Lenten Reflection: Not of this World? | John 17:9-19

This probably won’t happen every morning, but something I am trying as a Lenten discipline is to take a little time each morning and write a brief reflection on the gospel text from the daily lectionary cycle. Today’s reflection is based on the reading from John 17:9-19.

When I was growing up, I sometimes heard people challenged to “go home and read the gospel of John” to learn all they needed to know about God and Jesus.

As I’ve gotten older, I really struggle to comprehend this prescribed method for introducing others to the Christian message. John’s gospel is, in my mind, one of the most confusing writings to be included in the Bible. It is intensely wordy and repetitive, and not in a helpful, let-me-make-sure-you-got-that kind of way but in a way that makes it hard to keep straight what is actually being said. And much of John’s language is extremely esoteric and heavily steeped in the buzz-words of ancient Neo-Platonic and Gnostic philosophers.

This text is a case and point on that latter front. The language of being “not of this world” or being “sent to this world as I was sent to this world” all have a ring about them that sounds a bit like the Neo-Platonic/Gnostic myths around dissemination from the higher spiritual world into the less real, less good physical one.

My reading of the rest of scripture makes me uncomfortable with passages like this. Most of scripture, I believe, is a lot more earthy. Its about what happens when God breathes life into dust. Its about what happens when God’s spirit awakens dry, dusty bones. Its about human-kind working in the Garden of Eden. And about looking forward to working in the garden of the New Earth at the end of history. I don’t like this gnostic, esoteric, this-world-is-not-our-home kind of stuff. So what am I supposed to do with John? Why is John even in the Bible?

That’s what I find myself thinking at first.

But then I have to remind myself that John, and the Neo-Platonists, and even the Gnostics, were writing in a context that isn’t that foreign. In the midst of a world dominated by violence and greed and power, these writers spoke of a world that was really about truth, and justice, and beauty, and goodness. And since they couldn’t find that in their world, they believed that it must belong to another realm of reality, to a world not like this one, a world from which we have fallen and to which we must return.

That image, that context, isn’t so strange to me.

It is easy to spot the ways in which the brokeness and hurting of this world are endemic of the very institutions that make it work. The systemic injustices of our world can make it hard to be optimistic about the chances for truth and justice and goodness and beauty to take root.

But I also believe that they are there in the very stuff of life, in the mundane, every day things, in the things that surprise us and catch us off guard, in the things that strike us as wonderful and beautiful and full of life. And that we, the ones over whom Christ prayed protection and unity, are meant to bring these things out, to show the light of God’s goodness to a hurting world in need.

And in that sense, we are not of this world. We are not of the systems of corruption and power and injustice. We represent what those systems are merely a shadow of. We are of the light.

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