Lectionary Commentary

May 24, 2009
7th Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm l
1 John 5:9-13

It is crucial, in approaching this week’s gospel lesson, to have an understanding of the dualism that pervades the Johannine writings. This perspective works itself out in terms of pairs of opposites: light/darkness, spirit/flesh, above/below, of this world/not of this world. Understanding itself as set squarely against a hostile environment, the Johannine community—a distinctive and somewhat sectarian variation of early Christianity—believed that those within its circle lived in a realm or sphere of spiritual influence fundamentally opposed to that which lay at the heart of the world outside. In that world, Satan ruled; in their world, God ruled—and there was no middle ground or grey area. Thus those in the outside world hated the community, as they had hated Jesus. This fundamental dualism is evident not only in Jesus’ discourses that articulate it, but also in the gospel’s narrative dimension. Characters in the story continually misunderstand Jesus, because he always speaks on the basis of the realm above, from which he comes, whereas they always think on the basis of the realm below.

Reflective of this sense of absolute alienation from everything outside the boundaries of the community is the use of the term kosmos, “world,” in the Johannine literature. The usage is not uniform (see Vicky Balabanski, “John 1—The Earth Bible Challenge: An Intra-Textual Approach to Reading John 1,” The Earth Story in the New Testament, edd. Norman C. Habel and Vicky Balabansky, The Pilgrim Press, 2002, pp. 89-94): sometimes kosmos refers to the whole created order, and sometimes it can refer to “the world of human affairs” in a neutral way. Often, however, it functions within the Johannine dualistic framework and indicates the “below” world, which also means the world that is under Satan’s control and stands opposed to Jesus and his followers. And it is this latter usage that we find in some of the verses in John 17 that seem problematic from a progressive theological perspective.

The gospel reading comes from a prayer that Jesus delivers as the conclusion to a series of farewell discourses prior to his crucifixion. In this prayer, he asks God to protect his followers in the period following his death and resurrection, and it is clear that he is speaking not simply of those who followed him during his lifetime but of the continuing community throughout time. It is also clear that although the discourse is framed as a genuine prayer, it discloses key aspects of Johannine theology, including its dualistic orientation and sense of the community’s alienation from the outside world.

In v. 6, Jesus summarizes his work with the disciples as having revealed God’s name to them, identifying them as the ones God gave him “from the world.” In the biblical tradition, names in general, as well as God’s name, carry with them the being of the one named. Thus, to reveal God’s name is actually to reveal God. And this, in fact, is how Jesus’ role is defined in the beginning of the gospel: the Son, “who is close to the Father’s heart…has made [the Father] known.” But it is specifically to those among Jesus’ following that the revelation has taken place, not to humanity in general. For those for whom Jesus now prays are the ones whom God gave him ek tou kosmou (kosmou=genitive of kosmos). This latter phrase is rendered “from the world” in the RSV and NRSV, but the preposition ek can mean separation as well as mere origin, and the use of the term kosmos later in the chapter suggests that the NIV rendering is closer to the intended meaning: “out of the world.” That is, in selecting the disciples, God separates them from the world. And it is only those who are separated from the world, in its negative meaning, who can receive a revelation of the truth, since otherwise they would be thinking “from below” like other characters in the story. But, being no longer “of the world,” they have come to know the truth: they believe that God has sent Jesus (17:8), which is the key confessional statement of the whole gospel.

It is against this background of separation from an inherently evil realm that we must understand 17:9. The NIV translates the verb erotao as “pray(ing),” which is in keeping with the context of a prayer, and the preposition peri as “for,” so that we get “I pray for [the disciples]. I am not praying for the world” in v. 9.” The RSV and NRSV, however, translate erotao as “ask(ing),” which is in fact the more literal meaning, and take peri as “on behalf of,” resulting in “I am asking on [the disciples’] behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.” The latter rendering softens the impact of the notion that Jesus does not pray for the world, whereas the former underscores it. Either way, the verse comes as something of a shock to modern, progressive sensibilities. Are we not commanded in the other gospels to love even our enemies? How can we write off “the world”—the realm outside the Church—as inherently lost?

We need to read this verse not only against the background of Johannine dualism but also in light of both 3:16 and 17:15, 18. In 3:16, we have a resounding affirmation of God’s love for the world, although we must in this case recognize that the term kosmos sheds it purely negative connotation; it is the world of human beings in a more neutral sense, a world that holds the potential for good. But in 17:15, 18, the negative sense comes to the foreground, as it does in 17:9. Jesus asks God not to take the disciples out of the world, but to save them from the evil one—implying that “the world” is in fact the evil one’s domain in the present. “The world” here is evil—yet the disciples remain in it. Why? C.K. Barrett’s explanation is helpful:

It must be emphasized once more that John, having stated (3.16) the love of God for the kosmos does not withdraw from that position in favour of a narrow affection for the pious. It is clear (see esp. v. 18) that that in this chapter also there is in mind a mission of the apostolic Church to the world in which [human beings] will be converted and attached to the community of Jesus. But to pray for the kosmos would be almost an absurdity, since the only hope for the kosmos is precisely that it should cease to be the kosmos. (The Gospel According to St. John, S.P.C.K., 1962)

We must supplement Barrett’s insight with a recognition of the shifting (but overlapping) meanings of kosmos in the Johannine writings, but if we make clear that in John 17 it is primarily the negative meaning—the world as opposed to God—that is at work, we can make good sense of the passage. Insofar as the world is in fact under the sway of evil, standing in opposition to the truth, then it is in fact unredeemable. We might think, by way of analogy, of the Nazi regime. Should Christians have prayed for it as such, or should they have prayed for its destruction and replacement? The answer seems clear. Yet the only point of leaving the disciples in the world must in fact be to carry out a mission there. In Johannine terms, however, this cannot not mean to convert the realm of evil but to advance the world of truth/light/sprit—the “above” world, to which Jesus is now returning—within that realm as a prelude to its destruction.

We must be clear, however, that “the world” in this negative sense is not the creation, the earth, or physical reality in general, as in Gnosticism. It is rather human society under the sway of hostile cosmic forces.

The intricacies of Johannine thought might seem quite arcane from our contemporary perspective, but it just might be that its severe dualism can foster some important reflection on the issue of the church’s relationship to the world for the times in which we live. Progressive Christians have generally been attracted to the last of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic models for this relationship: Christ Transforming Culture.
(Christ and Culture, Harper, 1951) We live in a time, however, in which many of our efforts to build a truly just, peaceful, and sustainable social order have seemed to fall flat and in which progressives often feel alienated because of the strength of regressive forces and discouraged because of the compromises made by progressives who do achieve power. So it is perhaps fitting for us to consider two of Niebuhr’s other models—Christ Against Culture and Christ and Culture in Paradox—as resources for sustaining our zeal. It is important, of course, to think horizontally—that is, to maintain historical hope, in the tradition of the futuristic dimension of biblical eschatology. And the process vision of God as working in all things, luring the world toward the good, is an important resource in that regard. But it is equally important to think vertically—in the Johannine mode of realized eschatology—and to remember that the good we can experience and do even in a miserably unredeemed world is of lasting value. And Whitehead’s notion of the consequent nature of God is helpful in this regard. Will we ever achieve just distribution of wealth and lasting peace in this world? Will we be able to save the earth from our own destructive lifestyles? No one knows. But to believe in God is to believe not only that God is working toward that end, and engaging us in the task, but also that every act of human kindness and every effort toward justice is retained forever in the heart of God. Whether performed in a redeemed or an unredeemed world, our actions count.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).