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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Daring Not To Belong--A Sermon

Daring Not To Belong
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 17th, 2009

John 15:9-19
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

‘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.

This passage in the Gospel of John starts off so nice. Jesus says he loves us. He gives us his most important commandment to love one another as he loves us. He says we are not servants or slaves to him but friends. He is not our master. We are friends. We lay down our lives for friends. We bear fruit; fruit that will last.

Then the passage turns. The world hates you. Who is this world? Why does it hate us? Why don’t we belong to the world? Why have we been chosen out of the world?

It may be that the last section is unrelated to the first section. Maybe we should stop the reading after the nice part. But I think these sections are connected. The word "chosen" is in both sections.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.” And

“I have chosen you out of the world.”

I think we are supposed to read these passages together.

We are chosen as friends commanded to love and chosen out of the world.

We need to wrestle a bit with what John means by “world.”

The Greek word translated as world is kosmos. That is a word we have taken into the English language. Cosmos. When I hear cosmos I think of Carl Sagan. Billions and billions of stars. Kosmos could be translated as universe. The known universe or perhaps Earth. We might think of the world as our physical existence.

Is that what the passage means? We are called out of Earth or the Universe? That our existence, our life on Earth hates us? That has been a common interpretation throughout the centuries. We are really spiritual beings trapped in this physical shell. Our real home is outside the Universe, so goes this interpretation.

The Gospel of John likes the word, world. He uses it, by my count, 76 times.
  • Jesus is the light of the world, but people love darkness rather than light. The world came to being through him, but it did not know him. He takes away the sin of the world.
  • ‘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.
  • He is the bread who gives life to the world. The life is his flesh. He testifies that the works of the world are evil. He says to his opponents: ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.
  • ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
  • Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
  • Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
  • Before his arrest he tells his disciples, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.”
  • I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
  • Jesus prays:
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. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
  • After he was arrested he says to his opponents: ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple…. I have said nothing in secret.
  • In response to a question from Pilate, Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over….But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
I didn’t even read all of them. But you get the idea:

The world is an important theological concept for John.

It is the symbol of the opposition to the message of Jesus.

It is something that needs to be spoken to, conquered, and redeemed.


The world has a personality. It does evil things. It controls people. It persecutes those who speak against it. It is the cause of his arrest and death. It is blind yet powerful. Yet is not more powerful than the Word of Truth or Jesus.

And it has the potential to be redeemed.

It is not the created order. It isn’t Earth or the Universe or our physical existence. That interpretation misses the mark.

The world is a power that controls and causes us to perish. We are caught up in it and we don’t even know it.

The Gospel of John is very careful to use symbolic language and allow the reader to make the connections.

In the time of Jesus and his disciples, the world would have been the Roman Imperial State that executed him. It would have been a system of domination and control, of masters and slaves, of absentee landlords, military occupation, and the cooperation of his own religious leaders. All of that would be the world, but even that wouldn’t describe it fully.

The timeless quality of John’s gospel is that the world is not spelled out. This allows us to read it as a symbol for life-denying forces and systems in our time.

The world is patriarchy and racism. The world is domination and exploitation.

Thomas Berry offered a good description:
“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”
That is the world.

The world chews people up. It uses them and discards them. It favors ideology over justice. It claims that peace only comes through violent control.

And it all appears so normal, so inevitable. “That’s the way the world works,” we are told.

And the world isn’t going to like you much if you speak out against it.


Walter Wink wrote a book, Engaging the Powers, that changed my thinking and gave me a new appreciation for the New Testament. At its core the Bible is a critique of the world. Not the created order or the universe, but the system of domination that appears in many different forms. Sin is one such word for it. But isn’t sin in the way we commonly think of our little peccadilloes.

Sin is more like a system--an economic system perhaps, or a military-industrial system, even a system of government. It is a system that has stopped working for people or for Earth, but exists for itself. It John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it is the Bank that has become the Monster.
The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
The point is not to pick on banks or those who work in banks. We all use banks. I do and so do you. The Monster has grown much larger than the Bank of Steinbeck’s time.

We might think of the world as a growth-based economy that doesn’t know when to stop. Any of these systems of domination is the world.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his book on Christian Eschatology, The Coming of God writes:
Like a huge idol, like the Beast of the Apocalypse (Rev. 13), the present economic system covers the earth with its open sewer of unemployment and homelessness, hunger and nakedness, despair and death. It destroys different ways of living and working, which are in antithesis to its own. In its hostility to the environment, it sullies nature. It enforces an alien culture on the peoples which it has conquered. In its insatiable greed for prosperity, it offers people themselves as sacrifice in a bloody holocaust, pre-eminently in the Third World but increasingly in the First World too. The Beast has become a ravening monster, armed to the teeth with tanks and guns, atomic bombs, warships with computer-guided missiles, radar systems and satellites, and it is bringing humanity to the verge of total and sudden annihilation. But in the world-wide struggles for he poor and oppressed against all forms of dehumanization, there is a sign of life and of victory. There is the believing trust in the God of life, in the Lamb who in the midst of this divided world builds up a new Jerusalem which will come down from heaven (Rev. 21:10), and who gives hope for a liberation from oppression, sin and death. P. 216
Jurgen Moltmann provided a good description of the world. Yet he made the larger point, the larger hope in Mystery that while best described in poetic language, is nevertheless a hope that is real and offers life.

Let’s go back to the passage from John and substitute system for world:
If the system hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the system, the system would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the system, but I have chosen you out of the system—therefore the system hates you.
So if we run afoul of the various systems that dehumanize and destroy, we might be on the right track. There is no illusion in John’s gospel that we will ultimately change all systems. They will be with us as far as we can see. Yet it is possible to make the system a little more humane. It is possible for us as individuals to identify not with our systems, but to become human.

The task of the human being is to love. It is a love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. In Jesus’ kingdom which is really a non-kingdom, we live as friends—equals--not masters or slaves.

That power to love, that courage to dare not to belong, comes from a hope stronger and more powerful than the world. It is the Divine Mystery that chooses us to become human.

We may not change the world. But we might be able to become a little more human.

One of my favorite images comes from a story about activist A.J. Muste with which I will close:

During the Vietnam War, A.J. Muste stood night after night holding a candle in front of the White House. One night a reporter asked him, "Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" Muste replied, "Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me."


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