So it truly is a miracle to experience the sudden bursting into new life that occurs as the weeks of May give way to the sudden warmth of a New England spring – so long delayed that it seems no sooner here than it’s gone and suddenly, summer is upon us.
My thoughts of awaiting the miracle of spring coming to my garden provide a suitable analogy to where we are at present in the yearly cycle of the Church’s calendar. As in the days of late April and early May transitioning between the seasons of winter to spring to summer, we now wait in the time-in-between, between Ascension and Whitsun, expectant of a new cycle of fruitfulness in the spiritual life of the community we know as the Church.
Concepts of ascending and descending provide powerful metaphors for the movement of spiritual time from one cycle to the next. The Evangelist Luke used them to particular effect. Ascending and descending as metaphors already existed in the Jewish spiritual imaginary for Luke to draw upon. As the prophet Elijah had ascended into heaven, born in a chariot of fire, as he rose, his mantle fell to rest upon the shoulders of his servant Elisha; anointing him to continue the vital work of prophecy in Israel. In Luke’s theological schema, Jesus bodily ascends in order that his Spirit can descend upon his followers; anointing them to continue the vital working for the kingdom’s in-breaking- your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
With the appointment of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot, who having betrayed Jesus, now lay dead, his entrails polluting the field he had purchased with the ill-gotten gains of his treachery, we see a picture of getting on with the work during a period of waiting in an in-between time – waiting for further instructions, as it were.
The Evangelist John gives us a more nuanced picture of the tensions involved in the work ahead. Being a disciple of Jesus will require living in the world but not being of the world. This is a place of necessary tension. In the First Letter of John, written by someone we know as John the Elder who was a disciple of John the Evangelist, the author makes explicit the tensions involved in living in the world, while not being of the world.
John the Elder addresses the tensions leading to the breakup of the Beloved Community formed around the teachings of John the Evangelist. Some in the community had come to believe that they could be in relationship with God without believing in Jesus as Son of God. Freed from believing in Jesus as the way to the Father, having confined the concept of neighbor to those like themselves, they no longer felt bound by Jesus’ commandment to live with love as the mark of their discipleship.
John the Elder protests that belief in Jesus as the Son of God and obedience to his commandment to love everyone is what marks-out those who continue to live in the world but are not of the world.
Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.
If he were to put it in more contemporary language John the Elder might have said that it’s all a matter of values; the values of the kingdom or the values of the world.
Contexts change, but the tension between being in the world but not of the world remains the same. For the community of John the Evangelist, the theology of living in the world but not being of the world was born out of an experience of dispossession and exclusion. Johannine Christians were Jews no longer welcome in the synagogues. They were excluded from the cultural settings in which late 1st and early 2nd-century Jewish life reconstructed itself after the fall of the Temple. In the time of John the Elder, the Johannine community was fractured by the actions of those who had come to understand the intimacy with God promised by Jesus in his farewell instructions to the disciples as a matter of their entitlement to claim equality with God.
It’s a short journey from claiming equality with God to no longer needing God.
As 21st-century Christians, we remain in the tension between living in the world but not being of the world. Like the members of the Beloved Community, we also hold conflicting understandings of what being in the world but not of the world looks like. We are struggling to navigate our way through a period when the perennial tension of living in the world but not being of the world is a focus of particular conflict. Contexts change but the tension between being in but not of the world remains the same.
Being in but not of the world is the central theological tension running through the entire history of the Judeo-Christian epic. On the one hand, there is a theology of the chosen people in possession of the promised land by virtue of their being the chosen. On the other, there is the theology of liberation from bondage, a different kind of experience of chosen-ness in which the promised land is not a possession but exactly what its name describes – a promise – still in the process of being fulfilled. Both are theologies rooted in the Exodus experience of our Hebrew ancestors in faith. They conflict with each other, mightly.
In the particular American context, this ancient theological tension manifests in our conflicting vision of ourselves as a nation. One vision is that we are the chosen people inhabiting a shining city set on a hill, looking out over the promised land, ripe for our taking. The other is of a people chosen by virtue of being freed from the bondage of multiple oppressions. Set in the context of our New England history, is the tension between the Massachusetts Bay and the Rhode Island experiments.
Today, it’s the tension between those who define their chosen-ness through assumptions of white-male privilege and those whose sense of being chosen is the direct result of their experience of oppression at the hands of white-male privilege.
Judeo-Christian history is the story of a people chosen through being liberated into the hope of the promised land. But it’s also a story of a people who kept forgetting that their chosen status was not based on their power and privilege, but on their having once been slaves before their liberation. Whenever the people forgot this and claimed the promised land on the basis of assumptions of entitlement, they lost it. They kept forgetting that being chosen carries responsibilities, and the promised land is only ever a gift, not a birthright.
For me, it’s mostly my vulnerability, not my sense of entitlement that defines me as one who is living in the world but not of the world. Being connected to my vulnerability connects me to the vulnerability in others. Here are some simple ways to work out whether you are living in the world but not being of the world.
- How do you feel when judges interpret the law and politicians pass legislation that favors corporate interests over those of communities?
- Do you notice when the operation of the law and the criminal justice system oppresses the poor and denies them justice?
- Are you turning a blind eye so that you fail to recognize let alone challenge the entrenched institutions and attitudes of racism in America?
- How do you feel when your elected officials are in the pockets of those who would continue to exploit and pollute our air, land, and water in the interests of private profit?
- Do you believe that the concern for the threat to women from the male use of power to sexually and professionally exploit them is overblown?
- Do you agree that whiteness and white maleness, in particular, deserve special minority protections; that when a black woman is given a job over the choice of a white man that she’s been given his job?
- Do you think the freedom of religious conscience should be able to deny LGBT people equal rights before the law?
- Do you believe that universal access to affordable public education and healthcare – esp. for women is not a civil right?
- Do you believe that Second Amendment rights should be protected from any regulation in the interests of public safety?
In seven days, we will commemorate the birth of the community we know as the Church. In seven days we will receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit so that we might continue the work of agitation for the inbreaking of the kingdom. Are we living inspired by the expectations of the kingdom; expectations of justice for all; as those who depend on God to liberate us from our bondage, not once but over and again? Or are we those whose lives are guided by a complicity with the values of the world; values shaped by the exercise of the powerful over the powerless; the values and politics of entitlement? The answer will tell us whether we are in or of the world.