Tell me if you have heard this before: As Christians, should be in the world, but not of the world.” Is that something you have heard before?
The saying comes from the King James translation of today’s lectionary passage from John’s Gospel, which renders verse 14, “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” I am going to restrain myself from going into the translational history, other than to say that the English bibles that translate this verse to say that the disciples and Jesus are “not of the word” are more literal translations, but I think they lose a piece of the meaning that “do not belong to the world” is trying to recapture.
This passage in John’s Gospel, part of a longer prayer that occupies most of the seventeenth chapter, is not the only place Jesus draws distinctions between God and the world. Another phrase that is probably familiar to most of you is “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” a phrase Jesus uses to introduce many of his parables. Over the centuries of translation and changing contexts, we might have lost the comparison Jesus is making because we do not think of Rome as a kingdom, but as an empire. Jesus,the gospel writers, and their contemporaries would not have made that distinction, as the Greek phrase behind “Kingdom of God” (βασιλεία τοῦ θεου/Basilea tou Theou) is a parallel to the phrase used to describe the government of Rome (βασιλεία Ῥωμαῖον/Basilea Romaion), and so when Jesus says “The kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of heaven) is like…” his audience, and the first people to hear and read the gospels, would have known Jesus is drawing a contrast between God and Rome.
This, too, is how we should understand Jesus talk of “the world” in his prayer in John. This is the last prayer Jesus shares with his disciples before his arrest in John’s timeline. Jesus knows he is about to be arrested and executed by the Romans, which is why is prays as if her were already gone, switching into the past tense, saying, “while I was with them, I protected them in your name…”
Jesus knew what we who have closely read the Gospels know: the disciples are not perfect people. They frequently struggle to understand Jesus message precisely because they are still bound up in the thinking of empire. They are still steeped and surrounded by a world that defines success by status and power by force. Many are still waiting for Jesus to start the revolt that will lead to a military defeat of Rome, and continue to struggle with the idea that anything can be accomplished without the threat of the sword, and so Jesus prays for their protection, prays that they will not continue to be dominated by the ways and expectations of the world, that they will not be lead into error by temptation to power. This is why Jesus prays not only for their protection from the world, but for their sanctification. Jesus prays: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
I think we often fail to understand sanctification. We turn it into holiness, which we turn into purity, which we define in the negative sense. Too often, our culture defines holiness or purity by the refusal to participate in, well, “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” We reduce holiness to abstinence and then we hear things like “Be in the world and not of the world” and decide we need to define ourselves against those aspects of the world that we, as Christians, decide we do not like.
There are good reasons not to have casual sex, not to drink alcohol, not to smoke, well, anything really. Maybe there are even good reasons not to listen to rock ‘n’ roll, or other genres of popular music, though, I do not know what they are and I’m not giving it up.
If abstaining from all or some of those things helps you, please, continue to do so.
What we cannot do is think that just abstaining from certain things is enough. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking those are the things that sanctify us.
First, because when we do fall into that trap, we usually end up becoming very judgmental of others in a way that does not help them. We become more interested in proving our superiority, in proving that we are better Christians, better neighbors, better people.
When we do that, we are recreating exactly the kind of thinking that Jesus so often complains about.
We think that we are more deserving of God’s love and grace than others and forget that grace is God’s gift bestowed freely on us all.
We think that we are qualified to reach for the speck in someone else’s eye while we ignore the logs in our own.
We think that because we speak, think, act, or vote a certain way, we have an exclusive claim on the truth, forgetting that truth belongs to God and is greater than our comprehension.
We hear sanctification and think that we should separate ourselves from the world, and so we build walls, but Jesus says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
Our sanctification, our separation from the world is not for our benefit, but for the world’s because just as Jesus was sent into the world for us, we are sent into the world for others, and so it is not enough to be separate, it is not enough to decline to participate in things we do not like. We must think not only about what is good for us, but about what is good for the world.
So friends, may we be sanctified, may we be separated from more than sinful habits, but from sinful modes of thought, from sinful ideas of status and power. May we be holy, not only in how we treat ourselves, but in how we treat all others, trusting in God’s protection as we let go of the tools of empire, power, and domination so that we may welcome others as God has welcomed us.