Mortimer, June 1st 2003

Theme: In the world but not of the world


1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-29


Love divine, all loves excelling
One more step along the world I go
Break Thou the bread of Life
I know that my Redeemer lives
God's Spirit is in my heart


As I said earlier, today's Gospel passage has a lot in it for us, and I'll only be picking up on one or two aspects of it. Before I do, though, I think it's worth taking a brief step back and considering the existence of the passage in the first place. This is the middle section of Jesus' prayer shortly before his death. Even when he knows he is about to be taken and eventually killed, he finds time for prayer. He prays first for himself, then for his disciples - the section we're looking at today - and then for the believers to come. I still find the very idea of Jesus praying a slightly mystifying one - he is one with the Father he is praying to, after all. There are enough confusing aspects to prayer in the first place, when God knows what each of us is going to say before we say it, but for Jesus to pray is even more intriguing. Fortunately, we don't need to understand it completely in order to benefit from it.

After getting over that first hurdle, there's then the idea of Jesus praying for us which is so wonderful. There's a hymn in Stainer's Crucifixion called "Jesus The Crucified Pleads For Me" which kept going round in my head when thinking about this passage, and although it doesn't refer to this particular prayer, the amazement at Jesus caring enough for each of us to pray for us is still there. This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God - and we are told that he prays for us, completely unworthy as we are. Just that very idea can be incredibly comforting.

In the world but not of the world

So, what about the actual prayer Jesus speaks? Even though the part we heard earlier is only addressed to his disciples of the time, I'd like to appropriate it for us this morning. After all, we are Jesus' disciples now, and I don't see anything in the passage which shouldn't also refer to us. The bit that stands out to me is the repeated statement about being in the world but not belonging to the world; in the world but not of it.

The latter part of the twentieth century made life go at an unprecedented speed - however much time we gain from labour saving devices, we seem to lose it in other ways. Communications which would have been regarded as impossibly fast just a hundred years ago are now seen as commonplace - getting messages across the world takes milliseconds, and the messages themselves can be vast. We are encouraged to be "always available". I can't see the pace of life slowing down much in the rest of the twenty-first century, either. In such a world, it's easy to be caught up with things, swept along by the changes. Indeed, I'm not suggesting a Luddite attitude, burying our heads in the sand, avoiding new technology rather than embracing it. However, we need to take time to look at the world around us, look at ourselves, and look at our relationship with God. If we are truly faithful to Christ, I don't believe we can belong to the world, consumed by its greed and fascination with power. Just as Christ said we cannot serve both God and money, we cannot belong both to God and to the world. If we find ourselves feeling a little too comfortable in our surroundings, things going a little too well in the rat-race, we should at least hear a warning note. Are we living our lives for God, or for ourselves? God doesn't want us all wearing hair shirts, of course - I don't believe there's anything wrong with earning a decent living and enjoying life, but you can still enjoy life while living it for God's purposes.

So, that's making sure we don't end up belonging to the world - but what about the other part of the phrase? We have to be in the world as well. We can't help that, in a way - like it or lump it, in this life, we're pretty much stuck here on Earth. It's possible to reject that, though - pretend the outside world doesn't exist. I think it's falling out of fashion these days, but the phrase "so heavenly minded he's no earthly use" is still an important one. This is where the caterpillar turning into a butterfly isn't such a good example for us to follow. We believe we are saved by Christ, that his grace turns us from earth-bound caterpillars into butterflies, beautiful and free to fly in the sun - but we mustn't do that by building ourselves chrysalises. The church should never be a fence to keep the world away from us, to shield us from sin and sinners. Isolating ourselves from others won't stop us from sinning - only God can do that, and forgive us when we fail - but such isolation will make us incapable of acting out the role God wants each of us to play.

Christ as the perfect example

The difficulty, of course, is walking the tightrope - how "not of this world" can we be before we isolate ourselves? How integrated can we be with the world before we lose ourselves in it? As ever, Christ provides the perfect example: he was always there in the thick of things, doing what the world needed but not necessarily what it wanted. If healing was needed, he healed regardless of when the world thought he should. When he saw the desires of the world invading the temple, he overturned their tables. When he saw the potential for goodness in a tax collector, a man shunned by the rest of the world, he turned him around, showing him how to live his life for God. The list goes on.

And, of course, he ultimately confounded expectations by sacrificing himself for us. When the world expected a King conforming to its own ideals of power, he showed what true power is by defying even death for our sakes. Even on the cross, Christ was "in the world" enough to listen to those crucified with him, and reassure the robber who asked for his blessing. I fervently hope and pray that none of us is ever called to die for our Lord's sake, but we can still look to it as an example.

We should be reassured by the Gospel passage that we are protected - Christ himself asks for our protection, and states that none had been lost other than the one who was destined to be lost to fulfil the scriptures. Now, leaving aside the interesting but difficult question of how much we can blame Judas for his actions given that he was destined to be lost, we can take comfort from this. Are any of us destined to be lost? I don't know of any scripture which any of us must fulfil by failing our Lord. Jesus was only talking about his disciples then and there, of course, but I believe we can take hope from it nonetheless - if they can stay faithful, then with God's help so can we.

If we are to take on the role of disciples, however, we must also accept the rest of what Jesus has to say - including that we are sent out into the world just as Jesus was. In one of the commentaries I read when preparing this service, there was an interesting description of this prayer as a sort of "mission report" from Jesus. I rather like that - the idea of Christ as a sort of "agent in the field". This is not his home, it is where he is called to work. Although none of us has seen our heavenly home yet, the same applies to us. This world around us now is not where we ultimately belong, but it is where we are now, and we need to make the best of it. I've always believed that while the world is a very long way from Heaven, our job is to bring it closer, inch by inch - and that, in itself, relies on us being in the world but not of it. If we were of the world, belonging to the world, we would have nothing to change it into. If we were not in it, we could not change it in the first place.

Sanctified by truth

If we are to live for Christ, however, we must first have faith in him, which leads me to the other point I wanted to briefly draw out of this passage. Several times in the passage, truth is mentioned: the disciples understand that the words Jesus has spoken are from God, because they believe that Jesus was sent by God. Jesus asks the Father to sanctify the disciples in truth, and indicates that the means by which they (and we) are sanctified is by his sacrifice. Our other reading agrees: we are shown truth by the way that water - the baptism of Jesus, blood - his death and resurrection, and Spirit - the Holy Spirit left for us - all agree that Christ is indeed the Son of God. They testify that through Christ, we have eternal life.

This is the truth we must live by. God has revealed his truth in Christ, and to live in him, and invite him to live in us, is to acknowledge our mission here. We do not belong to the world - we belong to God. We are here as his agents, with instructions on how to live to show his glory and bring about a better world. We cannot do it alone - but we don't have to. We have the Holy Spirit, guiding every footstep - and above all, mystery of mysteries, we have Christ in Heaven, praying for us. With that sort of backing, if we enter into God's will with a whole heart, how can we fail?


Back to the main page.