In John’s Gospel we hear a lot about ‘the world’, and it’s fair to say that what we hear is pretty negative. And today’s Gospel uses the word several times. We might well wonder what it all means. A lot is at stake: we all live in the world after all, and no matter how much we allow our minds to wander and escape, eventually we end up back in it.
One of the ways that we might understand ‘the world’ might be by thinking of it as the physical environment around us. If that is so – and indeed, people at various points in history have thought just that – then it looks as though the physical is something that we should flee from. But to do that would be to ignore the fuller picture we find in the Scriptures – and to ignore the evidence from John’s Gospel itself. In the prologue to his Gospel, John speaks of the Word, Christ, as active in the event of creation, a passage which itself strongly echoes the very beginning of Genesis. Everything that God has made is made good. So this ‘world’ that Jesus speaks of so negatively must be something a little more subtle than people have often suggested.
The important distinction that Jesus makes is between being ‘in’ the world as against being ‘of’ the world. We are creatures, living out our lives within the created order in the world. But being ‘of’ the world is something that we can and must avoid. So finding our way through daily lives requires constant evaluation and discernment. Clearly the Gospel will often put us at odds with the society in which we live, because we as Christians, as a Church, won’t just be able to follow the flow of progress wherever it takes us. As Christians we can, and indeed should, affirm all that is good and true. But sometimes the current of society pulls away from what is good and true, and if we are unknowingly swept by it, we will surely become ‘of’ the world. Knowing what is good and true is not always easy, and, both as individuals and as a Church, requires God’s help to know what’s what. In Jesus’ great prayer, he asks that the Father ‘sanctify us in the truth’. Our lives in the world must always be founded on the truth that Christ has revealed to us, the truth that he himself has received from the Father. This is always the yardstick for all our judgements.
Perhaps it might help if we were to see our lives in the light of the mystery of Christ’s Ascension. By his ascending to heaven in his full humanity, he has opened up for us the possibility that we too might one day be there with him. We should not be of the world, because we ultimately belong in heaven, in the presence of God. Our lives in the world are pilgrimages towards that final goal.
In pursuit of this goal, there are two pitfalls to avoid. Firstly, if we are of the world, we should be aware that we have been swept off course, and we are no longer able to make that journey towards our true home with God until we have found our bearings. What can certainly help us is frequent examination of conscience, so that God can help us to see what has a hold of us and where it has taken us, and then help us to change course. The second pitfall is the opposite extreme; and that is living with lives separated from reality. If we refuse to accept that we are in the world – with all the complexity and struggles that this often brings – we are much less likely to be able to receive God’s saving power in our lives. Living fully in the world in the way Christ has taught us provides us with a way of avoiding these two extremes – safe, free passage for every pilgrim.