Recently I noticed a church sign while I was driving in Richardson that said “Parking for Christian World.” I chuckled because it made me think of a theme park. Like the episode of The Simpsons from my youth, when Ned Flanders has a vision of creating a Christian theme park where the big ride is just being trapped in a cart while an animatronic King David reads all 150 psalms to you, and where the candy is made out of carob and it’s aggressively wholesome and miserable.
I don’t know anything about this church and I should say I have nothing bad to say about what they do. As far as I could tell, it is a church and not an amusement park. But the specific choice of “Christian World” is an interesting one because if you went back to the first two or three centuries of the Church, and even after that, the phrase “Christian world” would have been a contradiction in terms, like “jumbo shrimp.” The Scriptures and the tradition of the church have a very suspicious view of what we call “the world.” In baptism, Christians renounced “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” as the three great powers that defied God. In John’s Gospel and letters, “the world” is something Jesus overcomes. The “ruler of this world” is, in John’s story, the Devil, and Jesus defeats him on the cross. By giving the appearance of the world’s victory, Jesus in fact robs the world and the devil of their power.
Today in our reading we hear this in a different way: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
This is a very strange thing for John to say, so I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about what we mean when we say “the world,” and what it means for our faith to conquer it.
When people heard or read these words nineteen hundred years ago, they had different reactions. Some people said that this means the world of created, physical things is bad. The human body is bad. Or at least, these things weigh us down and draw us away from God, who is not in the world but is far above it. So the less you concern yourself with created reality--say by eating, drinking, sleeping, having children, having a normal job, all the things involved in creation--the more you escape the world and move toward God.
This is an oversimplification. And a spoiler alert here: these people were by and large wrong.
Other people heard this and said that the world of created, physical things is not bad. God created it all, just like God created our physical bodies. These things are good. So when John talks about “the world,” he’s not talking about...stuff. He’s talking about what you might call a veil of illusion that has been draped over creation. Take something as simple as water, since he mentions water in today’s passage. Water is obviously good. It is necessary to life. But our overuse of water is bad. Our abuse of water by polluting it is bad. Our instinctive belief that we can simply do whatever we want to the water all living things depend on is bad. Our assumption that we are simply entitled to something that God has given us as a precious and fragile gift and blessing is bad.
All of those bad things are what we call “the world.” Creation is good and has always been good. “The world” is a corruption imposed on that good creation. But it is a very thorough corruption. It is a very convincing illusion. And it involves all of us in one way or another.
This is why Christians have historically been suspicious of things like ambition--seeking power or wealth in “the world.” This is why we’ve been suspicious of vanity--seeking the approval and regard of “the world.” We should be striving for the treasure in heaven that moth does not consume and rust does not corrode; we should be seeking the beauty of holiness and the accomplishment of love and service toward our neighbor, regardless of whether anyone gives us credit for it.
But “the world” is resilient. So, historically, Christians gave ourselves an out from the rather dreary obligation to resist the world. What if we could make “the world” Christian? What if we could, perhaps, be put in charge of this whole system of illusion and power? Then we’d fix it, right? Can’t we be rich and powerful for Jesus? Can’t we look our best and get ahead for Jesus? Not of course for our own aggrandizement, for our own grubby interests, but for the sake of God? Can’t we just...beat the world at its own game? Then we could have a “Christian world,” so to say.
And I honestly get where this comes from. Culture and entertainment can seem so hostile to human dignity so we’ll create a “Christian” version of everything. Family life is so challenging so we’ll create a “Christian” model of family that excludes everything we don’t like. Politics is an endless give-and-take with all kinds of people and we’re sick of it so we’ll try to make sure that only our friends are ever in power, and only our interests get considered.
There are a lot of problems with all of this, and if we had a few hours I could cover them all. But for now, I just want to focus on this: the Christian attempt to take over the world and turn it to our own purposes is just a form of surrender. It is just a sophisticated way of giving up. The pastor who holds himself out as an example of success is not saying that Jesus will bless your finances for the sake of his kingdom. He’s just saying that the world is right about how important wealth is and God is wrong. The man who displays his wife (and in these cases it’s always a wife) as an example of perfect, attractive Christian womanhood is not saying that God will bless a faithful man with a perfect wife, he’s saying that the world is correct to value women by their appearance and to insist that woman exist to serve and build up men. The preacher or politician who tells us that we can have Jesus without having to acknowledge or think about the deeply rooted patterns of inequality that we are a part of--all that preacher or politician is saying to us is that the world is right about who’s in charge and who’s not, the world is right about who eats and who goes hungry, and God is wrong about all those things.
John tells us something different: that everything born of God conquers the world, and that our faith itself is a victory over the world. We live in the midst of the world, we live entangled in the world. But it does not rule us. It does not tell us who matters and who doesn’t. It does not determine who should eat and who should go hungry without anyone’s conscience being troubled. It does not tell us what matters and why. It does not weigh your soul and your body and your bank account and or citizenship or that of your neighbor and find them good or find them wanting. Creation is not the subject of our illusions. It is not the subject of our willpower or designs or projects. It’s the subject of God’s power. And that power is grace and life and restoration far beyond anything the world has taught us to ask or imagine. Both for ourselves and our neighbor. And I want you to imagine the most unsympathetic, vicious neighbor. That’s what our faith shows us: the terrible and beautiful power of the one who comes by the water and the blood--not by the water only, but by the water and the blood; not by the divine power only but by the divine power and the human suffering--to sweep away every illusion and every unjust hierarchy and to give us ourselves, and each other, and the whole creation again as a gift. As a pure and free gift.
And now, today, in this time of our exile we may not get beyond longing and hoping for this gift. We may only see it here, in Christ come down to the altar, and in words of pardon and assurance spoken from outside of us; or in the momentary grace of sharing a blessing bag with our friends from Mount Olive; or in the persistence of prayers that do not seem to be answered. But even that is a victory. What we hear today in the word’s of John’s letter and in the words of our Gospel, is that we have to think differently about who and what seems to be exalted and celebrated and who seems to be dismissed and excluded. And to know that God’s favor does not follow the paths in which the world tries to channel it. All these gestures that we hope add up to a picture of God’s kingdom may just be flashes of God’s lightning that burst through the world’s veil. But even that is a victory. See it, grasp it, and cherish it. Because unlike the false assurances and deceptive happiness of the world, it comes from God. Amen.