world. More than anything, following Jesus equips us better for life. It doesn’t magically give us an end to our problems, it gives us the strength and tools to solve them. We face and conquer our troubles. We cannot abandon the world, we encounter it in all its fullness. Our witness to the Gospel diminishes the evil one.
Jesus prayed to God that he had “revealed/made know God’s name” to the disciples. Our work is to name the character and identity of God in the world. The Son made God known to us, and he revealed that God is love. We are to go and do the same.
Being in the world means that the world will, through us, share the knowledge of the God who is love. There is no more important, critical task for us to engage in.
Let’s go forth into the world, confident that Jesus safeguards us as we proclaim his good news and bring about his reign.