Gospel: John 17:6-19
Looking up to heaven, Jesus prayed, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
In John’s Gospel, there is no record of Jesus’ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Rather, this prayer we just heard, which took place during the Last Supper, is Jesus’ final prayer. In his prayer, Jesus is passing on the responsibility for God’s mission in the world to the disciples.
Jesus doesn’t pray that his disciples be taken out of the world, but that they not “belong to the world”. Sanctify them in the truth, he says, set them apart. Allow them to be in the world, but not of the world, that is the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples.
In the decades following the time that Jesus’ walked the earth, until the year 313 when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it wasn’t really very difficult for the Christian community to follow Jesus admonition that they “not belong to the world”. For the two and a half centuries after Jesus death, persecution, even martyrdom, was commonplace among the burgeoning Christian communities. They were forced to meet in secret places and practiced and refined their Christian rituals in isolation, apart from the powerful and those in authority. They existed within the Roman world, but were clearly not a part of it.
Following the legalization of Christianity, a movement developed among Christian communities. They retreated to the deserts of Egypt, purposefully seeking the kind of isolation they had experienced in the days before their religion became the religion of the establishment. Anthony the Great, the most famous of these desert dwellers, who have become known as the Desert Fathers, saw withdrawal and asceticism as an alternative to the persecution and martyrdom the early Christians had relied on to solidify their faith. The Desert Fathers rejected any attempts to cooperate with the Romans, refusing to engage in a compromise between “the things of God and the things of Caesar.”
Eventually, the example of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They renounced all the pleasures of the senses – rich food, baths, rest, and anything that might allow them to be comfortable.
Listen to the words of St. John Cassian, a noted Desert Father, instructing his followers on the practice of fasting:
“I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength – age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies… A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.”
“Stay hungry,” St. John Cassian tells us. Not just for food, though that is very good advice – especially in a society where half the population is overweight, a third are obese, and we may, because of overeating, be raising a generation of children that, for the first time in a hundred years, have a life expectancy shorter than their parents. If we are not to be owned by the world, we must stay hungry.
The voice of the marketplace tells us that we are inadequate, unfulfilled, in need of whatever product they are persuading us to buy. They create the desire for things we never dreamed we needed and try to convince us that every desire requires fulfillment. Hold that model up against the voice of John Cassian living in the deserts of Egypt, 1700 years ago, practicing asceticism, denial, and telling us that if we desire to know God, it is better to stay hungry.
The Desert Fathers didn’t rejoice when Christianity became the established religion. They feared the prospect enough to flee to the desert, recognizing that their faith ran the risk of being co-opted by the powerful. Their movement to the desert was their response to the same question we ponder today. How do we carry a sense of God’s presence with us into the world? How can we be in the world without being overwhelmed by the world?
The example of the Desert Fathers was offered up almost 2000 years ago. Last week I experienced a very different kind of illustration of what it means to be in this world and not of this world. The event occurred in the Intensive Care Unit of Mercy Hospital were I went to offer an anointing to a friend and fellow priest, David Benham, the priest in charge at St. Andrew’s in Rogers. David had suffered from a heart attack the day before, and that morning had an angioplasty done. He was scheduled to have quadruple bypass surgery performed on his heart later in the day. David lay on his back in the hospital bed, his wife at his side, his body connected to a vast collection of the marvels of medical technology – accurately monitoring his respiration, blood pressure, and multitude of other signs of the human condition. A steady stream of medical technicians flowed in and out of his room, continuously checking on his physical well being. A low dose of morphine eventually eased his pain and he wanted to talk.
David is a passionate and compassionate man and we share a common interest in the treatment of those that may be the “least among us”, the prisoners housed in the Benton County Jail. As David expressed his concern over the diet and handling of the inmates, his level of moral outrage elevated, his breath quickened, his face reddened, the rate of his pulse accelerated, and we were suddenly awash in a sea of flashing lights, sounding bells, and scurrying attendants.
Angie, David’s faithful wife, placed her hand on his shoulder and said, “Take a deep breath, honey. Relax. For now, let Roger worry about the sheriff and the jail. Just breathe easy.” David followed Angie’s gentle instructions and his breathing and pulse returned to normal. The monitors ceased their urgent cry and everyone returned to their stations.
Later, walking down the hospital corridor I began to wonder what would happen over the course of a day, if my physiological state of being, was continually monitored, as David’s was that morning. How often would by quickened pulse, my rapid breathing, my elevated blood pressure, cause alarms to sound. Alarms that would alert me to the wisdom of Jesus’ prayer to the father, that his disciples not be taken out of this world, but neither should they belong to this world.
It’s our challenge as Christians. How do we care about the world, show compassion, work for justice, take action on behalf of the needy and those at the margins, and not be consumed by the world.
Clearly, at that moment in ICU, in his critical condition, Father David had no business engaging in spirited conversation. But how many other times has he, and have I, and have you, been consumed by our passions? How often are we not just, in this world, but also of this world? Christ calls his disciples to be fully engaged, but never to belong to the world, to be consumed by it. We are called to make the world a better place for all God’s children, but in the process, the example of Christ teaches us to maintain a sense of serenity, calm in the storm, to hold on to an awareness of the peace that God offers us all.
Jesus said to his disciples, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” The world offers us the potential for great joy and great challenges. We are called to fully partake of both, but in the process to stay hungry, not seeking satisfaction from what the world has to offer, but always holding fast to the lasting satisfaction that comes from an awareness of the eternal presence of God with us.