Psalm 1 | John 17:6-19
In the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some of what is normally called the “farewell discourse” – Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, as recorded by the author of John’s gospel, immediately before he was arrested and taken away to be tried and executed. We’ve seen over the past couple of weeks over and again Jesus speaking of the disciples “abiding in him”, and then going on to teach them that if they love, like he loved, they will be in him, and he will be in them, just as God the Father was in Jesus and Jesus in God.
And as we’ve explored those words it’s seemed to me that this is one of those places where we – at least, I, with my analytical science sort of background – are in danger of overthinking things. Of analysing the logic and the words to the nth degree, and missing the underlying poetry of the words:
abide in me and I abide in you
if you obey my commandments you will abide in me
and this is my commandment: love one another
Today we jump ahead a chapter or so, into the middle of a prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples.
And, given that the chapter begins with a description of Jesus praying these words out loud, it seems clear that he prayed them wanting his disciples to hear them, wanting them to know just what it was that he was asking for them.
And it’s a long prayer, so we’re really not going to be able to get into everything that it has to offer; I’m just going to focus in on the bit that jumped out at me when I read the passage earlier this week.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
And what struck me as I read this was that it’s a very odd thing for Jesus to say just before he is taken away from his disciples and put to death. I mean, as they reflected back upon these words in the 24 or 48 hours to come, having seen Jesus taken and killed in a particularly unpleasant way, they would be hearing these words: “the world has hated them”. Not exactly words of reassurance, no “she’ll be right” here. No, we have “they are about to kill me, and, oh, by the way, they hate you too”
There is a brutal, uncompromising honesty here in Jesus’ prayer – a reality, for, if the traditions of early Church are correct, every one of these men would end up being killed because of their commitment to following Jesus.
Jesus refuses to give them cheap peace; cheap comfort. The nearest he will go is to assure them that what they face they face for good reason; for the same reason that he faces it.
the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world
Which leads me on to a couple more questions:
What does it mean to belong, or not belong, to the world?
And… more disturbing to me, if the world doesn’t hate us, does that mean we do belong to it? ‘Cause that doesn’t sound like the way we ought to be…
Quite often in the run up to Easter I’ve spoken about the crucifixion of Jesus in these terms: that Jesus’ commitment to love was so absolute, so uncompromising, that it ended up getting him killed. That if you love the way God loves, in the end, the powers that rule this world will want to get rid of you.
Crucifixion is what happens when you love. But not when we love. The sort of love we seem to specialise in never gets you killed, or hated, or even disliked
Now a fairly common direction for a sermon to take at this point would be to start talking about the way that the Church (or most of the Churches, and most of the people in them), have gone so far in the effort to be inoffensive that they no longer stand for anything; and that this is why no-one hates them, and also why they are fading into irrelevancy.
And I think there is probably something in that line of thinking. The only problem is that the step after that seems to be to say “and if the Church’s problem is that we have become inoffensive, the obvious, logical, response is to go out of our way to offend.” To pick a fight, to start a culture war. This is the logic that leads to Westboro Baptist – Fred Phelps (until his recent death the leader of that group) referred to the negative response to his Church picketing the funerals of victims of AIDS as “proof of his righteousness”.
The truth is, sometimes when you are offending people, it’s not because you are righteous, it’s just because you are being a … (sorry, I can’t think of a good word to finish that sentence that I’m comfortable using in public)…. because you are being offensive.
Perhaps the only thing worse that the world ignoring the Church is the world is the world hating us, and us deserving it.
I don’t think that the analysis that says that our problem is that we’ve just become too nice, too inoffensive, too unwilling to ever say anything anyone might disagree with is wrong: I think that’s exactly the problem.
But too often our mistake is in what we choose to make a fuss about. Because surely what we ought to do is look at what things Jesus spoke against, and what the prophets who came before him spoke against.
And when you look for the subjects that come up again and again in our scriptures as making God angry, it’s not homosexuality. It’s not scripture in schools or prayers in schools. It’s not Muslim immigration. It’s not drug injecting rooms. Or women wearing headscarfs. Or teaching of evolution.
The themes which come up over and again in the condemnation of Christ at the prophets:
abuse of power
the protection of the status quo at the expense of justice
the rich taking advantage of the poor
the destruction of creation in the cause of profit
These are the things that made the prophets of God angry; and they are also the things that speaking against will earn you the enmity of the world.
Because the world, in the idiom of Jesus, doesn’t just mean ‘everyone else’ or ‘people in general’. The world refers specifically to those who hold on to power, and to the structures and systems and stories that keep them in power.
In Jesus’ day, that meant the power of Rome, and the military and economic might that protected it; and the power of the Temple authorities, and the social and religious structures that protected them.
Jesus himself spent a long time healing and teaching and generally being good, without getting into trouble. But it was overturning the tables in the temple, preaching against the religious elite, and being seen as a threat to the authority of Rome that got him killed.
The call of the Christian gospel that gets us into trouble is the call that challenges the assumptions that underlie our world, just as Jesus challenged the assumptions that underlay his world.
The assumption that maximizing growth is the prime goal of our economic system.
The assumption that it is ok for us in the developed world to consume far more that our share of the world’s resources, because we have somehow ‘earned’ them.
The assumption that solving global problems such as climate change is someone else’s problem.
The assumption that we have the right to protect our standard of living by reducing the assistance we give to those who are barely able to survive.
The assumption that enemies must be fought and defeated.
The assumption that protecting our borders against those who would seek our help is so important that it trumps all questions of justice, charity, or basic human rights.
Start challenging those assumptions – each of which is clearly contrary to the teaching of Jesus – and you perhaps we will start to know what he meant when he said “the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world”
As Bishop Camara famously noted: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
It may be that there are worse things to be called.