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The World and Worldliness

 

John 3:16;   15:18;   16:33;   17:251   John 5:19;   4:1;   3:1;   4:9;   2:15;   3:14;   5:4-5

 

 

1] How would you people react if I announced publicly that I had syphilis or gonorrhoea? Would you say to each other, “What a wonderfully honest pastor we have!”? Would you go even farther and say, “This man is a social hero! He has demonstrated extraordinary bravery!” I trust you would say nothing of the sort.

Several months ago Magic Johnson, a basketball star with the Los Angeles Lakers, called a press conference and told everyone he could that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. Immediately he was acclaimed a hero. His physician, present at the televised press conference, insisted that Mr. Johnson had performed a feat of unusual bravery.

Next day the Johnson story eclipsed all other sports news in the Toronto newspapers. The newspapers extolled Johnson’s courage as though he had singlehandedly rescued a dozen sleeping children from a burning orphanage. One writer turned the entire episode into a melodramatic discussion of God’s inscrutable way of dealing with life. “There is one question which haunts all of us in this matter”, he intoned solemnly, “one question which urges itself upon us, a question to which there is likely no answer: WHY? WHY MAGIC?” I almost laughed. The writer was plainly of the opinion that Magic Johnson had been singled out unfairly, an arbitrary victim of the cosmic fates. But while I almost laughed I didn’t laugh, for the simple reason that the sportswriter’s mindset — ridiculous and silly and childish, I thought — the world at large regarded as sensible, reasonable, fair and just. Something that I have known in my heart for decades was confirmed once more: the way my mind works and the way the world’s mind works have virtually nothing in common.

As this development was written up day after day I noticed that nowhere was there even a hint that what Magic Johnson had been up to was wrong. On the contrary, it was everywhere suggested that he was an innocent victim of extraordinary bad luck. Because there was no suggestion of anything wrong neither was there any suggestion that repentance might be in order. By now the Johnson event had become for me a living illustration of what scripture means by “the world”; how the world thinks, what it espouses, what it pursues, how it reacts — a living illustration too of how everything about the world contradicts the truth of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Next, right after the press conference, professional basketball games began with an athlete or coach leading 16,000 fans in prayer. I thought this odd; after all, 16,000 basketball fans don’t bow their heads before a game on account of a floorful of infants dying in the leukaemia ward of a children’s hospital. Actually, I found it more than odd; I found it blasphemous to invoke God in this situation. Don’t these people know that to invoke God is always to invoke the Judge? Not the Judge only, but the Judge certainly. Don’t these people know that to invoke God is to invoke One who is not deflected by gospel-less sentimentality ? Don’t they know that to invoke God is to invoke the holy One himself, all of him, his truth, his claim, his resistance to our disobedience? Don’t they know that to wave off that way, truth and life which add up to God’s blessing is to guarantee curse? Through the prophet Isaiah God declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” We ought never to invoke God on the assumption that our thoughts are his thoughts and his ways our ways.

While all the crocodile tears were being shed for Magic (let me say right now that tears should be shed for Magic; after all, Jesus wept over impenitent people who were headed for irretrievable loss); while tears were being shed for Magic not one mention was made of the countless women whom Mr. Johnson as undoubtedly infected with the AIDS virus. Not that these women are guiltless themselves; nevertheless, the silence concerning them suggests that Mr. Johnson is not guilty at all. And then to invoke God on the piled up sin and treachery at the same time that all of this is applauded and the chief perpetrator adulated? When Jesus says that the world lies in the grip of the evil one he cannot be thought to be exaggerating.

One feature of the entire episode which leapt out at me was the absence of shame. No one connected with the incident, and no one commenting on it, suggested for a minute that shame was in order. Myself, I have long pitied the person with no sense of shame, since the person with no sense of shame at all is a psychopath and will have to be locked up in order to protect society from him. But when the society appears unshamable, where are we? Who or what is going to protect such a society from itself? When the apostle John writes, “We know that…the whole world is in the power of the evil one”, he is plainly telling the truth.

 

2] So far today we have used the expression “the world” a dozen times. What is “the world”, anyway? In one or two places only the word “world” means “the entire creation”. For instance, when John tells us in the introduction to his written gospel that the entire world was made by the Word of God he means that God “spoke” the entire creation into being. Remember, however, that it is only in one or two places that the word “world” has this meaning. Everywhere else “world” has a narrower focus and a negative meaning as well. The world is the sum total of men and women who do not know God; men and women who, in the words of John, are not “born of God”; men and women who are unknowing servants of the one whom John calls “the prince of this world”.

A few days after the Magic Johnson expose there was a newspaper write-up of two new textbooks on Canadian history for use in Canadian universities. Both books were written by Canadians about Canadians. Both books managed to make no mention of World War II — even though 30,000 Canadians perished in that conflict. In the first place this kind of historical revisionism is out-and-out falsification. In the second place, to slip over the evil which Hitler and his henchmen were, to slip over the suffering they visited upon millions outside Germany and inside Germany as well; this is to advertise one’s inability to apprehend the actuality of the world. We must not think that these professors and their books are so bizarre as not to be taken seriously. One book has been published by a major American publisher, the other by Oxford University Press. Both are intended to shape the thinking of Canadian university students. These students; what grasp of radical evil — its subtlety, its power, its intransigence — what grasp of this can we expect our students to have, especially since the students will have to pass an examination set by these professor-authors? John cannot be doubted when he writes, “We know that…the whole world is in the power of the evil one.”

You see, John insists that the earth seethes with spiritual conflict. In this conflict the evil one is “prince”. Needless to say, John knows that while the evil one is prince Jesus Christ is King. To be sure, in several places John does speak of the evil one as “the ruler of this world”; but “world”, remember, doesn’t mean the entire cosmos; “world” means the sum total of men and women who have not yet recognized and honoured and owned Christ as king and lord over all.

John has a great deal to say about the world. For instance, false prophets are found everywhere in it. These false prophets may be explicitly religious spokespersons who mislead people sadly. They may be cult figures whose cults mislead the unwary. More frequently they are people without any religious identification, yet people of more than a little influence whose opinions are not harmless, especially where pliable people can be readily bent. When I was in high school an athletic assembly was held each year at which the athletic awards were presented. Graduates of Riverdale Collegiate who had made their mark in professional sport were brought back to their old school to address the assembly. One year the speaker was a football player who had gone on to have a standout career with Queen’s University and the Ottawa Roughriders. (He is now a lawyer in Ottawa.) With an assembly-hall of students hanging on his every word this fellow said in complete seriousness, “I know how nerve-wracking examinations can be in high school, but I found a way of getting through them: cheat!” No one commented on his deplorable remark. No teacher or school official even humorously corrected the worldling, goodnaturedly proposing something better.

The false prophet is anyone at all, whether socially prominent or virtually anonymous, who confirms the world in its falsity. If Jesus Christ is king, then the false prophet is anyone at all who suggests, explicitly or implicitly, that the ultimate ruler of the earth is something else.

Surely so very many of our social customs confirm John’s insight concerning the world and its lying in the hands of the nefarious prince. Think about the courtroom procedure of having witnesses swear on a bible to tell the truth. Plainly it is assumed that apart from a special oath to tell the truth people regularly do not tell the truth and apart from the special oath are not expected to tell the truth.

It is obvious that the “world”, in John’s sense of the term, collides head-on with Jesus Christ and therefore with Christ’s people. The head-on collision is nasty and cannot be anything else. Bluntly Jesus tells his disciples, “The world hates you; if you fellows were of the world, the world would love you; but it hates you. And remember this: the world hated me before it hated you.” Kingdom of God and world are irreconcilable.

For a long time I have felt that the world’s three biggest preoccupations are success, status, and superiority. These are the blandishments which the world offers, blandishments which “hook” people who, having been hooked, now lend enormous force and power to the blandishments themselves. Success, status, superiority.

Success? Anyone who reads the gospel stories knows that Jesus is pure failure. Born into a despised people, raised in the boondocks, misunderstood by his family, betrayed and deserted by friends, executed in the company of criminals at the city garbage dump. Whenever you think of Jesus be sure to spell “Loser” with a capital “L”. Success? Jesus promises us cross-bearing! To be his follower is to dog the footsteps of someone whose failure is compounded by suffering.

Then what about status? When two of his disciples ask him for places of honour in his kingdom Jesus tells them (and their mother) that they are asking him for something he does not traffic in. Status? Humility is what he presses upon his followers.

As for superiority or domination, pre-eminence or privilege, Jesus summons his people to servanthood. He himself is the servant of God of whom the Hebrew prophet spoke centuries earlier. Surely his people would never think that while their Lord is a servant they themselves are going to be lords!

In his first epistle John tells us that while Jesus knows the world inside out, the world does not know him at all. Which is to say, Christ’s people, schooled by their Lord, certainly understand the nature of the world, while the world doesn’t have a clue as to the real nature of a faithful church.

 

4] Question: since the world is blind to God and hostile to the Son of God, what does God do about the world? He does precisely what no one would expect: he loves it until he could not love it any more. Blind, defiant, hateful as the world is, God loves it to the point of giving for it everything that he has to give: his Son. Does this startle you as much as it startles me? Surely the world’s disdainful dismissal of God’s love; surely its continuing contempt for his self-outpouring is like rubbing salt in the wound of his sacrifice. Nevertheless love is poured out upon the world, and continues to be poured out without letup, until the world is saturated in God’s love; so soaked in it that the world’s icy indifference renders the world inexcusable even as it renders the kindness of God incomprehensible.

A dear friend of mine has fallen on hard times. Several months ago his wife told him that she no longer loved him. Her heart has been given away to a fellow with whom she works. My friend’s worsening distress took him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist urged him to withstand his distress for as long as he could, not close the book on his marriage, in the hope that his wife would finish scratching whatever itch she thought she needed to scratch and return to her husband while he was still there for her. At the same time the psychiatrist told my friend that he might get to the point that he could not withstand the distress any longer and would have to close the book on his marriage. My friend endured the distress for months. Then a few weeks ago he told the psychiatrist that he could bear the pain no longer. The book has been closed. I do not fault my friend for this at all. Neither does anyone else. As I watched him arrive at the outermost limit of his endurance I marvelled again at the endurance of God. For God’s book has not been closed on the world. The pain of frustrated love doesn’t increase until God has to move away from the world in order to survive himself. The pain which God’s love brings upon God himself he endures without limit just because he is love; his nature is love. He loves without limit, without condition, without qualification.

Why does he bother? Why does he persist in such love? John tells us in his first epistle: “…he sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”

 

4] Then what are Christ’s people to do? Plainly we are to keep our eyes wide open. John tells us that the world hates the truth, hates the light, and prefers the falsehoods of the false prophets and the murky deeds of the night. In the same vein John tells us we are “not to love the world or the things of the world”.

Now when John insists that we not love the world or the things of the world he means that we are not to be enticed into the world’s agenda; we are not to be seduced by the world’s blandishments. We are not to love the world inasmuch as the world is filled up with “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.” “Lust of the flesh” is a preoccupation with the materialistic trinkets which appeal to the person of no spiritual depth. “Lust of the eyes” is mesmerization through glitz and showiness and surface appearances. “The pride of life” is empty pretence, groundless boasting, phoney image-making. No wonder Christ’s people are not to love the world or the things of the world!

And yet there is a sense, a much different sense, in which Christ’s people must love the world. After all, our Lord himself loves it, doesn’t he? Then as long as we keep company with him we must love it too. John insists that as surely as hatred is characteristic of the world, love is characteristic of the Christian. What’s more, the love which characterizes the Christian is the kind of love which our Lord exemplified: he so loved as to give himself without qualification, without regret, without bitterness. Lest we think anything else John reminds the Christians to whom he is writing, and reminds them rather starkly, “Whoever does not abide in love abides in death.”

As often as all of this surges over me I am quietly corrected, enormously stimulated, and sent on my way with a lighter heart. Whenever I am tempted to magnify the difficult time I think I am having in the midst of the world I call to mind other Christians who have had a much more difficult time and still have continued to love the world with a light-hearted buoyancy. Then I am buoyed up for days as well.

I have a pastor-friend who spent ten years as a prison chaplain; can you imagine any endeavour more bleak, more frustrating, less promising? Yet he did it without rancour, trusting the ten-year investment to the One who so loved the world. Christian schoolteachers who are not deceived for a minute by the sub-Christian ideology of much educational philosophy; such teachers, recognizing pagan naiveness and narcissism for what it is, continue with their task, knowing that there are youngsters in front of them every day whose need for love is inestimable. Employees of huge corporations, corporations so vast as to appear heartless to the point of hateful; yet the employee goes to work every day knowing that before week’s end the real business set before her is not automobiles or refrigerators but rather an aching human being for whom she will have the face of an angel.

The last thing we should note about the Christian’s involvement with the world is this: not every day will the universe unfold as it should. There will be days when the world makes no attempt to disguise its ugliness, days when the Christian feels crunched and no one suggests he is paranoid. What then? On those days Jesus will repeat to us what he said to the first generation of his disciples: “In the world you are going to have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” He has overcome it? Yes, he has. Wonderful news, to be sure. Yet the news would be better if his victory were made over to me. The truth is, it is made over to us through our faith. “This is the victory which overcomes the world, our faith”, John shouts. On darker days you and I shall remind each other that our faith does grant us to share in our Lord’s victory. Knowing this, we shall be able to love the people of the world while not being seduced by the things of the world. As did the self-giving One before us. As have done his people at all times and in all circumstances.

 

                                                                                                Victor A. Shepherd
April 1992