The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


What in the World?

So are we in the world, or are we not of the world?

by Danielle Shroyer

Gospel Reading: John 17:6-19

For Sunday, May 20, 2012: Year B—Easter 7

If you’ve ever read a commentary on John, you’ve probably heard that it became the patron gospel of the Gnostics, the poster child of dualists everywhere.

Is Dualism Running the Show?

John’s gospel is what nowadays we’d call “New Age-y” because it’s always talking about “the world” as if it’s this thing outside of us, as if we could decide whether to be t/here or not.

This is why I wish Jesus’ prayer was recorded in one of the other gospels, as I could all but guarantee it would be shorter and less ethereal. Alas, in these verbose passages there’s a danger to categorize John as one who hangs posters of cherubic angels over his fireplace and has a prism hanging from his rearview mirror in his car.

The dualism seems to be running the show.

Me and You, and You and Me…

The primary theme on display in this prayer is the relationship between Jesus and the Father, which can start to sound a little like the Turtles song. However it’s no light matter. Jesus is trying to get his estate in order, for he knows all hell is going to break loose when he enters Jerusalem. He’s praying out loud in front of the disciples, ostensibly to help them understand their relationship to God as much as he is praying to God on their behalf.

It’s a divine hand-off prayer.

But then there’s this business about “the world.” The word “world” occurs thirteen times between verses 6-19, which evens out to once per verse. And yet, with all those mentions, I can’t say exactly what Jesus is getting at here. If we attempt to condense them, it sounds something like this:

God gave Jesus the disciples from the world. Jesus isn’t asking on behalf of the world. Jesus is no longer in the world, but the disciples are in the world. Jesus spoke things into the world. The world hated the disciples because they don’t belong to the world, and neither does Jesus. But Jesus does not want God to take them out of the world. Because just as Jesus was sent into the world, so Jesus is sending the disciples…into the world.

When the World Becomes a Wide Web

If the intention of John’s gospel is to set up this thematic boundary between “the world” and “a spiritual space that isn’t the world,” it seems the lines are a bit too fuzzy to make any impact at all. It sounds like half the time the world is a dangerous disease on the loose, and half the time the world is this place where disciples are found and sent, and where Jesus wants his joy to be complete. If the verses were a Venn diagram, there would be 3 verses on each side (in the world vs. not of the world) and two overlapping. And maybe that’s metaphorically accurate in some way. Maybe the prayer is confusing because we are all stuck in this intertwined mess of already-and-not-yet.

I guess my problem is that I rather like to see Jesus as the glue that connects everyone and everything together (in him all things connect) rather than a Twister player with hand and foot convoluted in two separate spaces. I would rather say, like my German friend Moltmann, that not only is God in the world but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the world is in God.

For God So Loved the World?

I can make sense of some of the verses if we view “the world” as alluding to the powers that be, the systems of injustice and the like. But that still leaves us with some problems. It just seems “the world” is pejorative in this prayer, or at the very least off-putting, and I’m not really sure what to do about that. What does that mean, coming from the Gospel that tells us that God so loved the world?

I guess I don’t see the issue of disciples and the world as all that convoluted or confusing:  Jesus has set the new reign of God into motion; this is evidenced in some places in the world, while in other places it’s hidden and even shunned; our job is to bring it to the forefront, and try not to get caught up in other rival systems of power in the process. Are all the linguistic gymnastics in this prayer that necessary when a simple “Father, be with them as they attempt to live into our future among the powers of the world” would do?

The Hardest Question

If Jesus’ prayer is meant to encourage and sustain the disciples, is this the most helpful thing to say?

Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. LaDuc says:

    I like the confusion…it is like Jesus recognizes that life here is hard and that iis so comforting because when we mess up and get tangled in the web and wording, we can remember that he knew it was complicated.

    And that is one thing I love about my Savior, the grace he gives me for my mess ups…and the nodding of his head when I come crying that this is so hard, this living thing…

  2. Drew Downs says:

    If the purpose of the prayer was sustenance, then, no, it is a terrible prayer. But I think he was always both liberator and rabbi: always bringing his people out while forming his disciples to take over.

    For me, I’ll probably take on the Ascension/departure aspect and deal with the distance and nearness of Jesus.

  3. lance clay says:

    Like the Pharisees making a mountain out of a mole hill… You make this more complicated than it really is. We live here but our address to home is God’s Kingdom, but, we are now the ministry of Christ in the world in his place. sheep among wolves….

  4. This is by far the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in the New Testament. It’s chronological placement is incredibly significant. And yet, after crystal clear mandates are given to love, to serve and to perpeptually commune with Christ and one another in the Church, we get gobble-de-gook, almost as if we’re eavesdropping in on an internal dialog between the first and second persons of the Trinity; a conversation that continues – for the most part unrecorded – in Gethsemane. This prayer would be completely beyond me ken, were it not for John 12:27-36 (more foreshadowing of the garden) especailly the passing of the torch that’s in vs. 36 – the light will not last is if it’s merely external. Becoming “one” is not metaphorical, it’s essential, it’s incarnational…we are Christ in this world.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone.

    Lance- if I were a dualist, you’d be right. This passage would be quite simple. But I don’t subscribe to the “I’m not at home in this world” thing, and I actually don’t think Jesus does either. The incarnation has revealed that God is here, and if that didn’t do enough, Pentecost surely sealed the deal. I agree there’s a tension between living as God’s people and living within the dying powers that manifest themselves in the world…it’s just that I don’t really buy that sheep and wolves are that easy to tell apart, or that we can safely put ourselves in one camp or the other. Both sheep and wolves, to use your example, are at home in the world. Neither of them are just visiting.

    To put it simply, I’d say we live here BECAUSE our address is God’s Kingdom. Not in spite of it.

  6. Derek Harkins says:

    I have to agree entirely Danielle. There is a perception especially in American Christianity that Christ saves us from this world and this world is but a bus station that takes us to a better place…ie heaven. The difficulty with the Gospel of John is that it can reinforce that belief.

    It is my opinion that heaven is not another place but a state of being in reality here on Earth, in this world, in this universe. After all God did not call creation bad, but good! As you stated in your aricle, Jesus in fact is in and through all of creation. The amazing thing about Jesus Christ is that Christ allows us to live in that reality now! And in the end all will be created new, a ‘new creation,’ of which all of creation waits in eager longing(Romans). I cannot believe that God will save us from a world in which God wants to and will finally reconcile completely to Godself.

    Not being an expert on John and the dualistic problems that it creates, I wonder if it can be contrued much as Paul’s discourse about the ‘flesh’ is. Since we would not say that our bodies are bad or evil since God created us and called us good, we must reconcile it in some way. So how about this as a stab in the dark, ‘the flesh’ or ‘the world’ is that in our lives that is not of God, that which causes us to turn from God, in other words ‘Sin.’ In Christ, we are reconciled and pulled back into relationship with God able to live in God’s good creation, for God’s glory, for God’s work of showing love to all of God’s creatures.

    Just a few rambling thoughts :)

  7. Mark says:

    “If something can mean two things in John,” someone said to me with a twinkle in his eye, “it usually does.” With this in mind, I would say “the world” is both the object of God’s love AND the realm that has turned it’s back on the purposes of God through willfulness (loving darkness instead of light). How could it be otherwise? I think fundamental to John is the rejection of Jesus by some, acceptance by others, the drama unfolding before his eyes, including the expulsion of Jesus-followers from synagogue. This—not some two-storey, or three storey universe, nor some gnostic realm, as a cosmological framework into which the facts must fit–drives his gospel.So “the world” is that place which is continually being drawn into conformity with God in Christ–becoming “real, or more real, solid in the CS Lewis Great Divorce sense”–or falling into nothingness.

  8. Philip Price says:

    Is Dualism in the world or out of the world?

    Is Dualism right or wrong?

    Is John’s gospel dualistic or not?

    Is Dualism the problem, yes, or no?

    Will Dualism go to heaven or hell?

    Are you ever dualistic, yes, or no?

    Once I was dualistic, but now I’m not.

  9. Barry Rempp says:

    Hi Danielle. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It has served to give shape to my thought process as I prepare a sermon and fashion a worship service for this Sunday. To offer a little feedback, I acknowledge that John’s Gospel offers a lot of dualistic-sounding stuff throughout, yet the Prologue suggests very strongly that The Word (Logos) suffuses all creation, is part and parcel of the whole shebang. I interpret the rest of John (as well as the epistles) through the lens provided by the Prologue; consequently, I don’t share in your confusion/frustration over John’s dualism.

    D. Mark Davis offers some helpful insights on “the world” (cosmos) in his current blog entry on this passage (, in which he suggests that “the world” can hold a variety of connotations depending on context (just as in English, when you think about it). It seems to me that the gospel-writer shifts between positive and negative connotations of “the world” in a rather mercurial way, requiring a close and careful reading of this prayer.

    Thanks for your work. Best wishes!

  10. Great thoughts, all!

  11. Rilma Sands says:

    just to let you know that there is one more way to get here than the three options you give: via which is how I got here :

  12. Xergio says:

    Thanks for the post. I might be imposing on John but I do think that he uses “world” in different ways. One is the people that inhabits the physical world (another use). But world also refers to the system that governs when God’s rule is not acknowledged. By faith in Jesus we have been brought out of that world and into the kingdom. As we live in this physical world, and among the people that inhabit it (world), we dance to a different drum, not this world’s but God’s, and remain under God’s rule here. What I am trying to say, you said it better in one comment: “To put it simply, I’d say we live here BECAUSE our address is God’s Kingdom. Not in spite of it.”

How do you read?