Acts 1:15-17, 21-end; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Do you remember the film Avatar, that came out a few years back? I went to see it, as it was science fiction and therefore right up my street, which is as you know, Nerd Street. And there was a lot of publicity about the film’s advanced technology, including the CGI and that it was 3D.
Well, it was…. OK. I thought it was both a very, very good film and a very, very bad film. It was a bad film because the dialogue was terrible, but mainly because absolutely nothing that happened came as any surprise, so there was a total lack of dramatic tension. Will our hero rebel against his duty as an Earth soldier (I should point out that his commanding officer is a cruel and racist psychopath, but somehow the army hasn’t noticed this) and help the fierce yet benign natives who live in harmony with their environment? What do you think?
But it was a good film because a great deal of time and thought and love – and presumably money – had been poured into the detailed depiction of an undeniably beautiful alien world. It was breathtaking to look at. When it came out in the US, there were stories of people going straight back into the cinema for the next showing (over and over again) because they simply wanted to re-enter that fantastical world. They’d fallen in love with it.
To outsiders, Christians can look a bit like that: we just want to live in an imaginary world. Indeed the caricature is that we’re going to, because it’s “Pie in the sky when you die.” It’s true that we declare our allegiance to a kingdom which is not of this world, but what do we really mean by that? At the extreme, you will find some Evangelicals who genuinely think that looking after the environment doesn’t matter because Jesus will be coming back soon, and then we won’t need it any more. For what it’s worth, I have no idea when Jesus will be coming back, but I have a feeling he won’t be impressed by what we’ve done with the place.
But this is the world we have, and in the letter from John we hear “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Notice, he won’t give us eternal life. He has already given it; it’s started. So it’s started in the here and now. And so the “pie in the sky” approach is fundamentally wrong: it satirises the idea that we just shut up and put up with things in this world ‘cos it’s going to be better in the next. Why bother trying to improve things? Well, because God loves wisdom and justice; he loves kindness and mercy. If our hearts break when we watch the news and see what we human beings are capable of doing to each other, what does it do to God’s?
(Sometimes I wonder if the real issue attached to “taking God’s name in vain” is not tutting when we hear people say “Oh God” or even the very real hurt I feel when people use the name of Jesus this way, but when people convince themselves, and say to others, that the terrible things they’re doing are what God wants them to do.)
And I think that this is what lies behind Jesus’ long and quite complex prayer in the Gospel. The disciples are “in the world” which he is going to leave soon, but they “do not belong to the world”.
Some Christians have taken this to mean they should retreat into themselves and have as little as possible to do with the outside world, because they’re holy and the world isn’t. We don’t belong there. We don’t even have to form separate communities for this mindset: we’ve all heard people say that their faith is personal and doesn’t affect the way they live. Well, why not?
Elsewhere in John, in his great opening, the Gospel tells us the darkness has never overcome the light. But if the light clears off of its own free will, we leave the field in darkness, so I don’t think separating ourselves is an option. And there’s always the risk, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, that we become “so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly use.”
But it’s also true that doing the right thing can come at a cost. And so Jesus doesn’t pray for his friends to be taken out of the world, but for their protection in it. And for them to be sanctified, or consecrated.
This doesn’t mean that we become holy in the sense of being better than other people. We know we’re not. It’s a divine gift, and therefore unearned: without becoming something or somebody completely different, consecration makes it the best and truest version of itself. For example, when I was ordained I didn’t become more holy and less Sue: I became more Sue (still working on the holy). I can only apologise!
Perhaps you will know how after say, getting married, you changed over time to become more yourself even though you were now part of something else. Or having children. Or dealing with life-threatening illness. That too is part of being consecrated. And perhaps this can only really happen when we do bump up against the way the world is: when we are called upon to show where our true allegiance lies.
To return to science fiction – or any other variety – it has an advantage over real life. There’s a structure. We turn the last page, or the credits roll, and the story has ended.
The life of faith is not like that. The story never ends, it just gets passed on. The extract we heard from Acts is very matter-of-fact: now that Judas has gone, they’re going to need another apostle, so they ask the Holy Spirit and cast lots. I have to say that sounds a lot more straightforward than the Church of England’s approach to appointing a new Rector, but that’s another story.
Now it’s passed on to us. What are we going to make of it?
Oh, and in real life, the dialogue tends to be better as well!