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 www.danielleshroyer.com. Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.