Sermon: Sunday 17 May 2015
The Revd Pete Hobson, Acting Canon Missioner
Acts 1.15-17, 21-end
Do people have a tendency to dump on you?
Does your group have more cavities than theirs?
Do all the hippies seem to get the jump on you?
Do you sleep alone when other sleep in pairs?
Well, there’s no need to complain
We’ll eliminate your pain
We can neutralise your brain
You’ll feel just fine
Now buy a big, bright, green, pleasure machine…
- Paul Simon
Simon and Garfunkel suggesting how to deal with that feeling that things just aren’t going your way…
I wonder if that’s how Joseph Barsabbas Justus felt, as the unsuccessful candidate in the by-election for apostle, created by the untimely resignation of Judas Iscariot? Bad enough to be passed over for apostle first-time around; maybe to have filled in as acting-apostle for a couple of years; worse still to be persuaded to stand for the permanent post – and then come second to Matthias. And never be heard of again… though tradition does say he ended up bishop of the small Palestinian village of Betaris, and was then martyred for his troubles in 68AD.
The solution? Well we’ll come back to that. But don’t we all know that feeling. From a bad hair day to a settled life-script that says ‘I never really succeed or belong’. And as Christians it doesn’t help that Jesus tells us that ‘the world has hated us’, and presumably will hate us still.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is that we not be taken out of the world, but that we can be protected from the evil one, because we ‘do not belong to the world’. Or, in a phrase that is often used to sum that up – that we should be ‘in the world but not of the world’. So how does that work? That uncomfortable feeling of belonging but not belonging? Of acting like we belong, but underneath fearing we don’t? Or worse still, if the truth came out, of being actively shunned by the crowd?
A lot hangs on which world we are in, and which world we’re not of. The New Testament, and indeed John’s gospel, uses the same word – ‘kosmos = world’ – in at least two different ways:
- ‘God so loved the world…’ (John 3.16)
- ‘the world has hated them’ (John 17.14)
We are part of a world God loved so much he sent his Son to save it.
We live in a world which hated Jesus, and which is prone to hate his disciples.
So that feeling of not-quite-belonging can work both ways:
- confusing that we can’t be more one with our friends, our colleagues, think what the world thinks; that our following Jesus often presents us with challenges that call us to be different
- on the other hand, maybe we look at the world of church and fellow believers and feel we don’t really belong in it the same way others seem to – and that maybe all this believing means something different to them than it does to us.
I think this disjunction, this unease, can work at three levels:
THE PERSONAL – not sure who I am meant to be? What are my inmost values? My imminent sabbatical is in part intended to give me three months to think about that again, in the aftermath of two years intense activity on something entirely left field!
THE SOCIAL – where do I belong? Who are my friends, my crowd? Most of us belong in several different worlds: do they overlap? Do they fit with each other? If they don’t – which one is most ‘me’? How do I challenge things that aren’t me?
THE CHURCH – how do we position ourselves over against ‘the world’? When it comes to economic policy and a government committed to cutting £12n off welfare, are we onside or offside? When it comes to society whose principal criterion for morality is whether it ‘works for me’, how far do we reappraise our inherited teachings against that yardstick – how far do we stand out against it? Just to mention two topics where this can push both ways: Overseas Aid; Equal Marriage.
Christian Aid Week comes to an end today – with a retiring collection here. I don’t know if you’ve had any chance to see their information that underpins their slogan: ‘We believe in life before death’. It focuses on one young woman from Ethiopia called Loko, whose 18 hour day centres on collecting firewood to sell to provide food for her children. £150 would buy her a cow, and provide her a way out.
Two uses of the word WORLD to think about as you decide how to respond:
In one voice, the World says, ‘Hang onto your money: it’s yours, why should you give it away? This is over and above what you’ve planned for. Don’t do it. Leave it to someone else.’
In another voice, the World says, ‘God made Loko; God loves Loko and her children; she has so little and we have so much. Why won’t you share something of that wealth? What is £150 to you? What could it mean to her?’
‘In the world, but not of it’. What does that mean for that decision?
I began with that feeling that life not really working out. Simon and Garfunkel offered a response – the Big, Bright, Green Pleasure Machine. It’s a satire on the advertising industry – but maybe also on our instinctive reaction to distress and unease. To distract, to dull and to displace that nagging sense that all is not well in your world. That’s what the world offers.
Jesus calls us to a different response. Not to distract but to attend; not to dull the senses but to focus them; and to displace our anxiety not with personal pleasures, but with purpose and meaning.
I’m off for 3 months to find out what that might mean for me. When I come back – tell me how it was for you?
© The Revd Pete Hobson