Growing up, my friends and I often boasted about being “in the world but not of the world.” Have you heard this phrase before? Often times we would use it in relationship to pop culture. I had some friends who refused to listen to secular music, watch secular movies, or read secular books because, quote: “they were in the world but not of the world.” I, on the other hand, would watch all the secular movies and listen to the secular music, but I told myself I was just a spectator, not a participant. It was like field research. I would take what the “secular” world created and look at it through my sanctifying Jesus-lens and find the Christian ideas I thought were buried in it.
To say that we were “in the world but not of the world” was our way of saying that we knew we had a responsibility to the world, to the people around us, namely to share the good news of Jesus with them, but we weren’t going to be participants in so-called “secular culture.” I had a friend who would go to bars and hand out tracts, little pamphlets that told the good news of Jesus. He was “in the world” (that is, at the bar) “but not of the world” (which is to say he was not there to drink, but to evangelize).
I think we had good intentions, but it rarely went beyond our intentions. We’d say aloud that we were “in the world but not of the world,” and that’s about where it would end. After all, can any of us really not participate in so-called secular culture?
I would chastise and shake my head at my friend in high school who, it seemed, slept with a different girlfriend every week. I could justify my friendship with him because I was “in the world,” but I would scoff at his immorality because I was not “of the world.” I told myself that maybe if I stayed his friend, he’d see the light! I did stay his friend for awhile, but I’m not sure I did much to evangelize him. I wonder if maybe I finally came to see him not as a person, but as an object to be evangelized. And the fact of the matter is, while I looked down on him for his promiscuity, I was doing all kinds of reprehensible things myself! I could tell my friend off for his behavior in one sentence, and then turn around and make a racist and homophobic remarks about my other friends in the next sentence.
The thing about claiming to be “in the world but not of the world” is that it ends up being nothing more than a catchphrase. It’s a mantra that allowed me to draw the line between who was in and who was out (“we’re in the world, but you’re of the world”). It gave me an inflated sense of moral superiority, because I perceived myself as “not of this world.” But really, my actions spoke loudly and clearly that I was no different than anyone else.
That phrase, “in the world but not of the world,” I think is a paraphrase of today’s gospel reading. Today’s reading comes at the end of Jesus’ farewell speech to the disciples. It’s Maundy Thursday. Jesus knows that his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are close at hand. So he gives his disciples a pep-talk, telling them that he is sending them out into the world to spread the good news. And then Jesus closes with a long prayer to God. It is here, in this final prayer of Jesus, that we get the idea of being in the world but not of the world. Jesus says, “now I am no longer in the world, but [my disciples] are in the world…and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
In today’s reading, Jesus does not show a lot of compassion for “the world.” He says that the world is full of hatred for the disciples. He seems to distance himself from it, saying that he does not pray for the world, but only for the disciples. Soon, he will no longer be in the world and this almost seems to be a relief to him. Why does Jesus speak like this about the world? What does “the world” represent? To get a better understanding of what Jesus means, we need to take a closer look at John’s gospel.
The gospel of John opens with the startling claim that the world has come into being through Jesus. Here, “the world” refers not just to people or the earth, but the entire universe—all created things. The word for “world” in Greek is actually “kosmos” which we use synonymously with “universe”. John goes on to tell us that, though Jesus created the world, the world did not know him.
A few short verses later, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” So Jesus is not only the creator of the universe, he’s also the one who is coming to restore the broken relationship between God and the world.
The very next time we hear the word “world” in John’s gospel, it is the famous verses of John 3:16 and 17, which read: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So Jesus’ mission is one of salvation, not condemnation. He has come to restore the world.
Two verses later, Jesus will say, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Jesus’ mission to restore the world is a high-stakes operation. He’s not come into a world that already knows him and loves him. In fact, as Jesus tells it, the world doesn’t know him and it isn’t really interested in getting to know him.
We hear all these things about the world and we haven’t even gotten out of chapter three! Now, “the world” shows up 79 times in John’s gospel, but I won’t bore you by dragging you through 70 more examples. Hopefully you’re starting to see the picture here, and my point is this: it is very easy to read today’s gospel reading and start polarizing. If you were only to read today’s gospel reading, you would pretty easily be able to make the case that Jesus is good and the world is bad. You either side with Jesus and be good, or side with the world and be bad.
But if you take the scope of the whole gospel, and get an understanding of the world from across the whole gospel, you start to see that it’s not nearly as simple as all that. John does not polarize. He does not paint in black and white. For him, the world is a beautiful and complicated grey space. Jesus creates the world, and as we hear in the first chapter of Genesis, the world is good. Not bad. Good. But the world isn’t fully aware of who its creator is, and so the world struggles to have a relationship with God. The world starts to follow its own way because it doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus, the one who created the world.
But Jesus doesn’t abandon the world when it starts to get a little bent and broken. He says time and time again that he does not come to judge the world, but to save it. Because God loves the world. John 3:16 does not say that God loves Christians, or disciples, or moral people. It says that God loves the world. That’s the cosmos. That’s the universe. That’s everything. However bent or broken or backwards the world might get, God still loves it.
On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day, the day on which we remember Jesus’ return to the Father. He alludes to his ascension in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” He is no longer in the world as he was before. He is not flesh and blood walking around the Mediterranean. But that doesn’t mean that God’s love for the world has ceased. The heart and soul of Jesus’ Maundy Thursday pep talk is to remind the disciples that, once Jesus has ascended into heaven, it will be the disciple’s responsibility to carry God’s love to the world. Jesus might not be incarnate in the world anymore, but actually, through you and me and our neighbors, he still is.
The big problem with claiming to be “in the world but not of the world” is that it only ever led me to despise the world. It made me feel like the world was some kind of plague I could catch. So I drew a line. I’m in the world but not of the world, but those people over there, they’re “of the world.” And to be “of the world,” I assumed, was to be bad, evil, immoral, demonic. But that is exactly the kind of black-and-white thinking that John avoided. There is no basis for that way of thinking in his gospel. Jesus didn’t make such proclamations. Instead he proclaimed his love for the world and his intention to save it. Nothing in this world, not anything, is beyond God’s redeeming.
Maybe instead of saying that we Christians are “in the world but not of the world,” we should say that we’re “in the world and love the world.” I think the fact of the matter is that, on some level, we all are of the world. We are part of creation. We are part of all the things that were proclaimed good when God created. We’re not as separate from it all as we might think or hope or believe. And that’s okay! Because the world is neither bad nor evil. Now, that doesn’t mean that bad and evil things can’t happen in this world when we struggle to have a relationship with Jesus. But the world itself is neither bad nor evil. We only come to think of it as such when we separate ourselves from it as drastically as we do.
If ever we are going to do the good work of the gospel, to share the good news that Jesus desires a relationship with the world and all its inhabitants, we have to start from a place of love. If we cannot love the ones to whom we are called to minister, we will never truly minister to them. If the whole problem with the world is that it struggles to have a relationship with Jesus, then we have to start by building relationships. And you can’t do that if you’re afraid or judgmental of the world.
I think back to my friend who was sleeping around in high school. I can see now that, in addition to the fact that he was just acting like a teenage boy, he was using sex to cope with his own failure, pain, and brokenness. He was looking for comfort in the midst of hurt. I wonder if, instead of getting high off my own moral superiority, I might have confessed to him the kinds of things with which I was struggling. What if I saw him as a human being beloved of God, rather than a moral cause to be won? What if I spent less time drawing lines between me and him, less time defining him as “of the world”? What if I spent more time being in his world with him? What if I spent more time loving him for who he is, faults and all, instead of wasting all that time trying to fix him? I don’t know how it would have affected my friend—if it would have done anything at all. But I suspect it would have humbled me; and in my humility, I might have come to know God more deeply, come to be in relationship with Jesus more fully.
We are in the world, my friends, and we are of the world. So let us go forth and love our world as deeply and as completely as God loves it.