Reading John 17: 6-19
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Here are a few almost – but not quite – random facts about the past and by implication the present.
Once upon a time there were no women priests in the Church of England – and certainly no women bishops.
Once upon a time the Scottish National Party had no seats in the Westminster parliament.
Once upon a time couples living together without being married were highly unusual, not to say stigmatised.
Once upon a time gay men could be put in prison for what were called acts of indecency.
Once upon a time you’d never hear swearing on TV.
And once upon a time the actor Harrison Ford was young, even more handsome than he is now, and he made (in my view) one of his best films, called Witness directed by Peter Weir.
It’s a thriller with a bit of romantic interest thrown in for good measure, and it’s set mainly among an Amish community in Pennsylvania. Now, the Amish (as you probably know but I’m going to tell you anyway) are a Protestant group who tried to cut themselves off from the world by emigrating to America from Switzerland in the 18th century. Their aim was to live as pure a Christian life as possible untainted and unthreatened by contact with the rest of society.
The Amish keep themselves to themselves. They’re known for simple living, plain dress and a reluctance to adopt many of the conveniences of modern day life. Photographs often show them riding around in soberly unadorned horse-drawn vehicles. In fact they still lead pretty much an 18th century way of life. The point is, they keep themselves distinct from society as a whole. They try to keep themselves ethically and doctrinally pure.
Sad to say, they have become something of a tourist attraction to other Americans, who visit them, so they can gawp at their quaint way of life.
Now, many Christians think that the greatest disaster to afflict the Church over the centuries was what might appear to have been a triumph, a remarkable triumph at that. I’m referring to when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This was a real turnaround. Periodically at least, the Roman Empire had severely persecuted the Christian Church, so you might think that Constantine was doing it (the Church) a real favour. In a sense he was. But many Christians think that this is where the rot set in. Ally yourself with worldly power, worldly prestige, worldly values, and either quickly or gradually you become worldly yourself.
So, over the centuries that followed, time and time again the Church gave every appearance of standing foursquare, not with the poor and oppressed, not with he humble and the righteous, but with the powerful, the privileged and the comfortable. Worldliness rather than holiness became too often the order of the Christian day.
Jesus says in our Gospel reading: ‘I am not asking you to take them (i.e. his followers) out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one’.*
And he also says that they (his followers) do not belong to the world. So Christians remain in the world but are not of the world.
This use of the word ‘world’ is admittedly a bit ambiguous. The Bible often portrays the world as being loved by God. After all, that’s why Jesus came among us. In this passage though, it means roughly ‘worldliness’ – attitudes of self-seeking, self-indulgence and self-righteousness.
Those things aren’t exactly rare in the world. Hence the connection between the world and worldliness. And those things are an attraction and a danger.
That’s what I think Jesus means by the evil one – our tendency to be attracted by the delusion of worldliness. This kind of delusion is the evil one.
Now it’s all too easy for religious people to denounce the secular world as deluded, to see the secular world as always worldly, to see it as the enemy. If only it were that straightforward. The plain truth is that the secular world, the non-overtly religious world – with all its travails and stumblings and shortcomings – sometimes gets things right.
At the beginning I gave some examples of how things have changed over the last few decades. Some were trivial, some were serious. Once upon a time, at any rate here in the West, the views of society in general pretty much reflected those of Christians, who made up most of the population. But Christians no longer make up most of society and society does not necessarily, or even often, reflect the views of Christians.
But, and this is the important but, we cannot automatically assume that ideas and attitudes that have their origin in the world outside the church are wrong-headed. Sometimes they are right-headed. I for one am convinced that the Holy Spirit is at work in many places where we might not necessarily expect it.
Things change over time. The world’s opinions change over time. They may be right, they may be wrong and it’s easy to be swept along by whatever becomes generally accepted in the society around us. That’s something that we need to guard against as assiduously as we can.
But equally, we need to guard against automatically rejecting anything that has its origin in the so-called secular world. Sometimes the secular world sees things more clearly than the Church.
To end with, a few more words about the Amish. There is much that is tempting and attractive about what the Amish have done to establish themselves as a separate, thriving community trying to lead an authentic Christian life.
But, in the last analysis, Christians have a responsibility not only to themselves but to others as well – to society as a whole, indeed to every other living creature. That’s why Jesus leaves us in the world.
That’s why on balance – and despite the dangers – I believe it’s best not to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. We cannot let the rest of society simply go hang. Letting other people go hang doesn’t sound to me like loving our neighbour. In the words of a prominent Tory politician now restored to office we are all in this together, old and young, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian.
If we don’t engage with the rest of society, we are in danger of becoming little more than a kind of tourist attraction in its eyes. People’s digital cameras will be pointing, not just at the Amish, but at us as well. And that wouldn’t help us or them.