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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

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United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


In But Not Of the World

John 17:6-19

7th Sunday of Easter - Year B

May 24, 2009

In today's passage, John 17, Jesus is praying.  Now this isn't Jesus' last prayer, but it's the last one the disciples actually heard.  When he prayed in agony, "Let this cup pass from me--yet not my will but your will be done," they had fallen asleep; and when he cried out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" they had forsaken him, fearing for their own safety.

Their sorry performance makes Jesus' prayer in John 17 all the more poignant.  The disciples had always wanted in on Jesus' prayer life:  you couldn't miss his passionate intimacy with God, and they had said probably more than once, "Lord, teach us to pray."  But in the shadows, on that last night after supper, Jesus wasn't teaching them to pray, but he was praying for them--right in front of them.

Aware that these are his final hours, Jesus admits to God, "I am no longer in this world, but they are."  This must have dizzied the disciples with confusion, these dark hints, and they no doubt would have clung to him if they had really understood.  His words underline a huge problem:  Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are.  An immense sadness hangs over the surviving disciples, and really over us, who probably feel on our own down here with Jesus not in this world.  We wish Jesus' body were still on this earth--but then this very wish gets transformed into our vocation, our commissioning.  Jesus' body is no longer here, but Jesus' body is very much here.  We are the body of Christ.  Teresa of Avila said "Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world, yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now."

Yikes!  That's a tall order.  Jesus should have left his future presence down here in more capable hands than ours!  We're just not all that special. We feel no miraculous power coursing through our veins, our brains get blurry, we're tired, we're stressed, we're just so very...pedestrian, flat--footed, mortal...human.  Had I been in that room with Jesus, I might have interrupted his prayer and pleaded for more truth in advertising, especially when he said to God, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world..."  But we do belong to the world!  We don't want out of the world, and we're very much in it, up to our necks as it turns out.  Even those of us who listen to sermons on the radio, or who preach them, are zealous participants in this world, barely distinguishable from anybody else, our faith pasted flimsily on the outside of an otherwise normal existence.  We're in the world, and of the world, as best I can tell.

I heard a sermon when I was in college, and all I can recall is the stern admonition of the preacher:  "You are to be in the world, but not of the world."  I also recall my abject failure to fulfill that commandment.  I tried not being materialistic, I tried harboring only holy thoughts, I tried to witness, I tried to pray for more than 24 seconds.  I'm in the world, and of it, and I can't seem to extricate myself.  But as I have the advantage over you listeners of having John 17 in front of me in print, I notice Jesus did not issue a commandment:  "Be in the world, but not of the world!"  He wasn't even talking to the disciples.  He was talking to God, he was praying.  And if I fall on my knees or lift my head and talk to God about this "in not of" business, it becomes a humble confession, and perhaps even my deepest yearning.  I can't get it done, but I can lay my failure on the altar of God's heart, at the foot of Jesus' cross--and I can express my longing, my truest desire.  This is my prayer, to be in but not of the world.

Jesus wasn't really praying for just me, though.  He was praying for them, for all of us thems:  he was praying for the Church.  We are not very holy, but we can at least pray.  St. Augustine said, "Whenever I have described the Church as being without spot or wrinkle, I have not intended to imply it was like this already, but that it should prepare itself to be without spot or wrinkle, when the Church too will appear in glory."

So we will be "of" the world, sadly but hopefully, until we are no longer "in" the world.  So what do we do in the meantime?  Jesus prayed one more intriguing phrase:  "Sanctify them in truth."  Truth is elusive in our day--there's just so much BS flying around--and then sanctification!  Holiness can feel smug, stuffy, or like some rigid fossil from our religious past.  Lots of Christians do believe that faith should impinge on the real world and change us--but we focus almost exclusively on missions.  We'll give a cup of water to the thirsty, we'll serve food at the shelter, we'll send teams to Haiti, we'll contribute to a fund for homeless children--all very good, except atheists do similar things; and maybe Jesus was praying for the disciples to be holy, not do-gooders, but holy in their souls, in the privacy of their minds, in their habits.

I stumbled on something important not long before Lent this year.  Rambling through a sermon one morning, I simply added, "You know, in our community we drink too much."  I could see in people's faces that I had touched some hidden wound; I'd exposed a real problem.  Lots of conversation ensued--and then I got my most brilliant idea in a long time.  The Sunday before Lent, I said, "Christians historically have given up something for Lent.  What if we give up alcohol--just as an experiment?"  I told how I'd suggested this to one man who said, "I couldn't do that...," and I said, "Well, maybe that's a clue."  It's not that Christians must be teetotalers.  Maybe you've heard the old joke about the person who asked the minister, "Can Methodists drink?" and he replied "The answer is the same as to the question, 'Can Methodists dance?'  The answer is, 'Some can, some can't.'"  Alcohol does play this massive role in our lives, often usurping the role the Holy Spirit ought to play:  we think we need alcohol to laugh, to enjoy each other's company, to cope with a bad day, to get to sleep at night.  Try not drinking for just 40 days.

Then there's the clever part of my idea:  I told them, "Every time you'd drink something, a cocktail before dinner, picking up a bottle of wine in the grocery store, filling a cooler for a basketball viewing party, take the money you would have spent and stuff it in a jar.  We'll call it the "Spirit" fund, and use it during these awful economic times to help people in dire need.  Hundreds joined me, and we raised over $100,000.

It's just a small step, it's just a sip, a season of being a little less of the world while still living in the world.  What was lovely was that there was no undertone of condemnation of anybody.  Christians are in the world, not to condemn the world, but to love the world.  And how do we who are in the world but long to be not so much of the world actually love the world?  We don't wag fingers, we don't pronounce judgment; we don't take over, we don't brush crumbs off the table to hungry dogs.  We love--perhaps the way Jean Vanier described love:  "to love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude, 'You are beautiful.  You are important.  I trust you.  You can trust yourself.'  We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves.  To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them."

Jesus prayed and revealed the beauty in the disciples, and in us--not their ability or strength or perfection, but their beauty.  There's one more thing about that beauty, if you'll hang with me a few more minutes.  "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."  Jesus didn't ask God to protect us from evil or to protect us from bad things happening.  We're not so good at identifying what's bad and what isn't bad anyhow, but I think it's important to think about this issue of God and whether we're protected from bad things happening, or even whether God causes bad things to happen.  I've just published a book on this called The Will of God, and the real reason I wrote it is because I have heard so many half-truths, so many words that are lovingly intended but still are crass lies about God, that I wanted to think out loud with people about ways to be in the world, where we have cancer, car crashes, hurricanes, terrorists, an abysmal economy, and homeless children, but not to be of the world in the way we try to make sense of it.

Let's be clear:  God doesn't sow cancer cells in people's bodies, God doesn't crash planes into buildings, God doesn't prescribe one child to live under a bridge while my children are in soft beds.  God is not in control, or let's say, God does not choose to be in control--because God is love, and love just can't or won't control.  Paul says, "Love does not insist on its own way."  God could have made us like marionettes, so God could manipulate us and everything to suit God.  But God yearns for our love, and cuts the strings, risking the wounds Jesus was about to incur when he prayed for us.  

Understandably, we want everything to go smoothly for us and others, and we associate God with all that is good.  But God is the Lord of everything, and in the shadows of that very dark room where Jesus prayed by flickering candlelight for his disciples, we realize he was about to suffer, and the ones he prayed for would suffer too, as all of us face difficulties, some are manageable, some are overwhelming.  But Jesus did not promise or even pray for a bubble of safety to envelop us.  In my book, I shared a profound, somewhat lengthy, but marvelously true, sanctifying, hopeful passage from Karl Barth:

Light exists as well as shadow.  Creation has not only a positive but also a negative side.  It belongs to the essence of creaturely nature, and is indeed a mark of its perfection, that it has in fact this negative side.  In creation there is not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not only beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end.  In the existence of man there are hours, days and years both bright and dark, success and failure, laughter and tears, youth and age, gain and loss, birth and sooner or later, death.  In all of this, creation praises its Creator and Lord even on its shadowy side.  For all we can tell, may not His creatures praise Him more mightily in humility than in exaltation, in need than in plenty, in fear than in joy?  May not we ourselves praise Him more purely on bad days than on good, more surely in sorrow than in rejoicing, more truly in adversity than in progress?  If there may be praise of God from the abyss, night and misfortune... how surprised shall we be, and how ashamed of so much unnecessary disquiet and discontent, once we are brought to realize that all creation both as light and shadow, including our own share in it, was laid on Jesus Christ, and that even though we did not see it, while we were shaking our heads that things were not very different, it sang the praise of God just as it was, and was therefore right and perfect.

In, not of the world; sanctify them in truth.  The truth of the universe is the body, mind, and heart of Jesus.  We are not holy, but we can love, and wherever we find ourselves as individuals, and as the Church, the body, we can say, "In this place, Christ is loved, and you are loved."  We rather feebly reach out to your wounds, and we get it, for we are wounded ourselves, and we touch, and we pray, although our prayers may avail little, we know that Jesus prayed so the disciples could see him pray, and he still prays for us now, right now, in heaven, and that is the truth that sanctifies, that is our vocation in the world we are in, and of, but maybe not so much of as we might be.

Amen.


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