Easter 7B – 17 May 2015 – “Being in the World a Little Bit Differently”
When I was in the seminary the dean of students constantly reminded us that as priests we would have to be “in the world but not of the world.” It sounded like we would be able to labor in God’s vineyard but not enjoy its fruits. It would be like walking on a beach barefoot without getting sand between your toes. Now I find that the phrase “we do not belong to the world” could use a slightly different interpretation.
In today’s gospel we hear about Jesus praying to God just before his crucifixion. He hopes to God that his followers would stick together in a hostile world. Those Christians, for whom this text was intended, apparently felt alienated from society. The gospel of John was written toward the end of the first century and or soon after Jews who followed Jesus were expelled from the synagogue. There were many tensions.
Commentators suggest that Jesus asked God to protect his disciples from harm because their message of justice and peace, like his, was being rejected. This passage implies Jesus cared for his followers. He did not want them to suffer the cruel punishment that he was about to face. Yet, it seems, he did want them to remember him and continue the work he started but could not finish. He expected loyalty from his disciples.
The Mediterranean culture at that time was group oriented. People had tight associations. It meant that you stood up for one another and protected one another’s honor. In return you could count on the group to defend you against any injustice. The idea behind a group effort is that no one single handedly can take on the world. The community dynamic was important to Jesus and his followers as it still is for us today.
The followers of Jesus were to live in the world but were not to buy into any human ideology that undermined human dignity. That is what it means not to belong to the world. In fact, to be called a Christian required you to take a stand against any corruption, inequity, cruelty.
The adage about not belonging to the world is surely hard to understand today. Our very lives are spent trying to survive on this planet. We study, work, play, establish relationships and plan ahead all in order to find happiness, peace and prosperity.
In a world where, generally speaking, it often seems like radical individuality overtakes radical hospitality how and where do we find time and energy to tend to others who belong to our group and those who are outsiders? Is there a middle ground? I have been trying to find an answer.
A recent article in the New York Times talked about Mimi O’Donnell. It gave me a clue. She was the partner of the talented but troubled stage and screen star Philip Seymour Hoffman. She is the mother of their three children.
In her grieving after Hoffman’s death she withdrew from work and social life. After awhile, supported by the actors community, inspired by the passion of performers on stage, she returned to the Labyrinth Theatre Company where her deceased friend Hoffman acted and directed.
O’Donnell said, “I am being in the world a little bit differently.” By continuing the work Hoffman cared for so much it enabled her to stay connected to her deceased loved one. When I read her statement I thought that is how we keep the memory of Jesus alive — by engaging ourselves in the work he did and not just by remembering what he did.
Maybe it is forgiving someone when it is terribly hard to say so, speaking up for someone when it may cost you your a job, reporting a problem in your school even when you might be bullied for doing so, being kind to a stranger knowing you won’t be thanked, doing what is inconvenient to protect the earth for the long term.
Living in this world a little bit differently gives us some insight about what it means not to cave in to the status quo. It requires us to do something Jesus cared for so much. By living in this world a little bit differently we bring a fresh interpretation to what it means to be called a Christian.