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Sunday Sermon: In the World, But Not of the World

By Brittany Mangelson, Pastor

I’ve been thinking about our scripture for weeks, but I only sat down to write my sermon last night. You see, today’s scripture text has a phrase in it that has been used to harm, the idea to be “in the world, but not of the world”. This phrase has been used to justify everything from purity culture, to manifest destiny, to Christian superiority, and countless other things. 

Its complex history is not great. And yet, here it is in our scripture, in our lectionary, as our text for today. 

It’s important to establish a couple of things. First,there are multiple ways to approach scripture. Two of the most common ways are eisegesis and exegesis; these two approaches to scripture couldn’t be further apart. 

The first one, eisegesis generally starts with the idea that “scripture was written for our day” and “the bible says…” and then some modern interpretation or application of it. This is when we take scripture out of its context, slapped on billboards and bumper stickers, and we let it become the anthem of our beliefs. 

Eisegesis is the scriptural interpretation I grew up with. 

Exegesis is a more complex process of interpreting scripture. The interpreter does not divorce scripture from the time period it was written and the cultural and theological lens and bias that cannot be separated from the text. The process of exegesis is an investigation where the reader tries to figure out what the text is actually saying, not what we think the text is saying.

This is the process of reading and understanding scripture in Community of Christ. 

Now, this is not a perfect process and there are a LOT of steps. I’ve seen various lists of 7-13 steps in the process and a lot of those steps really require the interpreter to drop their ego and biases, and study the context surrounding the text. It’s a lot. 

So, back to our scripture. When I think of how this scripture has been misused, virtually all of it comes from a place of eisegesis. Humans, often religious leaders, use this particular text to establish Christian superiority, to divide, and even to conquer. However, when I looked at the context, looked at this scripture within the larger story narrative, I suddenly realized this was WAY different than I had once understood. 

We also have to be honest about the book itself. We don’t know who “John” is, and we also don’t have a firm date on it. We’re talking at least 70 years after and historical Jesus was alive. So, to take this text literally and then use it to harm is simply irresponsible. We can’t do that. This is a text that hits too close to home and the work of deconstructing calls us to peel back the layers and really get to the bottom of what we’ve been taught and why. 

In the story, Jesus just washed his disciples’ feet. He was about to be arrested and nailed to the cross. This prayer comes at a time of desperation. He knows his future, has resolved that he will be killed and he knows his followers, his friends, are going to be in trouble. Their faith, their culture, their security is going to be at stake.

Jesus hadn’t established a “church”. There wasn’t a rule book. There wasn’t a concrete structure or succession plan. Instead, Jesus’ mission and message was teaching a new way of life. A new way of being that flipped the customs, culture, and hierarchies of his day on its head. “The World” in Jesus’ day was very different from “The World” today. That’s important, especially considering how this text has been used. 

And then text makes it clear that Jesus knows he is about to leave his friends. The text establishes he’s praying for his friends by saying that he has been glorified in them, meaning, the community he is talking about reflects Jesus’ message and ministry out into the world. These folks are the real deal. They would not have considered themselves “Christians” at the time, but they were walking the walk and talking the talk Jesus was teaching. The text then goes on to say, 

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:11-19, NRSVUE) 

I find it interesting that the prayer jumps tenses. Jesus, in the prayer, is still alive, and yet he is already talking about not being in this world. Again, there are clues against biblical literalism all throughout the Bible; those are important. 

What I find even more interesting is what Jesus is saying has no connection to purity laws, to Christians losing their minds over Christmas cups at Starbucks, or any other way this text has been used.

I hope by now I have made that part clear. 

So what IS he saying? Well, again, Jesus just finished washing his disciples feet.The ultimate act of humility, turning hierarchy and power on its head. Jesus is wrapping up his travels of healing, feeding, listening, forgiving, admonishing the “least of these” to come to him and find wholeness. 

He has just invited his followers to do the same. Using parables, sarcasm, humor, and direct action–Jesus pushed back against traditions of his time. Pushed back against the Roman Empire, pushed back against walls that divide. He wasn’t talking about hemlines, “bad words” in music, the wrong kind of hot drink, or showing shoulders. 

In Jesus’ time, going “with the world” meant some  pretty terrible things. I have a book that walks through what life was like for women in the first century. Spoiler alert, it was not great. People lived in poverty, there was slavery, there was violence, oppression, religious turmoil, and lots and lots of greed. 

Hmmm sound familiar? I know earlier I said that the world Jesus lived in was different than our world (and thank God for that) but I do think we found the connecting point. One of the steps in exegesis–the very last one–does have us look to see if there is any application for the text today. Honestly? Not all scripture does, but this one, I believe absolutely does.  

Because in this prayer, Jesus was pleading with God to protect his followers from “the world”. He was not preaching to his followers to use the gospel to alienate and “other” those around them.

See the difference? It’s huge. 

Jesus had just established that he came to the world because he loved the world. (John 3:16) He just established the two greatest commandments–to love God and to love your neighbor. Love, love, and more love. 

If we are to be followers of this radical guy named Jesus–our call is to love. Transphobia has no place here. Racism violence has no place here. Sexism, homophobia ableism,  gun violence, poverty, have no place here. 

In his last wishes for his community–the ones who were on his side–was a prayer of protection, a prayer for peace, a prayer for love. 

Now, this message, this reversal was not easy for me to come by. I had to think about this, like I said, for weeks. If it’s too much of a stretch, that’s okay. You don’t owe anything to this text, but I do hope that you trust me when I say the way of Jesus is the way of peace. It is the way of sanctuary, of equality, of love. 

At the end of his prayer, Jesus invites us to join him. To join him in the world to bring that message of love to others. Again, “the gospel” is much simpler than how I once viewed it. It’s simply to love God, love your neighbor (and love yourself). 

If it doesn’t begin and end with love, it isn’t the gospel. 

Love with boundaries.

Love with consent.

Love with respect.

This is the gospel. 

When I think of our theme “Where Will Your Spirit Lead Today?” I can’t help but think that the only thing Jesus left his followers after he died were the stories of his ministry, and the blessing of God’s Spirit to help lead and guide humanity closer toward love. 

So where will God’s Spirit lead today? 

Remember, if it doesn’t begin and end with love, it isn’t the gospel.

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