Acts 1:15-17 | Psalm 1 | John 17:6-19
Last week I told you that Jesus is out in our world, working, and all we have to do is find him and partner with him, and today we open our Bibles and Jesus says, “…I am no longer in the world” (v. 11). Last week I told you we need to immerse ourselves in our communities and build lasting relationships, and today Jesus says of his disciples, “they do not belong to the world,” (v. 16). Come on!
So, this sermon will be one long attempt to avoid admitting that I was wrong last week.
I’m kidding of course. But I really don’t think Jesus’ words today are in conflict with my sermon last week, and we’re going to talk about that some today.
Jesus’ ministry has come to an end, though his disciples probably don’t know it yet. They have followed him throughout Israel as he taught, performed miracles, and ate with people from all walks of life. For approximately 3 years Jesus has travelled the countryside, embodying the love of God. And the world has hated him for it.
Loving the world means loving all of God’s children, which time and time again brought him into conflict with the ways of the world – a world incomprehensible without systems of domination and power and hierarchy. And Jesus, in loving everyone, kept imaging a different world, one without domination and oppression, what he called the kingdom of God. But to love everyone equally, to not abide by the world’s rules of stratification and domination, was to assault the world, which is, ultimately, to be hated by the world.
He reached out and touched the lepers, which was an assault on the cleanliness codes. And so those who upheld those codes hated him.
He spoke to women and treated them as equals, which was an assault on the patriarchy that was a matter of course. And so those who benefitted from patriarchy hated him.
He ate with sinners, which was an assault on religious understandings of holiness. And so those who used holiness as an excuse to demean others while exalting themselves hated him.
He told parables that indicted the religious authorities, which was an assault on…well, religious authority. And so the religious authorities hated him.
He healed the blind and lame who were supposedly blind and lame because of their sin, which was an assault on understandings of divine justice that had previously allowed good, pious people to view the lame and the blind with disdain. And so the good, pious people who didn’t want to change hated him for upsetting their world view.
He healed on the Sabbath, which elevated love and mercy above laws, and this was an assault on the very fabric of religious life. And so those who loved the rules more than the heart behind the rules hated him.
He spoke to Gentiles, Samaritans, and even Samaritan women which was an assault on Israel’s assumed ethnic superiority. And so those who believed they were ethnically superior hated him.
He fed those who didn’t bring their own food, which was an assault on an economy of scarcity, which said I have to look out for myself first, there isn’t enough for everyone. And so those who were greedy and didn’t want to share what they had earned hated him.
He walked into the temple and turned over tables and condemned those who were selling which was an assault on…well, a lot of things, but one of which was the politics of respectability, which say there’s a proper way to do things, and an improper way. And so, those who were invested in respectability politics, who didn’t want Jesus to make too much of a commotion pointing out injustices, didn’t like the lack of order and the anger he showed, hated him.
With every move, every action, every word, Jesus proclaimed the message of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” and at every turn the world rejected that love (with the exception of a small group of followers). The story of John, the story of all the Gospels, is a story of unreciprocated love. John says early in his Gospel, “[Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11). His own people did not accept him.
This has been the story of Jesus’ three-year ministry. And now, the night before his crucifixion, he and his disciples have come together to celebrate the Passover, when they remember that the Angel of Death passed over their ancestors in Egypt, and spared them. The Angel of Death will not pass over Jesus this time, it will not spare him, but the disciples don’t really understand that yet. Jesus does, however, and he is broken-hearted.
He is, first and foremost, broken-hearted by the knowledge that he’ll be separated from his friends, whom he loves. The other Gospels spend less than a chapter on the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples, but John spends 5 chapters, almost a quarter of his Gospel, on this last meal, and it’s made up almost completely of Jesus speaking. If you have a Bible with red letters, chapters 13-17 are almost all in red.
The scene is very intimate. Jesus begins by washing his disciples feet. Their time together begins with touch, vulnerable touch. Have you ever had your feet washed? It’s humbling and kind of disconcerting to have someone touch and clean one of the dirtiest parts of your body. Peter doesn’t want to let Jesus do it, it’s too uncomfortable, but Jesus insists. No other Gospel has this story of Jesus washing his disciples feet, but John wants us to know how close Jesus was to his disciples, how great his love for them is.
Then, when they’re eating, Jesus becomes troubled and tells the disciples that one of them will betray him. And there’s a disciple, who’s simply referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and this disciple is reclining against Jesus’ bosom (NIV), and he asks Jesus who will betray him. Isn’t that so intimate? It might even make some of us uncomfortable. This disciple is the disciple whom Jesus loved. And he’s reclining against Jesus, their bodies touching.
Jesus lets them know it’s Judas who will betray him, and Judas leaves to go do so.
And then Jesus launches into a long monologue, full of emotion. He’s trying to prepare his disciples for his absence (maybe he’s trying to prepare himself for his absence?). But he tells them the Holy spirit will come, and that they won’t be left orphans. He begs them to remain in his love, to abide in him, to keep his commandments, and promises that he will remain in them, even though he’s going away, and promises that the Father loves them as well.
And then, after 3.5 chapters of passionate, almost rambling monologue, Jesus’ last teaching to his disciples reaches its crescendo in the prayer found in chapter 17, part of which we heard this morning. He can’t convey all that he wants to convey to them, and so he breaks out in prayer.
Have you ever experienced that? When you come to the edge of words? When the limits of speech become apparent? Jesus, even after 3 chapters of speaking, can’t convey all his emotions. He knows he can’t actually, through words, express all that he wants to express to his beloved disciples, and so he turns to prayer. Only God can convey what Jesus is trying to communicate to his disciples. Only God can be trusted with these friends whom Jesus has bound his life to, but is about to be ripped away from.
This prayer is quite different from the Lord’s prayer, isn’t it? The Lord’s prayer is a prayer for Sunday mornings, but this is a prayer like those said in hospital waiting rooms. It’s a prayer of desperation, full of emotion. It lacks form. Jesus repeats himself. He’s going away, but his friends are staying, and he can’t protect them anymore. He’s helpless. He must let go of the control he’s had, and leave them in the hands of the one he calls “Father” (who we sometimes call “Mother” or “Parent”).
And this brings us to the second reason for Jesus’ anxiety and desperation: the disciples have internalized the teachings of Jesus, they have and will abide in Jesus’ love, they have and will follow his commandments (most of the time). The words that the Father (Mother/Parent) gave Jesus have been given to them and they have received those words, Jesus says. And while this is certainly good news, it means the path that Jesus has walked will be the path they will walk. They will be hated, as Jesus has been hated. Earlier, when he was talking to them, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you…if they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:18-20).
And now he prays, “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” (John 17:14). The disciples will carry on Jesus’ legacy of loving the world so much that they will challenge it, and in return the world will hate them for it. Jesus rejoices over their commitment, and yet he mourns the trouble that awaits them. His last words to them before this prayer were words of caution and words of comfort, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world!”
To be “in the world, but not of it,” is not to practice individual, moralistic piety. It’s to challenge every assumption of the world we live in – all those things that people say, “Oh, that’s just the way the world is,” about.
In Acts, the early followers of Jesus were doing just that. In Thessalonica, some Christians are arrested and taken before the city authorities – notice the political dimension – and this is what those who’ve captured them say, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…” (Acts 17:6). People aren’t mad at the early church because they don’t drink or smoke or say cuss words. They’re mad because these early Christians are turning the world upside down.
James Cone, credited as the father of Black Liberation Theology, died two weeks ago. During my second year of seminary I read Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power and my world was turned upside down, and not in a pleasant way. This work, written in 1969, was a scathing, brutal critique of the white church’s complicity in racism, and as I read it I realized that his critique was as relevant today as it was in 1969.
James Cone is proof of the words of Jesus from John 17. He said in Black Theology and Black Power that the Christian life is “a life of suffering because the world and Christ are in constant conflict. To be free in Christ is to be against the world.” And so it was for James Cone, who was the most hated theologian in the United States for most of his life. He faced death threats throughout his career. In 2012, only 6 years ago, Cone had to cancel his appearance at a lecture he had been invited to at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, because he had received a flood of death threats for his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which, in my opinion, is probably one of his most palatable works.
James Cone loved humanity the way Jesus loved humanity. Just as Jesus’ love for the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the vulnerable resulted in hatred from the dominate culture, so James Cone’s love for the black community that was, and continues to be, vilified, dehumanized, and violently victimized resulted in hatred from the dominate white culture.
Until Jesus comes back, there will always be oppression and injustice. The powerful will always exploit and abuse the powerless, which means we can never sit back and say, “It’s not that bad. Those people (whoever “those people” are), are just complaining.” Uh-uh. That’s a cop-out. Isaiah says, “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). These words were relevant when Isaiah spoke them, they were just as relevant in Jesus’ day, and they are just as relevant today.
Are we willing to love the world so much that we will pull back the curtain and reveal the sinfulness of our systems, practices, and social norms, even the ones that we benefit from? Are we willing to turn the world upside down, by living into the kingdom of God? And are we willing to be hated for it?
In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, he never once tells them to hate the world. He says that they will be hated. But no matter what happens, Jesus’ doesn’t want us to remove ourselves from the world. He prays to the Father, “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 – set them apart – in your truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” We are not to hate the world. We’re not to remove ourselves form the world. We’re sent into the world.
Like I said last week, we are “sent into the world” to plant ourselves in the world, to look for where Jesus is in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our relationships with others. But joining with the work Jesus is doing there will mean disrupting the status quo. It will mean turning the world upside down, and it may start with allowing our own world to be turned upside down. Because we are not of the world, but of the kingdom of God, and nothing short of God’s radical love, inclusion, and justice will do.
 James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 42.
 Eboni Marshall Turman, “‘If God is White, Kill God’: Why James Cone Was Once the Most Hated Theologian in America, The Root, https://www.theroot.com/if-god-is-white-kill-god-why-dr-james-h-cone-was-1825825152