Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter     The Rev. Wendy Smith, PhD May 17, 2015                The World and the Gospel

(Acts 1:15-17,21-26, I John 5:9-13 and John 17:6-19)

The biggest challenge  we face in understanding today’s Gospel reading, is what St. John means by the word, world.  It is used 12 times in 13 verses.  My dictionary gives 25 meanings for world, many of which refer to the earth, as a physical reality, and other meanings refer to humanity, or to the various nations and cultures of the earth.  Think for a moment of the different ways we use this word:  we often say, “in our world” which means either the culture we live in, or the century we live in.  We make a distinction between our world, and the ancient world, which was different in culture and technology.  We also make a distinction between our world and the third world, which is partly a distinction of place, and partly is based on development.  We may also use this word in a more limited way, when we say, the world of academia, or the world of sports, yet we are still referring to a group of people who hold a set of values, activities and knowledge not shared by others.

So when we read that Jesus said his disciples do not belong to the world, yet he is sending them into the world, we must be careful to ask, what exactly did he mean?  Fortunately, the English word world translates a Greek word that is familiar to us: kosmos.  In the New Testament, kosmos refers to the Jewish belief in creation:  that God created the physical universe, as well as humanity, and God gave us the ability to develop language and culture.  So Jesus and the Jewish community in which he lived, would not have made a firm distinction between the physical world and the human world.  They found it natural to say that the trees and the hills praise God, while the whales, birds and cattle glorify the Lord.

All this is background for the particular use of world in the Gospel of  St. John.  Remember what it says in the first chapter of the Gospel:  the Man Sent from God, the Word, “was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” (1:10).  The world that came into being through him is the universe, everything from stars to insects.  But the world which did not know him, was humanity:  we are the ones capable of knowing the Son, yet we did not recognize him.  So even in that one verse the word kosmos/world, is used in two different ways. The next important reference to the world is the familiar affirmation in chapter 3: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” which means that God so loved human beings, that God has provided a way to save all who believe from perishing.  I conclude that the problem St. John was addressing in his Gospel, was that most of humanity are in darkness, and love the darkness.

This is the reason Jesus said, in our reading from Chapter 17, that his disciples do not belong to the world, meaning they are people who have seen the light of Jesus, so they are no longer in darkness, nor do they love darkness.  They are in the world, but not of the world:  that is, they live among people who are in darkness, but they are in the light.  What we would expect to read next, is an instruction to remain separate from those in darkness, in order to dwell in the light, and not be drawn into the darkness.  However, the instruction Jesus gave was just the opposite:  he sent them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world (verse 18).  The reason is, that God intends to save the world, and this will happen through the witness of the disciples to Christ.

Jesus was, of course, speaking at the Last Supper, to the original 11 disciples (Judas having already left the upper room).  It seems likely that St. John has emphasized this sending into the world precisely because the Christians to whom he was writing, really did want to withdraw from the world.  St. John wrote his Gospel at the end of the first century AD, when the first persecutions of Christians occurred.  The desire to retreat from a society in which they were unwelcome, and to become a closed and invisible fellowship, is understandable.  They could preserve the memory of Jesus, and keep themselves “unstained by the world”.

There is a long history of faithful believers who have made this choice.  The first ones, before Jesus, were the Essenes, who withdrew to Qumran by the Dead Sea, in protest at the illegitimacy of Temple sacrifices.  Then in the second and third centuries AD, some Christians chose not to marry, believing they could reverse the fall by remaining celibate.  In the 4th century, many of these celibates joined together in monastic communities, which became increasingly popular precisely as a retreat from an evil world.  At the beginning of the Reformation in the 16th century, St Thomas More wrote a famous book describing an ideal community, Utopia, in which the sins of pride and greed could be eliminated through the absence of private property, and by making all adults equal in labor and rights.  In the years to follow, three other factors greatly increased the appeal of withdrawal from the world.  One was the availability of the Bible in printed books, in the vernacular languages of Europe.  The second was the establishment of Protestant churches, and the third was the news of America brought back by the early colonists.

For all these reasons, many Christians founded utopian communities in North America, seeking a holy life withdrawn from the world.  The Puritans were the first, of course, establishing a Christian commonwealth in Massachusetts.  They were followed by the Dutch Mennonites in 1663, the Amish in the 1740’s, the Shakers in 1774, and the German Mennonites in the 1790’s.  In 1825 Robert Owen came from England to form a utopia called New Harmony, in Indiana.  His plan was to rid the human race of evil by communal working and living. Unfortunately, New Harmony only lasted two years; however when I visited New Harmony 16 years ago, I was interested to see that their buildings were still standing.  In 1842 some German pietists emigrated to the United States, and eventually settled in Iowa, calling themselves the Community of True Inspiration.  They lived communally until 1932, when they became the Amana Society, both a church and a business. And yes, they are the ones that make Amana refrigerators.

In the Episcopal Church, this desire to leave the world has resulted in the founding of monastic orders.  Beginning in 1865,  four women’s orders, and two men’s orders were founded in the 19th century.  Today, there are 23 monastic orders in the Episcopal Church, all of them small, and bearing witness to the light of the Gospel by focussing on prayer, service, and holy living.

I have given you this long account of Christian groups withdrawing from the world, because our Gospel reading today, paradoxically, is one of the passages that calls people to seek such life. I suspect many of us become discouraged at some point in our lives, by the moral failures of people in our society, by the violence on our streets,  and the greed in the marketplace. It may seem more realistic to give up on “the world”, and to create a community that lives by Gospel values. Remember how, in the Book of Acts, the Christian community gathered daily for prayer and for common meals, and that their unity was active and visible.  And, in the teaching of Jesus, there were all those sayings and parables about what the kingdom of God is like:  it is no wonder that people have tried to create it.

I want now to emphasize the conclusion Jesus came to:  as the Father sent him into the world, so now Jesus sent his disciples into the world.  Their purpose was, and our purpose is, to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Everyone who is baptized, is both called and empowered to make this witness:  remember how the baptismal candidate is asked, “will you proclaim by word and example, the good news of God in Christ?”  We and our sponsors answer, “I will”.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gave us a complex task:  to live in the world, without accepting the world’s values and practices.  Perhaps this is a more difficult calling for us in the 21st century, with the mass marketing of entertainment, luxury goods, and ever more sophisticated electronics.  Yet it would not be right to say these things are bad in themselves.  The dualistic labels of John’s Gospel do not help us, because in themselves entertainment and electronics do not belong to the darkness.  It is more correct to say that these things are likely to distract us from our calling, and that the person who is completely absorbed by them, is in darkness.  But the person whose life is oriented to Jesus, certainly may use them and still be in the light.

How then shall we live?  There is a pattern laid out for us here, within and behind these verses in the Gospel of St. John.  It has three elements.  First, Jesus prayed that his followers be protected from evil.  This does not mean protected from harm, from accident, disease, conflict or death, which are all things that happen to us.  The evil from which God is protecting us, is the choice to become an agent of conflict, injury or death.    In the midst of great troubles, God will be present, and will keep our selves, our souls, safe.  Second, we are to remember the life of Jesus, how he went out to the world, willing to meet whomever and whatever came his way  as he proclaimed the good news.  Yet he took time frequently to be alone in prayer.  He spent time in communion with the Father, being strengthened and renewed to go out again to the world.  Third, he calls us to be active members of our Christian communities, where we will experience joy, and where we will be renewed and strengthened.

Therefore Jesus sent his disciples, and he sends us, into the world to bear witness to the light.  We go into the world, strengthened by our participation in the Body of Christ.  We are aware that our witness to the love and peace of the Gospel will be rejected by some to whom we speak.  Nevertheless, we are called to bring the truly good news of God’s love, to people who do not know it, . . . trusting that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts.