In the world, but not of the world

Maybe you’ve seen it on the back of a car or truck: a clever logo that looks like a cross planted in the heart of the word “now.” The cross actually doubles as the letter T; the logo is thus NOTW, or “not of this world.” Indeed, if you hang around Christians long enough, you’ll probably hear someone say that believers are supposed to be “in the world, but not of it.”

The idea derives in part from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:

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. (John 17:14-19 NRSV)

There are two meanings of the word “world” in Jesus’ prayer. It can refer simply to the fact of our physical existence. Jesus can speak of himself as being physically present in the world (17:13) and the same is true of the disciples (17:11). The disciples, in fact, are to remain physically in the world after Jesus leaves; he is not asking the Father to remove them from the world nor from harm’s way.

But neither he nor they are of the world, in the sense of belonging to it. Here and elsewhere in John, “world” means the human order that is opposed to God. Jesus was physically born into this world, but claimed a divine origin — which confused and infuriated his opponents to no end. And as he told Nicodemus, those who would follow him would have to be born “again” or “anew” (John 3:3) — which confused poor Nick to no end. The disciples, who have finally believed that Jesus came from the Father, are no longer of this world, for that kind of belief and surrender changes everything.

Those who are of the world share its values and priorities, which in the gospel of John results in refusing to see the light. Over and over, Jesus performs signs to show who he is and by whom he has been sent. But what do people see when looking through worldly eyes? He heals a lame man and they see a Sabbath breaker. He feeds the multitudes and they see a meal ticket. He raises a man from the dead and they see a challenge to their own status and authority.

And when Jesus dies on a cross, the world will see…what? Not an act of loving sacrifice. Not glory. Not the triumph of grace. But instead, perhaps, a sadly failed revolutionary, a misguided pretender, a charlatan who built up people’s hopes and let them crash and burn yet once again.

I imagine even the disciples themselves would be tempted to think in such ways. That would be at least one reason Jesus would pray for the Father to protect them from the evil one.

And that, too, is why he would pray for them to be sanctified in the truth. But what does that mean? We’ll explore that question in Sunday’s post.