The disciple’s paradoxical relationship to the world (a sermon from John 17:6-19)

 This passage in John 17 is part of a larger passage that is presented by John as a prayer of Jesus for his disciples. Jesus had been preparing them to continue his work when he was gone. He knew his time was short. John, the writer, uses this prayer format as a means of continued instruction. The dominant theme seem to be the paradoxical relationship the disciples of Jesus have with the world.

John speaks of the world in several different ways that appear contradictory. In one sense the disciples are part of the world and belong to the world. We are all part of God’s good creation and the human family. John says in his prologue in chapter one that the light of God enlightens every person coming into the world. As Paul says in Acts 17 we are all God’s offspring and in God we all live, move, and have our existence. So in one sense the world is God’s. We all belong to one another and are all connected by the Divine Spirit.

There is also a sense in which disciples of Jesus do not belong to the world and must face the animosity and hatred of the world. Here John is talking about the “world” as a domination system. John is here speaking of the world as a system whose values and practices are different than the values Jesus embodied. So, in one sense disciples of Jesus belong to the world, because the whole world belongs to God and we are all sisters and brothers. But in another sense, disciples do not belong to the domination system, which John also calls the world.

A system is more than just the individuals that are part of it. A system takes on a persona of its own. And no system is absolute. A predominately good or just system has some corruption and injustice in it, and a predominantly evil or unjust system has some good in it. For example, even in the pervasively evil system of Nazi Germany there were some good people who secretly tried to save lives. What John is saying is that disciples of Jesus do not belong to the unjust system. So when John uses the word “world” it can have varied, even contradictory meanings. The tension that is inherent in the very use of the word “world” in this passage points to the tension that all disciples of Jesus face when we engage, serve, and minister to the world.

The late Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid and they lost the family farm and had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.” Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed to talk about it. One girl reported that she spent a week in Florida. Another had gone to Niagara Falls. Another kid said their family went to Washington and seen all the historical sites. Fred was embarrassed and didn’t what to talk about what he did. Well, time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll continue tomorrow.” 

Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him.  His father said, “Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” That was what his father told him to do, so he did. When it was his turn he said to the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on and on.” Somewhere this side of Niagara Falls the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.” Fred said, “No ma’am.” She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” “Because I was embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?”  “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That brought an end to all the summer stories.

Fred goes on to tell how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be the same; that someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask. Fred says he was never embarrassed in church. This is what he says, “I don’t remember ever feeling any different, any less, any more, any different from anybody else in church. And from the age of nine until now, I have had this little jubilee going on in my mind: There is no place in the world like church.” Church being, of course, community – a community of disciples of Jesus. A community that lives by the values of inclusiveness, grace, and commitment to the good and service of others. That is, if the church is being the church it will live those values, which were the values of Jesus.

Sometimes the clash in values and practices between disciples of Jesus and the world system is sort of like what Fred experienced at school and what he experienced at church. Other times the clash can be more intense. Selma, Alabama was ultimately a clash between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of the domination system of this world.

Some Christians see themselves over and against the world. Their strategy is not to engage the world, but to withdraw and retreat from the world. But I don’t know how we can ever be the salt of the earth and light of the world as Jesus said, unless we mix and mingle with the world. We are called to engage the world because there is a sense in which we do belong to the world. Now, our mission in the world and to the world is primarily twofold: to show mercy and to do justice. To give the world a taste of what God wants the world to be.

I have a story I like to tell that illustrates the difference between mercy and justice. Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river. One person was dead, so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child as their own. From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.

This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but also developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full time. The townspeople felt good about their ability to give and care for these people in great need.

However, during all those years and despite all their generosity and mercy, no one journeyed up the river beyond the bend in order to find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river. Why was that? Did they just not think too? Were they just too busy caring for all the people in need who came floating down the river? Or did they know that if they did, things could get real messy? Maybe even threatening. Herein is the difference between acts of mercy and works of justice.

Mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the victims of war, while justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. Mercy responds to the needs of the homeless and the poor, but to pursue justice is to get at the reasons why there are homeless and poor people in the first place and offer constructive solutions. The work for justice is ever bit as important as works of mercy, but has unfortunately been greatly neglected by many Christians.

The prophets are clear about this. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. Isaiah asks, “What kind of fast is acceptable to the Lord?” (Isa. 58:5). He answers: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” That’s justice. Then he says, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (vv. 6-7). That’s mercy. The prophet Micah asks: “What does God require from God’s people?” His answer: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk in humility with God” (6:8).

Justice is not about partisan politics, but anyone who cares about justice will confront issues that are indeed political and social and cultural. It’s inevitable. The work for justice addresses and confronts such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, heath care, violence, criminal justice, immigration, and the environment. It confronts systems that dis-privilege some even as they unduly privilege others—systems, by the way, in which we all are complicit in.

It is easy to understand why many present-day Christians have relinquished this responsibility and redefined the gospel so that it’s not about justice at all. Justice work is challenging, difficult, risky work. It wasn’t Jesus’ acts of mercy that got him killed. It was his commitment to justice and the ways in which he provoked the religious and political establishment that got him killed.

And while many Christians have completely relinquished any involvement in the great justice issues of our time, the church at large has a history of engaging in  justice. In our country Christians played a large part in the acquisition of voting rights for women, the overthrow of slavery, the abolishment of segregation laws and the passing of civil rights legislation. Of course, we still have a long way to go and that is particularly evident today isn’t it.

Today is Mother’s Day, which is a civic holiday, not a religious one, and we structure our worship based on the church calendar not the civic calendar. But it surely is appropriate for us to celebrate how far we have come in recognizing the rights of mothers and women in general in terms of equal pay in the workplace and empowering mothers and women in general to speak their truth. Today, it’s important to value mothers who choose to work at home, as much as we do those who work outside the home. It’s the reversal of what it was years ago. I know mothers who would love to be able to be a fulltime mom, as my wife was before our kids started school, but impossible financially. And while we have made progress, there is still much inequality in pay and other inequalities in certain structures within our society. Maybe you have read recently about Paige Patterson’s instructions to mothers and wives physically abused by their husbands. He councils them to avoid divorce, to focus instead on praying for their abusive husbands, and, in his words, “to be submissive to them in any way they can.” That comes from a president of a Southern Baptist Seminary, who is still president even after he said all that, and is being defended by Southern Baptist leadership. Sometimes churches and church leaders not only are silent on justice issues, they themselves are perpetrators of injustice.

So this is our work as individual disciples of Jesus and it is our work as a church, as a community of disciples of Jesus – namely, to engage the world, to be the salt of the earth and light of the world, to be the body of Christ, by doing acts of mercy and pursing works of justice. It’s not easy work, but that’s are calling.

In one sense we do not belong to the world. In another sense, we do. As long as we live here this world is our home, and we are called to work and pray that the kingdom of God, God’s just world of peace and righteousness, will come and God’s will for mercy and justice for all will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Our good God, help us to realize what we are called to be and to do as disciples of Jesus. – that in one sense we do not belong to the world, but in another sense we do. You love the world and want to heal it. May that be our passion too. As we now share in the cup and bread and celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood as disciples of Jesus, help us see that in a larger sense the whole world is connected by your Spirit, and our calling is to engage the world with mercy and justice and give the world a taste of what you want for everyone. Amen.  


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