Today’s Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ longings for us from his perspective. It is part of what is known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus: a prayer which he prayed on the night before his crucifixion. In this prayer, he prays specifically for his disciples who “do not belong to this world.” And while Jesus was taken out of this world, first by execution and then by his ascension, his prayer for us was that we would not be taken out of this world.
When Jesus speaks of “this world,” he is talking about the powers of the world in which we live: rulers, governments, wealthy people and economic systems. And those systems often become ones of oppression where a relatively small number benefit while many are exploited. This seems to be our human nature and it hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.
I don’t know about you, but there are days when being taken out of this world appears like a reasonable solution. Just pick up the paper and read all about the violence in our world – systems of oppression and death which kill and destroy people and our environment. There are those who believe strongly in the imminence of the second coming to the extent that they abdicate all responsibility for the environment under the belief that since God won’t let us live on an unsustainable planet, we might be able to force the time and circumstances of the second coming by trashing the earth! These folks are hoping to be taken out of the world … and very soon. But this isn’t what Jesus asks, is it? No … instead, he prays for us to remain in the world and to be protected from the evil one instead of praying for us to receive a celestial evacuation.
Jesus is clear – we are in the world and that is where we need to stay. But he also says the disciples do not “belong to this world.” “Being in the world but not of the world” thematically appears as a contrast in various places in scripture but what does that mean? Jesus gives us a clue about what the sign is of being in the world but not of it means: the world hates his disciples because they do not belong to this world. In essence, the sign of discipleship is being hated by the oppressive people and systems which exploit and destroy what God has created and blessed.
Jesus says his disciples do not belong to those systems. Do we belong to them? Let me ask you this … when was the last time the powers of this world hated you because of your faithfulness to Christ? Have you ever been hated or despised because of your opposition to the some system in this world for Christ’s sake? Has the world ever even been mildly uncomfortable with you for the sake of the Gospel? If the answer is “no,” perhaps it is because we are more “of the world” than we want to admit. Economically and politically, Americans are the consummate “insiders” – those “of the world.” When you consider our political and economic systems, as a country we are in the top 1% as are most of the countries in the G-8 which just met at Camp David. What about those in the 99%?
This should give us pause to think. In light of Jesus’ prayer, it appears that the mark of discipleship is being hated for not going along with the world. The mark of a true disciple is to not fit into our culture and to be hated for it. But what does it mean to be different and out of step with the world in our day and time? Admittedly, this was easier in the early church because Christians were actually barred from specific activities: serving in the government, being in the military, etc. But in this day and time, Christians are not excluded from the culture as they once were. Attempts to come up with ways of being different – such as the Puritanical rules of “no drinking,” “no dancing,” “no smoking,” “no gambling,” “no going to movies” – seem a bit shallow as they are self-imposed by Christians upon themselves. There are Christians who claim we are persecuted in this country – compared to those who lose their lives for their faith in places like Nigeria, Uganda, and Pakistan, this claim seems pretty hollow.
We know that following a set of behavior based “rules” is far too simplistic to be marked as not “of the world.” But when we think about the decisions we make with respect to our baptismal covenant do matter. Things like respecting the dignity of every person, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace do call us into action which names and confronts those powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. This covenant calls us to reorient our priorities about the use of the time, talent and treasure which God gives us and those decisions can lead us to question and confront the powers of this world. Often this can lead to personal consequences for us ranging from being fired from your job for being a “whistle-blower” to being arrested for protesting government actions.
As Christians, we are marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism. We are called to be faithful in this world but not to belong to it – not to buy into its false and empty claims for power and wealth which corrupt and destroy. And while this relational covenant calls us into a place where we may be hated because of our relationship to Christ, this prayer of Jesus reminds us that we are not alone and that he continues to intercede for us that we may continue his reconciling work of redemption in our own day and time.