Presbyterian pastor and writer Mark Davis offers us a menu of possibilities when it comes to the definition of “world” in John’s Gospel. We’ve all heard references to “the world” in the Gospels, moreover we’ve heard these references in sermons and everyday conversation. What exactly do we mean when we reference “the world” in relation to living one’s Christian faith? Davis offers a helpful list and context to understand what the author of John’s Gospel has in mind.
There are 78 uses of this term in John, compared to 15 times in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
There are times when John is using the term spatially, to refer to all of creation – such as in v. 5 when Jesus says, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
At other times, it seems to refer to all of humanity, such as in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world …”
“Out of the world” in v.6, then it is repeated in vv.14 (2x), 15, and 16 (2x). In vv.14 and 16, the phrase is used with a negative assessment, meaning “not out of this world.” Twice, in v. 11, is the phrase “in the world” and once, in v.9 is the phrase “on behalf of the world”.
Interestingly in vv.4-5, just before our text for today, there are references both to the world and to the earth: I glorified you on earth (the root of our word ‘geology’) by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. In verse 6, Jesus is praying for his disciples (it appears) and refers to them as the ones whom God gave to him “out of the world.” We could hear the term “world” as a term of wonder. If we do so, Jesus could be saying – with wonder – that “out of all the world, these are the ones whom you have given me.” We could hear it negatively, with “the world” as the place of empires and dangers and temptations, etc. In that sense, for God to give Jesus disciples “out of the world” might indicate that discipleship is liberation from those structures and destructive ways of being. This negative interpretation of “world” might make sense of v.14, that says that the world “hated” the disciples. In that same vein, Jesus says twice - in v.14 and v.16 - that neither he nor his disciples are “out of the world.” Neither Jesus nor his disciples are ‘products’ of the world, that they do not reflect the values and cares of the world.
I have heard the word “world” mentioned in Christian talk for many years. I hear people use “world” to refer to the unity and goodness of Creation, I think of the famous song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. People will say to me, “you know there has to be a God, look at the world we live in, how complex, how beautiful, how it is woven together in such amazing detail!” Then I have heard people speak of “world” as all of humanity, how they feel deeply connected to the human race, to the human condition, to the deeply held conviction that as God is in me, God is in you, God is in everyone…
Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world.
Red, and yellow, black, and white, They are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
And then there are those who use the word “world” as a catch-all for that which is disappointing and degrading about the human condition. “The world” is another way of saying “lying, cheating, selfish, slick, immoral, etc…”
Search me, O God, and know my heart today, Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray; See if there be some wicked way in me; Cleanse me from every sin, and set me free.
What I find particularly interesting about this latter definition of “world” is how small the scope is for what is clearly a description of wrong-doing. Rarely do those who reference “world” for negative aspects of the human condition make mention of racism, poverty, violence or sexism on a more macro level, the negative things are inter-personal, limited to personal virtue, leaving unsaid and unaddressed larger forces at play in all cultures.
When I went to seminary in the 1980’s the “world” was “Empire”, meaning that the Gospel was a call to resistance, to overcome the powers that kept many in poverty and oppression while a few lavished in luxury and power. The narrative of those years was the house churches in Latin America that fortified themselves against military juntas, most of which were supported by American money and military intelligence. And within Canada the issues we ministerial candidates were encouraged to confront were systems of oppression, cultures and policies that kept whites in power while persons of other cultural ancestries remained largely shut out of the corridors of power. We were also told that Jesus was on the side of the oppressed, that consistently in the Gospels Jesus asked the rich to divest their power and wealth and the poor were liberated, embraced and told that in the Kingdom they would be “first”.
This all created some very strange dynamics in “churchland”. I remember well the scene from my home congregation, a church that had dwindled to 30 people in a sanctuary that had a capacity to seat 500. Most of the congregation were very elderly and they loved Billy Graham and his focus on those personal virtues of honesty, hard work and loyalty. Our minister then had been to Nicaragua and was fueled by a sense of outrage that the vast majority of people lived in squalor while a small number of elites held all the wealth, power and were protected by a military supplied by our American friends to the south. When the church heard “world” they thought of a slick, amoral selfish generation, that the “world” was sliding into an irreversible cesspool. But when the minister preached about the “world” he meant a place that valued wealth and power and a Kingdom where Jesus believed a different “world” of equality and justice would one day prevail.
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…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.
I lived with Mennonites in Winnipeg for a year. I socialized, worshipped and shared social times with my new Mennonite friends. These Mennonites took the view that they were apart from the “world” but that God had sent them into the “world” as it was worth redeeming. They did not fly any national flags in their sanctuaries because the only loyalty they swore to uphold was to the Kingdom of God Jesus had ushered in with his birth. Their lifestyle (simple living), witness (activists opposing militarism, poverty and environmental destruction) and personal virtue (honest, hard-working and frugal) were formed by the basic belief that God had called them to show the “world” what the Kingdom looked like.
To this day when I hear the word “world” in a Christian conversation I think of that commitment, to be in the “world” but not “of the world”. What I ask of you I ask of myself every day, not so much “What Would Jesus Do?” as “How do I bring the “world” of Jesus’ Kingdom into the “world” I live in?” That effort is personal, it is in my community, and it is in my “world”. And it is every day and it is this day. Amen.