When you get a song stuck in your head, you play it over and over again. Your mind sits on repeat, your steps start walking in sync with the beat of the inaudible rhythm in your head… can’t get away from it. This happens to me when I read books, too. Certain phrases, stories, words, or ideas replay in my head, over and over again. It changes the way I look at things-from the simple food I eat, to my job, my way of living, the other books I read… it kind of takes over.
So, when I went to write a sermon for yesterday, after having just finished Insurrection by Pete Rollins, I had of lot of his words stuck in my head. If nothing else, this week’s writing was a way for me to work out some of these ideas in a way that I could hopefully bring others along for the ride. For whatever reason, this one was hard to speak about, a little bit harder to deliver, and I’m honestly not sure if it came out the way I was hoping. But, Robert Capon, one of my favorite authors, talks about how preaching is not about giving answers to questions–but to give an idea to your listeners, to help them explore something, peel back layers and discover what is underneath, what is hidden, and what is waiting for them.
I think this week was about just that–no answers, not even questions… just an idea… replaying in my head, over and over again: What does it mean to forsake heaven and embrace this life and this world…
Story from John : Gospel reading: John 17
Woof. Sometimes, I read these gospel texts and I wonder what the writers were thinking, what was on their minds as they were writing, who they were writing for, who were they hoping would read this story… and why they didn’t take a break and grab a cup of coffee…
When I was in Elementary School—particularly 3rd and 4th Grades, my favorite class was Creative Writing. In Math class, which I was terrible, I would rub the paper raw with my little eraser because I would mess up so many times. I wouldn’t carry the one when I was adding, or I would forget a decimal point… But, in Creative writing, I didn’t have to use the eraser on my pencil, I could scratch out words or phrases that I decided I didn’t like and just keep going. There was no wrong way to write, no right answer to find.
Since those days I have spent a lot of time writing. I have journals filled with attempts to explain emotions and feelings of people different than myself, of trying to explore why the world is the way it is…
What I find when I look back through some of these poems and stories and journals now seems to look like ramblings. There are a lot of themes repeated, a lot of words used over and over again, and to be honest it now seems embarrassing, and a little dull.
But even at a young age, so much of my writing ended with questions; ended with me wondering, ‘Does it always have to be this way, is there more to the story that I don’t see clearly yet…’ or What if we looked at it like this…
Going through college and reading a lot from different biblical sources, I was taught that when you see a writer using the same phrase over and over again—you should pay attention. Paper and pens were not a common resource, they wouldn’t have wasted precious ink and paper if it was not considered important.
Often times, when a writer repeats something, it is of great importance, or they are trying to work through an idea on paper with themselves, or bring the reader along with them on this journey.
So when we look at our gospel reading for today, my first impression is that the writer, John, is wrestling with the idea of what it means to live in this world and still follow the Way of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, he uses the phrase, ‘of the world’ over 10 times… in less than one chapter.
John’s stories are often different than the other gospel stories. His writing is a little bit more eloquent, he seems a bit loftier with his ideas, and some of it seems encrypted, or that the reader is expected to know a set of symbols or a code in order to fully understand his message.
This is kind of true. People in the first century were living in a completely different world. They were living under the occupation of a foreign army. Their lives were regulated by a different set of morals, values, and ideals. And, aside from that, there were a small number of people who were living out a different way of life—a way of life that contradicted what society called responsible and necessary. And we would call those people, followers of the Way—the Way of Jesus.
And so because we don’t perfectly understand that first-century context, we can easily miss the subtle hints that John has laid out in his writings. His audience is that small sect, that group that won’t fit in to society anymore, because they are living differently. They mix Jews and Gentiles together in worship. They let men and women associate together at the dinner table, they take care of the poor and the sick, they don’t separate themselves from those lower on the social ladder. These things were not normal, nor were they appropriate for that society.
So when John uses phrases like “of the world” he’s speaking of the expectations of that first century society that separated Jew/Gentile, Slave/Free, Male/Female. He uses the “world” to represent status, power, and control. He’s not speaking of the entire world—he’s speaking of one piece of one society.
We have often used sections like this as Christians to justify our choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. We can get so hung up on phrases such as “in the world, but not of the world,” that we miss something much more beautiful John is trying to get at.
What we read in the gospel is John sharing with his readers a prayer that Jesus prayed. He does go on and on about the world and those whom God has given to him—but he also says something vastly beautiful;
Am I am glorified in them—so they may be one, as we are one. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.
Jesus is saying in his prayer that he is glorified in them—the believers, the followers of the Way. And then he goes on to say that he himself was sent into the world, and that those same believers—are also sent into the world.
This prayer is called the final discourse/the last sermon, the final speech… Imagine movies like Braveheart, where William Wallace rides around on his horse, rallying the tired and worn troops to victory, or 300—the Spartan tale of King Leonidas. Or even, The King’s Speech… where the entire movie is a build up to a country’s stand against oppression…
We can easily see Jesus’ prayer as a rally cry to stand against the social order that holds injustice over the lives of its people. It might even be inspiring enough to want to fight against this injustice, this terrible way of life. To build walls and dig trenches, and prepare for a raging battle. A long, hard life, fighting over and against the powers that want to keep us from following Jesus…
And I used to believe this call, this battle cry of sorts. It used to make sense to me. It was strangely comforting, to know that what I was experiencing was only temporary, and one day; I would be called out of such misery.
But I want to interrupt that train of thought—stop it completely. I want to look at this story from another angle.
Pete Rollins: Insurrection:
Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the Earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation, the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit, and disease descended like a mist. One by one, all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.
Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon Heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But as this could only continue for so long, at the designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply, and addressed the angels, “The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff.”
Having spoken these words, God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the Church with a booming voice, “Rise up and ascend to Heaven, all of you who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out, ‘Lord, Lord.’”
In an instant millions were caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm, leaving the suffering world behind them.
Once this great rapture had taken place, God paused for a moment then addressed the angels, saying, “It is done. I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us to leave this place and take up residence on Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people: the ones who would forsake Heaven in order to embrace the Earth, the few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant.”
And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the Earth: the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark of God; the few who had discovered Heaven in the very act of forsaking it.
“As you have sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world…and I am glorified in them.”
It is easy to think living a good and decent life would be glorifying to God. It is easy to think if we stay away from the bad and cling to the good, that we will bear the mark of God.
But how then, do we read the gospels? John, whose story about God we’ve been reading for several Sundays now has already said, God loved the world enough to leave heaven and live on earth instead.
John is writing to an antisociety—a group of people who have said, “Enough! We won’t live that way. We won’t let society control us.” And John is writing to them saying—great, fantastic, and wonderful.
But just because you are different doesn’t mean you can leave society and do your own thing. It is because you are different that you must stay. It is because you are staying that you must live differently.
God is not glorified in our forsaking of the world. Rollins moves on to say, “God is affirmed only through a passionate participation in life itself.”
“As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world…and I am glorified in them.”
It can be such an enticing story line—to be separated from all suffering and pain and joined forever with God. But this story line is a fairytale. Our call is instead to embrace our own suffering and pain and that of those around us. Not to offer excuses or escape routes. We are called instead to embrace the world and all that it is.
For it is in this embracing of the world that we too forsake heaven to live here. And that’s hard. Because some days, I don’t like it here. Some days I don’t feel like touching someone else’s pain—because I’m carrying around enough of my own.
And that is exactly why we need to touch our own pain. That is exactly why we need to touch the pain of those around us. Paraphrasing Rollins again—it is when we come together we can face up to the feelings of loss, meaninglessness, and guilt…and as a community we can offer one another a way to confront our pain and work through it…together.
And after realizing we have already been sent into our world to hug it and to love it…I feel a little bit overwhelmed, a little fragmented, almost broken, maybe even in pieces. Which is why I think Rollins ends his book with this poem—that I now leave with you:
Go in Pieces
The task is ended
Go in pieces
Our faith has been rear-ended
And something might be mended
That we didn’t know was torn
And we are fire—bright, burning fire
Turning from the higher places
From which we fell
Emptying ourselves into the hell
In which we’ll find
Our loving and beloved
Brother, mother, sister, father, friend
And so, friends, the task is ended
Go in pieces to see and feel your world.