There is a question running through the gospel reading this morning (John 17:6-19) about how we relate to the world. How does Christian faith respond to or live with the world? The passage we heard is part of a long prayer of Jesus for his disciples and his reflection on what is to come as he is about to embrace the final journey to the cross. After this he is arrested and a sequence of events is set in train that leads to his death and he seems to know this. So he is anguished for his disciples, whom he knows he is leaving behind and it is natural to wonder what will become of them. Will they hold true to all that he has been trying to instill in them? Will they hold to the love and power of the good news he brought, or buckle and fall in line with the expectations of the world around them? And so, the central question running though this passage.
At one moment Jesus seems to be saying that there is to be a separation between them and the world, where the world is seen as being something distinct from those who follow Jesus (v9b), something to be protected from (v12). It seems to be the territory of the ‘evil one’ (v15). Jesus’ followers do not belong to the world (v16). In the next breath they are not to be taken out of the world (v15) and indeed are being sent into it (v18). So what are we to make of this and how should we approach what is being referred to here as ‘the world’? What is to be our approach as we hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world that doesn’t always share the same assumptions or indeed understand them?
There have been a number of responses by Christian writers and thinkers over the centuries to this question and we find them in various guises now. At the two extremes are what I will characterize as at one end the megaphone approach and at the other the dog which roles over for its tummy to be tickled. The megaphone is shouty and proclaims loudly and without any reference to the thought patterns or arguments put to it. It sees itself as being distinct and the only really valid approach to the world is to mark out the clear distinction. At its extremes it uses the image of the Ark, where the drawbridge is to be raised so that the church, the Christian community, becomes a place of safety and protection, of remote holiness unbothered by the corruption outside. This starts to be seen when we hear claims that the church has to make sure it doesn’t bow to the ‘spirit of the age’, or sell out to modernity. It needs to proclaim a distinct Christian gospel and not have any truck with all this modern immorality and betrayal of truth.
It won’t be a surprise that I find this wanting. It doesn’t do justice to how life really is. And sets up a false barrier that we don’t need in those terms. It is also not incarnational, where God chooses to come among us in Jesus Christ and share the space with all sorts of surprising people as he walks and talks. Jesus is challenged for doing precisely this when he parties with tax officials, publicans and others of questionable character. The world is where we are and we have to relate to it just as Jesus related to it, indeed came precisely to do this. We are made of the same substance, so can’t ignore it. It is who we are and in that sense we belong to it. Hold that one, though, for a moment because that is not the complete picture.
The other extreme is the dog who roles over for its tummy to be tickled. This is where we so assimilate our thinking that there is no distinction at all with secular and other thought. We have nothing to contribute because all our reference points come from the same shared space as our culture and how the modern age sees it. The dog has lost its teeth so has no bite to offer. This is an ultra liberal agenda and I find it wanting for locking itself in the confines of the here and now, with no reference to anything beyond. While we live in the world and are made of the same substance, share the same cultural influences, we have a gospel to proclaim and that carries elements that look outside of what is current and popular. There is something counter cultural about the gospel. So I’m not content with the tummy tickled dog rolled over on its back either.
Another approach takes a midpoint, where profound faith becomes the lens through which we view and assimilate, access other disciplines and views. This is summed up well in a phrase from an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. He talked about ‘faith seeking understanding’, where being in the world, the world we seek to understand, we owe our true allegiance to a creator who stands beyond it, indeed on whom it depends. And it is the perspective of eternity that we use to try to understand, drawing on all of the disciplines that we can access in this: science, history, sociology, psychology, medicine to name a few. Faith seeks understanding in being the profound confidence and trust in God, and this being the solid ground from which intellectual enquiry and reflection is launched. We view the world through the eyes of faith and in that we seek to understand the world God made, cares for and loves. It is by no means merely a bolt on optional extra, which can be ignored or sidelined. It is central to the enquiry and the quest for understanding.
With this approach, when Jesus prays for protection it is a prayer for a profound rooting and grounding in the presence and reality of God. Strengthened and protected by this we have nothing to fear in where intellectual enquiry might lead us, even if it brings profound challenge to where we might be at the moment. And that is why the gospel is radical, because it takes us to the core of who we are and who we might become. It doesn’t just lock us in to where we are, or indeed seek to leave us where we are, but transform us in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
On Friday I had the privilege to host Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he came to the Cathedral to talk about a past Dean, who was also one of his predecessors as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. During this he talked about education and one of its purposes being to equip people to ask lots of awkward questions. We do not want a civil society that is compliant and docile. We want one which requires those we elect to give account and justify what they do. It also needs to be grown up and recognize the difficult decisions they have to make and the limitations of their options. Too much of our politics is narrow and blinkered at the moment and only looks at questions in isolation, failing to join up the dots. It is one which seems to fit well with the megaphone that shouts without taking account of the context in which it is set and we need one which is more grown up.
So when Jesus prays that his disciples will be protected from the world, he also expects them to stay in the world and struggle with it and all it brings their way. Their faith is to seek understanding, their faith is to protect them from being lost and give them teeth when they need it to provide bite so that they have something to say and offer. Christ came into the world and did not stand aloof from it. Indeed he was about to embrace its pain and suffering in the rawest way that he could, on the cross. As we stand in these days between Ascension and Pentecost we can reflect on the challenge to be of the world and yet know that we view it with a perspective drawn from beyond it, even more deeply in it than the superficial. We are to be ‘sanctified in truth’ (v19).
We both belong to the world, for that is where we are and it gives form to our physicality, and we are not bound by it, for faith gives us a perspective drawn from eternity that seeks to be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. We are not restricted to whatever is fashionable, but also take the best of other disciples seriously. Faith is the place from which we seek understanding; it is not merely a bolt on optional extra.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 13th May 2018