From the world? To the world? Of the world?

May 20, 2012

 

Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

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