Sunday after Ascension Day, 20th May, St Mary’s, morning

Sermon on John 17: 6-19 (SMM 200512)

First, I’d like to regale you with some words from a song.

I see trees of green, red roses too,

I see ‘em bloom for me and for you

And I think to myself ‘what a wonderful world’.

I see skies of blue, clouds of white,

The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night,

And I think to myself ‘what a wonderful world’.

I’m sure you all recognise those words sung and made famous by Louis Armstrong. In fact it’s difficult to read them without wanting to sing them. Fortunately for you I managed to restrain myself.

Song lyrics don’t have to be great poetry and those lines certainly aren’t great poetry, though ‘the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night’ isn’t bad. But, on the whole, not great poetry but they do express a great truth. The world is wonderful.

We’ve all seen TV programmes about the beauty and variety of our world and indeed of the universe. Most of them contain not the slightest hint of God as creator but most people, including atheists, seem to agree that the world and the universe are awe-inspiring in their beauty, majesty, intricacy, inventiveness – you name it.

And yet, for all its obvious beauties and marvels, the Christian faith seems often to have had a downer on the world. The world has been seen as detrimental to the spiritual life. Matter has been seen as intrinsically bad. The spirit, that which is non-material, has been seen on the other hand as good. And the religious life has been seen as the attempt to tear ourselves out of the realm of matter and install ourselves in the realm of the spirit.

And some parts of the Bible do lend support to this view – especially, it has to be said, the Gospel according to John. And today’s gospel reading is a case in point. The word ‘world’ is mentioned 12 times in a mere fourteen verses. Now John’s Gospel does have a pretty limited vocabulary and is seriously prone to repetition but that’s going some, even by its standards.

And each of these twelve mentions is negative. The world is not a good thing to be part of according to this passage.

So we have a patently wonderful world, and many passages in the Bible tells us so – in Genesis for instance – and we also have parts of the Bible saying disparaging things about the world. It seems inconsistent.

Well, I don’t think the Bible is above a little inconsistency – that to me is one of its chief glories – but the problem is that we often use the word ‘world’ in two different senses – the physical world and the behaviour of people in the world. That hasn’t always been recognised and it’s one reason why some Christians have been suspicious of the world of matter.

In English we have an adjective ‘worldly’. That gives us a clue to what John’s gospel is talking about. If someone is worldly, they’re cynical or manipulative. They look out for number one. Pleasure may become their god. They are interested in money or status or material possessions. So it implies being in some deep sense unspiritual and indeed materialistic.

John’s Gospel is in a way judging matter as a bad thing but only, and this is the important thing, only if matter is used wrongly – selfishly, unjustly and so on. Material things aren’t bad in themselves. It’s the way we use them. It boils down to that which is moral and not moral.

By some evolutionary process we don’t fully understand, human beings have acquired a moral sense. The moral sense isn’t a human invention. On the contrary it means we’ve tapped into something fundamental but not immediately obvious about the universe – its moral dimension.

The universe may seem morally neutral in its activities but to think that is a mistake. The universe is moral because its creator is good. The fundamental property of God is love and his purposes for the world must therefore be loving – moral in the deepest possible sense.

Love and morality are impossible without freedom. We are free to do good and we are free not to do good. We are free to be worldly, if you like. Freedom is one of the crucial facts about human life.

One of the things that connects our two Bible passages today is Judas. He’s mentioned in both – though not by name in the gospel reading. All Jesus’ disciples had the freedom to choose. They could stick with him, they could walk away or they could work against him.

We make choices like that every day of our lives – at work, in our homes, in matters big and small – and they are all possible because God has given us the freedom to make decisions. We can work with him or against him or we can bury our heads in the sands of our own moral indifference.

Judas chose to work against Jesus. Any of the disciples might have been tempted to do something similar. We know from many episodes in the gospels that they weren’t perfect. Jesus acknowledges that when he asks the Father to protect them from the evil one.

Whether we believe that evil is a principle or a person doesn’t much matter. The disciples need protection. The fact is that we are all tempted that way. We are all tempted to be worldly in the broadest sense. No-one is exempt. Not the apostles, not the greatest saints.

We do live in a wonderful world and a world that for us as moral agents is fraught with moral danger – moral danger but also moral opportunity.

That makes it even more wonderful than it appears to the eye that sees only its material beauty and variety – more wonderful because it means that we live a world created by a God who is love and not by some force that is ultimately indifferent to us.

If there were no moral danger or opportunity, it would mean there was no God worthy of the name. There would in fact quite possibly be no world at all.


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