In the World, but Not of It?
Our scripture reading this morning is from John’s Gospel, chapter 17. You’ll need a little context to pick up where we are here. Our reading is a portion of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” or his “Farewell Prayer.” This prayer only appears in John’s Gospel. Jesus prays it at the end of the Last Supper just before he and the disciples depart for the garden where Jesus will be betrayed and arrested. So, that’s where we are in the narrative this morning—the closing prayer of the Last Supper.
This prayer (like you might expect from John’s Gospel) is long, and it has three thematic sections. The way the Revised Common Lectionary works is that we read section 1 in Year A, section 2 in Year B, and section 3 in Year C. This is Year B, so we’ll be hearing the middle bit of the prayer this morning.
In section 1, Jesus opens the prayer by praying for himself and he asks to be glorified so that the world might come to believe. Section 3 is where Jesus famously prays for all future believers “that they may all be one.” Here in the middle, in section 2, Jesus is praying for his disciples—as they listen to him—so it’s Jesus’ final words to them before his death, and by extension his closing words to all of us who desire to follow Jesus and to be his disciples.
A staple of Christian education is the old saying, “We are in the world, but not of the world.” You’ve probably heard it before, right? It’s not an exact quote from the Bible, but a teaching tool interpreting what scripture is saying in certain places. “We are in the world, but not of the world.” The major source of this rhetorical device is right from our reading this morning, and you can find other materials in the other gospels, in the letters of Paul, and other New Testament books that bolster this sentiment.
“We are in the world, but not of it.” I’m not a big fan of this saying. I know you’re not surprised to hear me arguing with tradition. And I can’t say that this statement isn’t true. But I think it’s a misleading and inadequate interpretation of what the Christian disciple’s relationship should actually be to the world. So, we’re going to discuss what’s true about “We are in the world, but not of it,” and we’ll talk about where some of the problems come in. And then we’re going to talk about the shift in perspective that I believe ultimately requires a Christian disciple to leave this formulation behind and to grow into a more ultimate truth.
Let’s start with a story: It’s the last week of Jesus’ life. He’s teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some people come to him and they ask him, “Should we pay taxes to Rome or not?” Jesus asks for a coin. “Whose picture is on this coin?” he asks. “Whose inscription?” The people say, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.”
Now, I’d say that the most common interpretation of this story is that you’ve got to pay your taxes and you’ve got to follow your government’s laws. This is the “Render unto Caesar” interpretation which conveniently forgets that that’s only one quarter of what Jesus actually said. What Jesus actually said was, “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.” Jesus doesn’t say “pay” or “don’t pay,” because “pay,” I think, wouldn’t have fully represented his position and “don’t pay” would have had him immediately hanging on a Roman cross, and he needed a little more time. Instead, Jesus presents all of us with a higher order of discernment: We must determine what belongs to Caesar (or what belongs to the world) and what belongs to God.
What I think we can all agree on is this: that we live in a world ruled by Caesars and empires, but we do not belong to Caesar, to Rome, to sin, to injustice, or to death. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We heed a different call, we worship only God, and we are guided by Jesus’ surprising, challenging, unworldly values.
Now the problem comes in, in part, because the word “world” is a very general word. Even in the original Greek, kosmos, it can mean a lot of different things—it’s a big tent. What do we mean by “the world”? Where is the likeness of the world imprinted? And where is God’s likeness imprinted? And are they always mutually exclusive? From the Gospel according to John chapter 1: The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through the Word. The whole world, all things, came into being through the Word, through Christ.
So, for example, do nature, the environment, the ecosystems, and planet Earth—do they belong to God? Or is all that “stuff” just the world, the place we are not of, the place we don’t truly belong? Christians disagree on this. Some say that God will redeem all of Creation. Some say we are commanded to be good stewards of God’s Earth today and to the end of time. Others say that Creation must be destroyed for the final judgment to happen and so who cares what happens to the world today? What parts of Creation are just “the world” and what still belongs to the God who made it all in Christ? Where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line?
From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son. Is it just Christians who belong to God and the rest of the world are a bunch of lost sinners—the kind that Noah’s Ark leaves behind to drown? Or are all people created in the likeness and image of God, and, therefore, all people belong to God and to nothing else? Humanity in general has certainly not yet made up its mind about who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving and who’s unworthy. We would hope that Christians would see all people as equally made and equally beloved, equally belonging to God, but it doesn’t always go that way.
So, it’s indisputably true: We are in the world. No one really denies that, as much as we might have wanted to over the last 14 months. Here we are. That’s true. And we are not of the world. That’s also true. We do not belong to Caesar, we do not belong to Pharaoh, and we render unto God. But this particular formulation (almost like a creed), “In the world, but not of it,” tempts us to be pessimistic and judgmental about the world and its inhabitants. It tempts us to believe that we are merely strangers in this place, just passing through—that the world doesn’t really matter, that the planet or that people different than us are just in the way somehow.
So, the question we must ask ourselves as Christians, who hold with the idea that we are in the world, but not of it, is this: Are we Christians less committed to the world and its people than others? And I think the way this old staple is strung together (in the world, but not of it), it’s tempting to deny our responsibility to the world and to our neighbors.
There are some truths which are more reliably true than others. And the truths that are most true will point us unfailingly in the right direction, headed toward our final goal. “In the world, but not of it,” cannot be an ultimate Christian formulation defining our relationship to the world because it lacks any kind of missional aspect. In fact, it can lead us away from the idea that we have a mission in the world at all. And how can you be a Christian without a mission? How can we be a church without a mission?
“In the world, but not of it,” seems to say that my being here in the world is just an accident. It just happens to be the lousy place I unfortunately find myself. And my job is to not let myself be tainted by the world too much, not to get too attached, so that when I die, I can float off to heaven unencumbered by this place and my time here.
But isn’t the very receipt of God’s grace in our lives simultaneously a call to action for us, a call to sacrifice, and a call to great expectations? Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
Listen again to the closing verses of our reading this morning, Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…” That’s not a mission. That’s just a statement of fact: We belong to God. Then Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Because much is expected of us and because a church must always be an organization with a clearly defined mission in the world, I think we need to turn this old saying around and redefine it. Instead of “In the world, but not of it,” I propose we say it this way: “Not of the world, but sent into it.”
Better yet, let’s try this: “We belong to God, and God is sending us into the world.” We are not of the world because we know that we belong to God alone (that’s where we begin), but precisely because of the grace we have received which has revealed the truth to us, we are being sent into the world to love it and to serve it without holding anything back—as if it were our very own. We’re even called to lay down our lives for one another—to serve and to love with a commitment that isn’t decreased by faith, but that’s made greater by it. That’s a mission! That is the end we must always reorient ourselves to! It is the best possible formulation of our future possibilities.
We belong to God alone, so we are being sent into the world with a purpose. The church is being sent into the world with a mission
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