Causing offense

Easter 7 – 2015

John 17:6-19

Marian Free

 In the name of God who with us enters into the messiness of this world and who endures the hatred of those who do not understand and cannot accept God. Amen.

Modern technology is wonderful. On my computer I have a wonderful Bible programme called Accordance. With the push of a button I can find out how many times a word occurs in a particular book of the bible and how that compares with its occurrence in other books. For example, I have just popped in the word “κοσμος” (world). The “hits graph” shows me that this word occurs far more often in John’s gospel that anywhere else in the New Testament – far outweighing its occurrence in the other gospels and most of the other books. Further, the graph indicates that John’s use of ‘kosmos” increases (quadruples) in the later chapters – as you can see for yourselves.

Occurrences of cosmos in New Testament

Occurrences of cosmos in New Testament

For those who are interested in such things, the word “kosmos” occurs 78 times in John’s gospel, 23 in 1 John and 21 in 1 Corinthians. The concordance key tells me exactly where to find each of the 186 occurrences of the word, so were I to be researching this in detail I could examine each usage in its context to determine whether the New Testament writers use the word in the same or different ways which in turn would tell me something about the message that each author is trying to present. Today I am content to note that the majority of occurrences of the word in John’s gospel occur in chapter 17, the portion of the gospel assigned to us this morning.

In John’s gospel the word “kosmos” is used in a number of ways that can be summarised: “the world in contrast to the heavens”, “the created world” and “human society”. It can be used positively, negatively and neutrally. So for example the created world is neutral and the world in contrast to the heavens is negative. When the word is used in the sense of humanity, it can be used in all three senses: “the world has gone after him” (12:19 – neutral), “God so loved the world” (3:16 – positive), “the world has hated them because they are not of the world” (17:14 – negative).

John’s gospel presents Jesus as a divisive figure. The way in which people respond to him reveals their innermost self, their true character. According to John, Jesus does not come to condemn the world but to save the world, however by their reaction to Jesus, people in effect judge themselves. That is, they make a choice to accept or to reject Jesus. In rejecting Jesus, they reject God and in turning way from Jesus they demonstrate that they are not able to accept Jesus’ word (a word that he has received from God). Their rejection of Jesus demonstrates that they belong to the world (that is the world that is opposed to Jesus and therefore to God).

According to John’s gospel, the very presence of Jesus is unsettling. The people who reject him are disquieted by him, either because they don’t understand what he is about, or because they feel exposed (he knows who they really are). At the same they don’t really understand their reaction and this makes them even more uncomfortable. They need to find a reason to be disturbed by someone who teaches what he teaches, does what he does (who is as good as he is). As is so often the case, what they do not fully understand, they hate. The “world” (humanity) thus becomes divided between those who accept and follow Jesus and those who do not. Jesus’ “own” are distinguished from those who are not his own. The disciples are distinguished from the “world”, those who do not believe.

In chapter 17, Jesus’ farewell prayer for the disciples, Jesus warns the disciples that they can expect the same reception form the “world” as he himself received. If his presence was divisive, theirs will provoke the same reaction, if Jesus’ teaching and actions caused disquiet, then the disciples, who teach and do the same things, can expect to cause disquiet. If people responded to that disquiet by hating Jesus, the disciples can expect that same hatred to be directed at them.

It would be wrong, as a result of reading Jesus’ farewell speech (15-17) to believe that Jesus thought that the world was inherently evil. It would be equally mistaken to think that Jesus was urging the disciples to somehow remove themselves from the world, to protect themselves from the taint of all that was worldly. Nothing could be further from the truth – God loves the world and in sending Jesus God hoped to save the world. Nor is the world to be rejected because it has rejected Jesus, God’s desire is still that it be saved. The disciples are only at risk of being hated, because Jesus is sending them into the world. Jesus very specifically says that he is not asking God to take them out of the world, but to give them the strength and courage that they will require to withstand the hatred that their very presence will generate. (If sharing God’s word was difficult for Jesus, it will be just as difficult for those who continue his work – they will only be able to carry out their work with God’s support.)

Like Jesus, the disciples are not to withdraw from the world, but to be fully engaged in and with the world no matter how uncomfortable or how costly that might be. The world will not be impacted by their presence if, to ensure their comfort and safety they hide themselves away. The world will not come to know God if God, through the disciples, is not made known to the world.

In the twenty-first century we, Jesus’ modern day disciples, are not concerned that world might hate us. Jesus’ prayer seems to us to relate to a past time and situation. For centuries the institution of the church has been so embedded in the world, that we have not had to think about being sent out by Jesus, nor have we had to endure the consequences of being misunderstood.

In a changing situation, it is important to revisit Jesus’ prayer and to ask ourselves:

How well do we represent Jesus/God in the world today?

Have we become so indistinguishable from the world that we no longer cause offense?

Are we so complacent about God’s word that we barely disturb the complacency of those around us?

If our lives and our presence are not disquieting how can we expect to unsettle and change the lives of others?

How do we need to change such that Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is Jesus’ prayer for us today?

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