Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Christian's Love/Hate Relationship with the World (A sermon)

John 17 is set in a context of Jesus praying. Though what follows is framed as a prayer, the instruction of the disciples that began in chapter 13 continues.

An important theme in this prayer has to do with the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the world:

v. 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.
v. 9: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.
v. 11: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me”
v. 14: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.
v. 15: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
v. 16: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
v. 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
vv. 22-23: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In John’s community “world” had both positive and negative meanings. On the positive side, the living Word (logos) was instrumental in the creation of the world; the world is the good creation of the good God. God loves the world and sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world, to heal and redeem the world. Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s the positive picture.

On the negative side, the world represents that which is under the power of evil. The late Walter Wink has suggested that when world is employed in this negative sense it should be translated “System.” He called the world under the power of evil the “the domination system.”

In his award winning book, “Engaging the Powers,” Wink described how blacks struggling against apartheid in South Africa realized that freedom could not be gained simply by replacing the white leaders with blacks without changing the system. They named the evil and injustice at work in their society “the System.” So when the police, who were instruments of the unjust authorities, were at the door, those on the inside would warn, “The System” is here. When they watched the evil propaganda on television they would say, “The System is lying again.” That’s the world as a domination system.

The first point, I want to make about our love/hate relationship with the world is that because we (disciples of Jesus) do not belong to the world, we must not allow the world, the domination system, to name us and define us and tell us who we are.

In C.S Lewis’The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund, one of the four children who enter Narnia, joins the white witch and then becomes subject to and entrapped by the witch. Aslan, the great Lion and the Christ figure, saves Edmund from the white witch.

After Edmund is saved by Aslan, the other children notice Aslan and Edmund walking together. Lewis writes, “There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him. ‘Here is your brother,’ Aslan said, ‘and--there is no need to talk to him about what is past.’"

Then the witch shows up and requests a meeting with Aslan. The witch says, “You have a traitor there Aslan.” Lewis writes, “Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he'd been through and after the talk he had with Aslan that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn't seem to matter what the witch said.”

What a difference it would make in so many of our lives if we could do what Edmund did in the story. Namely, keep on looking at Jesus and the God of Jesus whom Jesus made known and who alone names us and claims us as God’s own beloved daughters and sons.

I love that passage in 1 John that says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” We must resist the negative influences of the domination system that want to use us and discard us as expendable commodities. We must not let the world name us and tell us who we are.

The second point I want to make about our love/hate relationship with the world is this: Because we do not belong to the world, we are not be conformed to the world. Jesus prays that we will be protected from the evil in “the System.”

The popular Baptist minister and author Calvin Miller told about meeting a young Amish man in Pennsylvania some years ago. They began corresponding. Miller said, "It was the best correspondence I've ever had. Every letter was like hearing from the Apostle Paul. It was full of light and Scripture. I loved to hear from him, and I always felt shallow when I answered him." 

One day Miller got a special letter. It read, "Sadie and I are getting married and we'd like to come on our honeymoon and see you. Would that be okay?" Miller responded, "Sure, we would love to have you." So they came.

They wore their black clothes. They rode a bus. Miller's children looked at them like they were relics from the past. Miller took them to his church. The church looked at them like they were relics from the past. Miller said, "I found myself living with people who had never listened to a radio program or seen a television program or gone to a movie."

He found himself explaining things. His daughter’s friend ran through the room with a Dallas Cowboys' sweatshirt on, and Reuben said, "I hear there are cowboys in the west." Miller said, "These aren't cowboys. These cowboys play football." He didn't understand. A world of definitions unfolded all week long.

On Thursday night Miller and his wife had season tickets to the Playhouse, and were going to see Camelot. He asked Reuben and Sadie if they would like to go and they said they would. Miller said, "Now remember, Reuben this is a play, and sometimes people do funny things in plays."

Reuben said, "Calvin, I know your letters. You would never lead me into sin."  Miller said, "Sit down Reuben and let me tell you about the dirtiest parts of this play." He said, "Actors sometimes kiss each other on the mouth, Can you take that?" He thought he could. Miller said, "They wear leotards." Reuben asked, "What's leotards?" Miller tried to explain leotards, but this was very difficult.

Thursday night came and Reuben and Sadie came out in the only clothes they had (all black). Miller's daughter whispered to him, "Dad, are they going to wear those clothes to the Playhouse?" He said, "Yeah."  She said, "Can we go in after the lights go down?" He said, "No, honey. These are our friends." Miller said, "All the way there I felt the tension between a man who wrote godly letters and what I was about to ask him to do."

So they watched Camelot. Every one there had seen Camelot except Reuben and Sadie. So Reuben and Sadie watched Camelot and everyone else watched Reuben and Sadie watch Camelot.

When Reuben and Sadie got back to Pennsylvania, they wrote Miller and his family a wonderful letter thanking them for everything, especially the play Camelot. Miller said the experience gave him a better appreciation for a person in tension with the Scriptures. He wrote, “I don't think Reuben understands. I think he loves God with all his heart, but he's completely unintelligible in a modern culture."

Miller concluded by saying this about disciples of Jesus: “I think you might as well put on your black hat and black suit now. If we stand true to Jesus Christ in the world that's unfolding, we shall look as out of place to our culture as Reuben and Sadie looked to us."

Miller’s concluding statement, I think, is an overstatement. But the point is valid. A disciple of Jesus who takes the life and teachings of Jesus seriously will always live with certain tensions and to some degree look out of place.

For example: Living a life of nonviolence in a violent culture means living with some tension and looking out of place. And so it is when we practice forgiveness in a world committed to retaliation and retribution. Or when we give our lives to the common good and the service of others in a world that aspires for prestige, prominence, and dominance over others. Or when we live a life of humility and simplicity in a world that that is constantly grasping for what is bigger and better, for more power and possessions.

Without question, following Jesus means sometimes being at odds and sometimes appearing odd to those who have adopted the values and live by the goals of the domination system.

That being true, I need to clarify something. One of the characteristics of the writings of this Gospel and the epistles that bear the same name is their sharply defined opposites: good/evil, light/darkness, love/hate, life/death, truth/falsehood, Christ/the evil one. I suspect that such stark contrasts were intended for rhetorical effect – to make a point. Real life is not so clearly differentiated. In real life there’s lots of grey, lots of in-between, and we might find God anywhere.  

What I mean is that even within unjust systems, systems tilted toward evil, you can find God. The Spirit is constantly piercing asunder our neat, clearly marked divisions of what is sacred and secular. The winds of the Spirit blow in the most unusual places. God can show up at any time and place, under all kinds of circumstances and conditions. Generally there is some good even in the most evil system and visa versa.  

So, we do not belong to the world, and because we do not belong to the world we must not allow the world to name us and tell us who we are, and we must not allow the world to press us into its mold. But that does not mean we are to withdraw from the world. Oh no, we are called to engage our world. And that is my third point about our love/hate relationship to the world. Even though we do not belong to the world, we have a mission to the world. Christ sends us, his disciples, into the world to continue the work he was sent to do.

According to John’s perspective, Jesus was sent to reveal and make known God’s love, and that too is our calling — to continue the work of incarnating God’s love and grace.

Jesus prays that the disciples may be one — one in their commitment to love, so that the world may know that God sent Jesus, that Jesus reveals the truth and grace of God, and that God loves the world.

Even though the world is often negligent of God and opposed to God, rejecting the values and virtues embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus, God is committed to healing and redeeming the world. As disciples of Jesus, we are partners and collaborators with God in this endeavor. We are God’s instruments and agents of healing and hope.

John’s Gospel refers to Jesus’ death repeatedly as Jesus’ glorification and the glorification of God. How can Jesus’ violent death at the hands of the domination system reveal the glory of God? Here’s how: In Jesus and especially through his death we meet a loving, nonviolent God.

When Jesus says to Pilot that his kingdom is not of this world, he is saying that it does not partake of the violence of this world – it is not run the way the domination systems of the world are ran. It is a kingdom committed to peace and the healing and wholeness of all people.

That’s what Jesus was committed to – all the way to the cross. He gave his life up in death for the nonviolent, peacemaking cause of God. He was devoted to that mission even unto death. He was killed by the domination system for revealing a nonviolent God and for incarnating truth and grace. He “fleshed out,” he materialized in this real, material world the grace and truth of God. We are called to continue that work.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, teach us how to listen to your voice that tells us we are your beloved daughters and sons, and help us to turn away from the competing and comparing voices of the world. Help us to claim and become who we are, and resist conformity to the greed and selfish ambition and violence that pervades so much of our world. And even as we resist such forces, help us to be aware of how you are working all around us in unexpected ways and places, and in all kinds of people. Give us the courage to engage our world by sharing your love and enable us to embody the nonviolence and amazing grace of our Lord Jesus, in whose name I pray

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