So often Christians are criticised for their attitude to the world. So it got me thinking... Maybe we got it wrong. When we say 'We're not of this world', we're not denying we are a part of creation. Nor are we denying its value. But in order to know what Christ does mean, we need to do a little digging. First, what does he say about the matter?
'I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 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. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
So... Not of the world then?
What are some of the things that make life worth living for you? Is it the company of good friends for a meal? Or maybe a quiet sunny afternoon, free of responsibilities, sat under a tree with a good book and a cold beer? Maybe it's being stood on a railway platform as a huge steam engine pulls in, or perhaps walking through a wooded glade with the person you most love? I might have just given away some of my preferences for a nice day off, but you get the picture. Each of us has things that we really enjoy doing. These are what make life really worth living. But when we turn to that reading from John's Gospel it can cause us to feel guilty. In the space of just fourteen sentences Jesus mentions the world thirteen times, and none of those is positive.
He is praying for the disciples and, as we would find out were we to read one more verse, he is also praying for disciples who are yet to come, so these words are directly applicable to us, not just by inference. What we learn from it is that God has given us to Jesus from out of the world. We note that Jesus says he is not of the world, but while he was physically present he protected and guarded the disciples, and we might want to question from what?
He makes it clear that he is leaving the world and he is not asking the Father to take them or us out of the world, but he is recognising that we do not belong to the world, to the extent that the world has hated them, and therefore we should expect the world to hate us too.
All of this seems to me to be extremely negative. I mean should my list of things I have to do have at the top of it, 'Spending three hours a day in prayer because that's my absolute favourite thing to do'?
My mother told me that when she was a child there was a very strict code of practice on what to do on Sundays if they were visiting very religious grandparents, and it was basically do not do anything that is remotely enjoyable. I seem to remember a story about her getting in trouble for climbing a tree in her Sunday best...
But this is exactly the picture that 21st century culture has of Christians, when they can be bothered to think about us. We're viewed as hypocrites who are utter killjoys because we disapprove of everything that's fun and enjoyable, apparently, and when we look at texts like this we can see that those observations seem not to be without foundation. Is that how it's meant to be? Are we not supposed to enjoy anything of the world? Are supposed to feel guilty about liking a party, having sex, swimming in the sea and so on? I know some Christians who do actually struggle with those things exactly because they have been taught that Jesus disapproves. But does he?
What about the criticisms that Jesus receives for being a glutton and a drunkard? We can only assume that those comments were levelled at him by the Pharisees because he enjoyed partying with those who the ruling elite thought were 'the wrong kind of people.' So if Jesus enjoyed a party, and if Jesus liked taking his disciples off for a break from time to time to beautiful lush places like Caesarea Philippi, (think the Lake District with sunshine), either he was a hypocrite in the comments he made about the world, or we're not understanding what he really meant. I would venture to suggest that it is probably the latter, and we have misunderstood.
So let's go back to the text again and think about what this word, 'world', must mean, because it strikes me that this is the key to the whole thing.
Now what I had hoped to be able to do was to tell you that the Greek word for 'world', which is 'kosmos', that John uses to describe Jesus' intent would make it clear for us. Unfortunately that is not the case, and it's one of those words whose meaning changes dependent on context and who is using it. So, for example, in classical Greek use it sometimes had a meaning that was to describe how things were ordered, and the beauty contained by that order. There is something similar to that in the way it appears to have been used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. But by the time we arrive at the New Testament, that meaning has changed. Writers such as John seem to mainly use it in terms of marking the distinction between heaven and earth, where heaven is the realm of God's presence and earth, kosmos, is that which is estranged from God.
That, then, gives credence to this view of the world as something to be avoided at all costs; that those things which we enjoy should be feared as worldly. No more dancing. No more parties. No more alcohol. No more of anything that we enjoy. :-(
That is until we remember what is perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted verse from John's Gospel; John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world (kosmos), that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.'
That puts a different slant on it. That describes the world as something that God loves absolutely and with all the love that he has, so much so that he sent Jesus, in the full knowledge of what it would cost him, to make it right between God and the world. In other words God is seeking an end to this estrangement between heaven and earth, and that end comes through Christ.
So let's bring that word 'estrangement' back in to the passage and re-frame it with that understanding. Now that makes it far more clear for us. Let me re-read some parts of the passage with that understanding:
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from those who were estranged.”
“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of those who are estranged, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”
“I am no longer amongst those who are estranged from you, but they are...., please protect them.”
“I have given them your word, and those who are estranged from you have hated them because they do not belong to the estranged, just as I do not belong to the estranged..”
Now to me that makes far more sense of the passage. God called people out from being estranged in order that we might live in fellowship with God, as residents of a universe that will one day be reunited with heaven.
So, in fact, this is not about us not enjoying the things of this world. Instead it is about enjoying them in a sanctified way. I can enjoy a good party with friends, so long as we are inclusive. I can have a drink on the lawn on a warm summers day because it helps me appreciate the marvellous world that God has created. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that we can behave in such a way in the world as to redeem some of these things, to take away their estrangement, to live as if earth is already reunited with heaven. We, as citizens of God's kingdom, can live in a way that reveals God's purposes and God's nature.
The whole thrust of this passage seems to me about actually living 'In' the world, not trying to separate ourselves from it and look down our noses disapprovingly at it. So let us set aside any latent guilt we have about enjoying life, and instead learn how to be like Christ in the world, loving it and revealing God's purposes here.