Tuesday, May 8, 2018

In The World But Not Of It

I think most people's favorite color is blue. I think most people prefer Coke over Pepsi. (Sorry, Matt Dukes.) I think most people like John's gospel account the best. And I also think that most of them have never had to write a sermon on Jesus' so-called "high priestly prayer" in John 17. Is there anything more circular and tedious? Give me narrative. Give me action. I'll even take a parable. But "I give them what you give me because you gave me what I give them so that they might have me and in me have you and through you have us together" is enough to drive this preacher up the wall.

I'm not preaching this week, and, for that, I'm thankful. But, if I were preaching this week, I'd preach on the election of Matthias as Judas' replacement. But, if I lost a bet and had to preach on John 17:6-19, I would focus on the concept of being in the world but not from it because that's a Christian identity that seems largely lost on 21st-century Alabamians, especially this Episcopalian.

Praying for his disciples, Jesus says to the Father, "...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." His disciples do not belong to the world, yet Jesus does not ask the Father to take them out of the world. That presents at least two challenges for contemporary Christians.

Are we not of the world? What does that mean? Flipping through the channels last night, I saw the first few minutes of Kinsey, the biopic about Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher. It was a scene in which his father, played by John Lithgow, is lecturing (preaching?) about the evils of modern inventions. Electricity has led to dirty moving pictures. Telephones have made it possible for young ladies to hear the voices of their suitors right on their pillows. And zippers have given men and boys unfettered access to moral depravity. I don't know the context of the lecture in the film, but it's clear from the scene that this conservative Christian believes that followers of Jesus should refuse to modernize for the sake of their faith. I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.

We are not commanded to become unworldly. We are, by virtue of our identity as followers of Jesus, already unworldly. We needn't look for opportunities to turn our back on innovation. But we need to remember that we do not belong here. We are, as the name of this blog implies, a long way from our true home. But I have a hard time knowing what that means, and I surely hope (and firmly believe) that it doesn't mean we should live as the Amish or Mennonites do. Is there a healthier, more balanced way for us to embrace our other-worldly identity than to give up on motorcars, electricity, telephones, and zippers? How might I preach that other-worldly identity without sounding like Kinsey's father?

The other danger, which remains manifest in Christian culture, is the escapist approach to salvation. For many, belonging to Jesus is primarily expressed in a hope for a ticket off this planet and into heaven. But that's not Jesus' hope. He doesn't ask his Father to take us out of this world but to protect us in it. We don't belong to the world, but we belong here among it until God completes its transformation, which has begun in the exaltation of God's Son, Jesus Christ. We are to stay in the world where we don't really belong and participate in that transformation as those who have been set apart--sanctified--in God's truth. How might I preach about staying in the world without being of the world?

Given my antipathy toward this Sunday's gospel lesson, I suspect that God is calling me to spend more time reading, studying, and, when Sunday comes, listening to it and to the sermon that will be preached.

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