John 17:6-19 | John 6:60-69
Over the past few weeks we’ve been exploring different big issues that confront us as a Church and as individual followers of Jesus in the modern world. We’ve talked about the fear that we, as an institution, are shrinking and irrelevant; and then explored how we might actually be uniquely well placed to find new ways of being the Church in the emerging, post institutional world.
Two weeks ago we thought about how we could balance our desire to respect and even learn from the religious experiences and traditions of our non-Christian friends and neighbours with our calling to stay true to the scandelous claims of the uniqueness of life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And then last week I sketched out why I believe that the Christian Church should be proud of, and an enthusiastic supporter of, the scientific exploration of God’s universe.
And all of these issues, and others raised in the feedback that I haven’t had the opportunity to address more directly, are facets of one, big question – how do we stay true to who we are in a society that does not value our faith?
How do we live as followers of Jesus in a post-Christian world?
But actually, there’s a question we need to answer before we can even ask that one, which is this: Why would we bother?
This is the question that really lies at the heart of our reading from John chapter 6. In response to some of Jesus’ harder words to understand and accept, some of Jesus’ followers start to wonder if they really want to hear any more; and many turn away and cease to follow him. Whatever it is that they have seen in Jesus, in his life, his teaching, his words of the Kingdom of God, isn’t enough to get them past the barriers to a genuine comittment to following him.
And that’s probably the way it should be. Jesus’ words offended some, shocked others, pushed yet others beyond the limits of what they were prepared to give. Those who stopped following when they heard what Jesus was saying, who said “this teaching is too hard”, at least proved that they were hearing what he had to say. In truth, if you’re not shocked and upset by Jesus’ words, at least some of the time, you’re probably not listening.
And, for that matter, if Jesus’ words are not clear and strong and, at times, hard, enough that some people will rebel against them, then I wonder if they are even worth listening to? If Jesus’ teaching can be reduced to what we sometimes refer to of as “Christian values” – being considerate, fair, generous, forgiving, kind – basically, being good citizens – then I’d have to wonder, firstly, why anyone would bother to kill him, and secondly, why anyone would bother to follow him.
Anyone whose teaching will inspire followers will also inspire opposition. Which I guess leads to my first observation about living as followers of Jesus in a post Christian world: that we ought not be afraid of people not liking what we have to say. That if we are true to the radical edge of Jesus’ teaching, there will be people offended or upset or even angered by what we have to say. If nothing in our faith invokes any emotional response – pro or anti – in those who hear it, then we have to wonder if we are true to the words of Jesus, whose words so divided those who heard him.
And we further have to wonder why anyone would bother to join us. Whether our desire to be nice and inoffensive so as not to drive anyone away from the Church has the reverse effect of giving no-one any reason to attend.
Of course, that’s not to say that we should be aiming to upset people, or that people taking offense is evidence that we are true to the gospel. Offense is not the end. But I wonder if we have allowed the faith to be an anaesthetic, when in truth it is a wake-up call.
And so Jesus turns to the twelve, and offers them the get-out. “What about you? Do you want to leave?”
I heard recently that the trendy online clothing company Zappos makes this offer to their new staff: once they finish their training, before they start work proper, they are offered a redundancy package. $3000 to leave at the end of training. The CEO explains the policy in these terms – if anyone would rather have the money than to work here, we don’t want them in the team. Jesus doesn’t offer the disciples a cash bonus, but he makes it easy for them. No threats or offers or promises if they stay. It falls to Peter to put into words what they all must have felt: “where would we go? you have the words of eternal life”.
You have the words of life. It is from you, in you, by you, that we can know what life really is. Life, as Jesus himself had put it, in all it’s fullness. Life abundant, in this age and the next.
And so if my first observation for living as followers of Jesus in a post-Christian culture was that we should not be afraid of people not always liking what we have to say as we echo the words of the kingdom, the second is this: that we must know and hold onto the value of what it is that we have received in our story, our tradition, our scriptures, our faith. Words of life. Eternal life, abundant life. Life worth living.
These are not words of incremental change, of marginal improvement, of a few tweaks to make life work better in the status quo.
These are words of life radically and revolutionarily different. Words that overthrow the tables in the temple. Words that raise up the downtrodden, set free the oppressed, heal the sick, comfort those who mourn, give hope to those who fear.
And so we come to the words that Jesus prayed, on the eve of his arrest and death – words he prayed for those who followed him. Words in which he seemed to be very well aware of the dilemma his followers would face. The dilemma of being in the world, but not of the world.
When I first started making my notes for what I would talk about each Sunday in September, and what reading would be appropriate, the theme that I jotted down for this week read “how do we respond to the call to be in the world but not of the world”. I had that in my mind right up until I reread the passages to write this sermon. It was then that I realised that Jesus words, which I’ve so often heard referred to, and have referred to myself, in those terms – our calling to be in the world but not of it – actually aren’t that at all. Jesus isn’t speaking to his disciples, telling them how they should be, he’s praying about how they are, and will be. That is to say – “in the world but not of the world” isn’t a calling, or a challenge: it’s a description. A fact.
Jesus prays “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world”. It’s not something we choose, or can unchoose. We are in the world. We are incarnate, physical beings who eat and drink and sleep; we are emotional beings who get sad and happy and angry; we are relational beings who have friends and enemies, families and lovers. And so Jesus goes on “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them”. Jesus is going to be taken out of the world – first by death, but finally by ascension; but he does not pray the same for us. Instead he prays “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”
This is the core of our being. This is the core of who we are and why we are as the Church. As the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sends us. To proclaim the kingdom. To upset the tables in the Temple. To reconcile enemies, to bring forgiveness to the sinner, to challenge the comfortable elite. To be hated – according to Jesus’ words – by the power of the world, as Jesus was hated.
But if our “in the worldness” is an undeniable physical fact, the other half of the equation is a statement of Christian hope: we do not belong to the world. Sent by Jesus, our strength, our authority, our value does not derive from the strengths, authorities, or value systems of the world.
They say that he who pays the piper calls the tune – politicians favour those who get them into power, companies shape their policies around where the money is coming from, research organisations are all too aware of what their financial backers hope to see.
And it’s not just about money – so many people seem to be driven by their need for reputation, their need to feel wanted, their need for security, their need to be successful – and are, in turn, owned by those who can provide those things for them. Your deepest motivations own you – as Jesus said, where you treasure is, your heart will be.
This then, is my third observation – we are in the world, part of it, inseparably bound into our communities and cultures, families and other networks – but those things do not own us. They do not define us, they do not control us. They do not have the ultimate power to make or break us.
We are the ones who, with Simon Peter, have seen that in the end, we have nowhere else to go. We do not belong to the world, for we are owned by another story, the story of God, of God’s people, of God’s kingdom; that story that we tell with our lives as we live in a world that keeps choosing to walk away; a world that God has never given up on.