Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 24, 2009
Have you ever been on a great vacation? Stop and think about that place. A number of you have been on cruises, I
know. Two of you just got back from
There’s something very tempting about escaping from the world. Travel agents, the tourist industry, and real estate agents know this. They entice us with special deals. They spend millions to lure us on luxury cruises where our every little whim is met. Extra dessert? Yes! Double portion of escargots? Mais oui! More sun? More shade? An umbrella drink? Coming right up! They try to convince us that a “cabin” in the mountains (have you seen some of those cabins?), or a time-share in a condo at the beach, is what we need…and deserve.
The images used to sell these retreats come from our glitzy modern media world. But the desire for a break, a respite, an escape from the world and its constant pressures, is at least as old as the Bible. I actually think that religious faith may intensify this desire. We get a glimpse of what’s possible, a vision of the holy and good, and we begin to long not for the white sand beaches and lapping waves, but for a community, a way of living that is beyond the demands and clamor of the world.
This desire to escape the world’s difficulties arose in the community of John back at the end of the first century. As we talked about last week, things were not easy for them. They were being persecuted as they struggled to stay connected to their Jewish heritage, while remaining faithful to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. How they must have longed to retreat, just to enjoy each others’ company, tell Jesus stories, and sense his presence in bread and wine. They would no longer have to defend their beliefs against the world. Life would be so simple.
I long for that, too. How much easier it would be if we didn’t have to stay connected to the world of American Idol and memos justifying torture written by members of the previous administration; the world where house prices go down and gas prices go up; the world where I don’t even agree with other Christians, much less trying to explain myself to “non-believers.” On Friday the driver of a truck from St. Michael Motor Express decided that he liked my lane on 84 better than his, and he nearly ran me off the road. The encouraging words, “Got Problems? Just Have Faith in Jesus!” were painted in great big letters on the side of the trailer. As far as I was concerned, my only problem at that moment was that truck. It’s the kind of behavior that gives Christians a bad name—and not just the aggressive driving. I don’t think a smug slogan splashed across the side of a truck is going to bring anyone to Christ.
If I only had to concern myself with you who are here—and if all of us only had to pay attention to each other—wouldn’t it be nice! We’re pretty good at all that. Most of you seem to like my preaching pretty well. I could just keep doing what I’m doing, which I know how to do. You all could keep doing what you’re doing, which you know how to do. We’ll keep singing the same songs, the ones we know and love. We’ll pray the Lord’s Prayer by heart until he comes again. We’ll have communion on the first Sunday of the month and dinner on Thursday night and a couple of tag sales every year. It’s all good stuff. It’s all familiar. We’ll just cocoon ourselves away here. Ahhhh, yes.
But no. Jesus says in his final prayer, the prayer for the disciples and for us (v. 18),
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
I am afraid that this is the exact opposite of getting out of the world. Retreat is not Jesus’ way, nor is it the way of his followers.
Before we go any farther, let’s make sure we understand what Jesus means by “the world.” What is it that Jesus is sending us to?
The New Testament was written originally in Greek, and the Greek word is kosmos. Jesus prayed,
As you have sent me into the kosmos, so I have sent them into the kosmos.
In the Gospel of John, this word kosmos has a particular meaning. Kosmos wasn't Mother Earth. Kosmos wasn't the green trees and pretty flowers. Kosmos was the part of the world that is opposed to God: a fallen world, an evil world.
It doesn't take much imagination to understand the kosmos as opposed to God. Just read the News-Times. Pay attention to what is going on around us. We see a fallen world, where people lie and cheat and steal and murder, where people watch violence and call it entertainment. When you see that, you might wonder, "Where are we going? Will this evil suck us all down the drain? Is there any hope?"
Do you ever feel like that? If so, it is because you don't belong here. You don't belong to this kosmos, this fallen world. You belong to God's kingdom. Because God is your king, you don't feel comfortable in a fallen kosmos. You don't fit here.
Now listen again to what Jesus prayed. He prayed (v. 15):
I am not asking you to take them [my disciples] out of the kosmos, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
Jesus didn't pray that God would transport his disciples into some heavenly realm. That would happen soon enough, but in the meantime he was leaving them in the kosmos, where terrible things happen. Jesus didn't even pray that his disciples wouldn't suffer. Jesus prayed only that the Father would protect his disciples from the evil one.
But why would Jesus leave them in the midst of such a mess?
So that they could bring light to the darkness. So that they could tell the story, and we could hear it. So that we could continue to tell the story, and serve our neighbors in God’s love. So that we could bring light to the darkness of our corner of the kosmos.
Did you notice the end of the reading? Jesus wasn't praying just for that little handful of disciples. He was praying for us too. Later in his prayer, Jesus says (v. 20):
I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.
That would be us! The same things Jesus prayed for his disciples at the Last Supper, he also prayed for John’s community…and for us. Jesus knew that the disciples (and we) would not be able to carry out his instructions on our own. We need more. Jesus prayed (vv. 16-17),
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
"Sanctify" is a seminary-and-ordination-interview word that means, "Make them holy."
Though we might fantasize about withdrawing from the world, just taking care of ourselves and letting the world fix its own problems, that is not our calling. Jesus wants us to be a holy presence in this dark kosmos. Our job is to point the kosmos toward God, to reshape the kosmos until it is something new—until it, too, becomes holy.
It sounds like an impossible task -- and it would be except for one thing. That one thing is God. We are made holy by the presence of God in and with us.
How does that happen? Jesus is gone, ascended into heaven on the 40th day after Easter (which was last Thursday, for those who are counting). Why didn’t Jesus stay around? How is God present with us, if Jesus is gone? The answer is in the scripture. From the end of the gospel according to Luke (24.44 ff):
44 Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. …48 “You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
God is present to us in
the scriptures, which Jesus has opened up for us to understand. But what about that “power from on
high”? What is that about? The disciples must have wondered. But they did as Jesus instructed them, and
hung out in
We will celebrate that next week. We will receive the power of God to be present in the kosmos—and for the kosmos. And then we’ll eat lunch and get down to the business of trying to figure out exactly what it is that God wants us to do. We have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that God will require and desire that we do something new—something that we don’t know how to do. But the Holy Spirit does.
Vacations are really great. Summer is coming, and I’m not going to tell you not to take a vacation. We need vacations. We need retreats and rest, time and space to re-create ourselves and our spirits. We get tired, and sometimes we lose our way. But our job, given to use by Jesus, is to stay in the world, without getting all entangled in it. The point of our time away from the kosmos is so that we can completely engage the kosmos when we get back.
Because our job is to bring light to the darkness.