Sermon: Not of this World

This sermon was presented along with a slide show, which provided a lot of the “text” for the sermon. I have tried to include as many links to these images as I can; feel free to imagine the rest!

John 17:6-19

It has been fun to hear people’s reaction to this passage from John this week. That reaction can be summed up in one word: Huh?  You may have felt that yourself when you just heard it. I mean, it sort of sounds profound, but it doesn’t really make sense. It reminds me of the opening lyrics from the song “I am the Walrus” by the Beatles: 

I am he as you are he as you are me

and we are all together


Having said this, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I believe this passage does have something to say to us. But like most Biblical texts, it takes some mining to find the gold. So, let’s dig in. By the way, I decided to turn this sermon into a slide show today. Feel free to let me know if you love it or hate it.

I want to give some context to this passage. It’s a part of a larger passage in John chapters that are referred to as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” This “Farewell Discourse” takes place right after the disciples have met in the Upper Room on what we now call Maundy Thursday — the night before Jesus is killed by the Roman state. Jesus and his followers have just eaten together; he’s washed their feet; he’s promised his disciples that the Holy Sprit will be with them; he’s given his loved ones words of instruction and comfort; and, in our passage for today, he’s praying for them. Jesus knows his time is running out, and he’s trying to impart everything he can to his friends to help them get through what’s coming, when he will no longer be with them.

Jesus is especially concerned about how to protect them from what he calls “the world,” this world, he says, that hates them because they don’t belong to it, just as he doesn’t belong to it. Unfortunately, Christians have interpreted this language that runs throughout John — this us vs. the world language — in ways that are very problematic and don’t reflect the real meaning of the text. The word “world” has been interpreted to mean the planet, this earth to which we don’t belong. This leads to the dangerous belief that Geoff Martin preached about on May 2, in which Christians are encouraged to think of this earth as something we’re just passing through, as a place that will pass away once Jesus returns, as something we really don’t have to struggle to care for — a belief which flies in the face of the Biblical attitude toward creation.  As one theologian said, this interpretation denies that everything that lives on earth is a gift from God. “The consequence of this thinking is serious: if we are not from this world, what is the point of caring and fighting for the life of the planet? In fact, the end of this world must entail the destruction of nature, for it is a sign that the end of time is near, that God’s (kingdom) and Jesus’ arrival is at hand.” 

This attitude is summed up in a t-shirt my conservative cousins used to wear in the 1970s. The 70s were when the modern mainstream environmental movement was born, and corporations marketed earth-friendly shampoos to folks, as they do today. One of those was called Earth Born. It was very popular. I used it. I especially liked the “apple green” fragrance. My cousins used to wear a t-shirt that riffed on this popular shampoo brand. It said: “Earth born but heaven bound.”  I “read” the t-shirt as meaning — don’t bother taking care of the earth, we’re just passing through on the way to our real home. And, yes, this t-shirt is being sold for $100 on ebay today.

This is notwhat John means when he talks about how Jesus and his disciples do not belong to this world. The world that they don’t belong to is the world created by the Roman Empire, according to Scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook. This Empire that goes around conquering nations and subjugating people groups, like the Jews. This Empire that delivers goodies — wealth and luxury — to a small group of elites on the backs of exploited peasants, artisans, day laborers and slaves, groups who make up almost two-thirds of the population. This Empire that squashes any resistance to it through their military might and state violence like crucifixions. This Empire that has a sophisticated propaganda machine that obscures the truth of this violence and this exploitation. 

Part of the way the Roman Empire did this is through “bread and circuses.” That phrase comes from the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal, who said “Give them — meaning the public — bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” What he meant is that the rulers of Rome appeased the non-elite public — who night normally rise up against them — by giving them a daily grain dole or actual bread and through lavish entertainment spectacle like circuses, gladiator contests, etc. The famous Roman statesman Cicero said “The evil was not in bread and circuses per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games, which would distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”

Let’s talk a little more about Roman propaganda. Earlier in John, Jesus tells his disciples that he is leaving them with his peace:Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (14:27). The world’s peace to which Jesus alludes, says Howard-Brook, is the Pax Romana, which is Latin for “Roman peace.”The Roman Empire’s biggest propaganda claim was that they had brought peace to the Mediterranean region, where formerly there had been a long history of local warfare. Because of this peace that the Empire brought, the story goes, trade flourished, roads and aqueducts were built, the arts thrived, and new, gleaming cities came into being. Indeed, Roman technology and arts were impressive feats. And some residents of the Empire — mainly residents of the major cities as well as some provincial elites — did enjoy a high standard of living.

But those people who lived in the hinterlands, such as the Jews in Palestine, were having a very different experience of Empire. A historian notes that the Pax Romana simply transferred “war and its evil consequences to the periphery.” (From Howard-Brook) Meaning away from Rome and the major cities of the Empire to peripheral “sacrifice zones.” Those places where people sometimes literally slaved away farming or working in the mines extracting the gold and copper and limestone and marble needed for all those beautiful gleaming buildings and works of art. The famous Roman poet Horace actually names this explicitly when he says that the Pax Romana shall “ward off tearful war, wretched plague and famine from the folk and from our sovereign Caesar, and send those woes against the Parthian and the Briton.” Parthians were a group of people the Romans conquered in what is now Iran, and the Briton, of course, refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain. In fact, if you are of European or Jewish descent — or any of the places conquered by Rome — many of your ancestors may have been the conquered people of the Roman Empire, perhaps the ones living in the hinterlands and workingback-breaking hours in the fields so that most of  the harvest could be sent to the elites in the cities while your own children may have been on the edge of starvation. 

Says Howard-Brook: “Jerusalem’s elite, like the urban provincial elite throughout the empire, saw this Pax Romana as a divine gift. However, ordinary (Jewish) people did not see it this way, as revealed by constant acts of rebellion and resistance.” In fact, Jesus’ disciples included among them two Zealots, a Jewish sect that was one of the groups actively resisting the Roman Empire. 

So, let’s hear this verse from John again: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”  This world is the one that gives a peace — a Pax Romana — based on violence and lies. Jesus does not give this false peace; Jesus gives true peace because Jesus’ peace is grounded in God’s dream of a world where people live in right relationship with God, with each other, with creation, with themselves. It is a world where all are welcome equally and all are seen as valuable.  It is a world where there is abundance for all because the gifts of the earth are equitably shared. This is the world Jesus calls the realm of God, the world he came to announce and enact. 

Just like in Jesus’ time, we live within a world created by Empire, or by what I will be calling the domination system. This domination system conquers nations and subjugates people groups around the world in the name of U.S. economic interests, which have now become a global economic system.  This domination system delivers goodies —- wealth and luxury — to a small group of global elites on the backs of exploited places and people, who make up a vast majority of the global population. This domination system transfers insecurity, instability and violence to the Empire’s periphery, so that the people benefitting from the system don’t see it. This domination system squashes resistance to it though military might and state violence. This domination system has a sophisticated propaganda machine that obscures the truth of this violence and this exploitation and that distracts folks through “bread and circuses.”

But hear the good news. We do not belong to this world, says Jesus. We do not belong to this domination system. Yes, we are sometimes complicit in this system and we may benefit from it.  But, we don’t belong to it. We can unmask the violence and lies of the domination system, and we can pray for and work to build the realm of God, a realm based in right relationship. 

In other words, we can be on the path of sanctification. At the end of this passage, Jesus says: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” This sanctification, according to theologian Claudio Carvelhaes, is about “becoming who we and the earth are in God — that is, sacred people living in sacred places with all forms of sacred life without distinction.”

Sanctification is about reclaiming our original sacredness, our original wholeness or holiness. We are not meant to live alienated from each other, from our deepest selves, from creation. And we can — with the help of the Spirit of Life — break down those barriers that keep us from our original sacredness. As we increasingly becoming sanctified — that is more holy, more whole — then we more and more experience the complete joy Jesus speaks of in this passage.