Being in the world but not of the world?
Easter 7: 10th May, 2018
Fr Greg Davies, Priest Assisting at St Peters, Eastern Hill
Saying goodbye to family or friends — is never really easy especially if it is going to be for some time — especially it means there will be some distance and it is permanent — it means even with modern communication that the relationship in some way will change. This can be a time full of mixed emotions — but almost certainly there will be a good deal of concern for those whom you are leaving and a desire that they will be alright.
Perhaps there is something of this in Jesus' words from our gospel. What we have in this farewell speech from Jesus in John's gospel is a prayer, often referred to as his 'High Priestly Prayer' because of the intercessory quality of the petition. This prayer comes as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and although the context here is the preparation for the crucifixion, it is timely for us to reflect upon it in light of our celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord in this past week and preparation for the Day of Pentecost next Sunday. In both contexts Jesus will be leaving his disciples and in this prayer we receive absolute assurance of Jesus' love and care for those disciples and for their well-being after his death and resurrection together with the task and challenge they will have to face in the call to discipleship and being sent out into the world.
And so what we learn from this prayer of Jesus is that the call to discipleship is first and foremost from God and that as a part of that call as disciples we have the privilege of knowing God's truth in Jesus Christ. In other words we are so caught up with God in Christ that what we hear from our Lord is profound divine concern for our welfare, especially in terms of the difficult context in which the disciples in Jesus' time faced and as we do now in our own time albeit in a very different way.
And that context is made clear when Jesus says "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. I am not asking you to take them out of the world ..." In these words we learn again I think that as disciples of Jesus we will find ourselves [if we are faithful to that call] to be in some way or measure out of step with the world at large — we will indeed be in that place where we don't quite fit in because of our faith in Christ, because of the way of life that Christ calls us to live. And that way of life means taking a stand on issues that will be anything but popular or politically correct. This is what it means not to belong to the world but still to be very much in it. Recent examples that come to mind — are indeed those of homelessness in our city and we are only too aware of that here at St Peter's but then also those of refugees — those who are left in limbo for years be it here in Australia or on Manus or Naru ... where the principle of the 'ends justifies the means' seems to what currently rules government thinking and policy.
But taking a stand or speaking out is not confined to public or government policy but it is also expressed by each of us in the everyday priorities that we give to worship, prayer and care for those around us — when we are challenged to put those things first and say no to the pressures and demands of the culture, the workplace or even our family at times. This is not easy and in fact it can be somewhat dangerous — for remember as Jesus said in his prayer: "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." The subtext here is that the disciples will face the same opposition and dangers that Jesus himself has confronted and there is no escaping that reality.
And yet, I believe we can both cope with and confront that opposition or rejection because we do so in the sure knowledge that we do this with the prayer and presence of Christ. We can do this with the confidence and the security that this is what we are called to do as Jesus' disciples.
The other aspect of this prayer of Jesus and its implication for us as disciples is that of 'unity'. Jesus prays not only for our protection but for our unity, a unity that is to reflect the unity of Christ and the Father. How is this possible given all the divisions that seem to plague the Christian Church both within various denominations [including our own] as well as across the different traditions? The church seems at its worst when bickering and division hit the headlines and only go to set back the proclamation of the gospel. On the other hand, the church is equally at its best when different churches, traditions and expressions of the Christian Faith can work together, share resources and attend to the needs of the most vulnerable and powerless within our community or even call on our society to account for its actions — and indeed protest and work for change and justice where it is clearly needed — where the Church can speak and act with one united voice.
However, this unity that we as disciples of Christ are called to live out does not mean uniformity and universal agreement. I don't believe it means that we cannot have different perspectives, understandings and expressions of our common call to discipleship. That is a part of being human. But when we allow our differences and disagreements to dominate, distort or distract from our common goal of witnessing to the good news in Jesus, then we fail in discipleship. When these differences are allowed to become the governing factor of the relationship, then more than often that relationship suffers and it shows in how we treat one another be it with arrogance or hostility. When people of faith behave like this what actually happens is we end up colluding with the way of the world — we then fit in so well to the ever familiar factional power games that dominate our society at all levels. This is just so tempting and for us perhaps it is what Jesus' means I think when he prays to the Father to protect his disciples from the evil one.
The call to be in but not of the world, together with the call of Jesus to show unity challenges each and every one of us to ask where is it in my life, work, family or community do I stand up or stand out for my faith? Where and when do I take the risk of saying no or saying 'just hold it' to the world around us and question, probe or protest because whatever is happening goes against what we can best discern Jesus' teaches and shows? Jesus calls us to do just that! So the declaration that has sent out his followers in the same way that God has sent him is an admission that we too as his disciples will face some kind of negative reaction, derision, rejection or even just dismissal — as we stand up and stand out for gospel values. And we can actually do this because — as it was for Jesus himself so it is for us — a mission given to us by God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.