Being in the world but not of the world – that’s a phrase that often pops up in Christian parlance, a short hand way of describing the relationship of a Christian to their surrounding culture.
There is good Scriptural warrant for this phrase, and this portion of Jesus’s prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper – which we usually refer to as the High Priestly prayer – is one of those passages that talks about the connection between Jesus’s followers and the world around them.
And yet, being in the world but not of the world is not a phrase that comes easily to many Episcopalians, because when the Bible speaks of “the world”, it is really referring to culture, and social structures, and the agreed upon patterns of human governance.
For much of the life of the Episcopal Church, and the Church of England before it, the Church both shaped and participated in its culture, along with many other main-line American Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Congregational).
In fact, as soon as the Emperor Constantine decided back in the fourth century that the Roman Empire should be Christian, the social structures of the Empire – both formal and in formal – started to be Christian. Not only were laws made that reflected at least a bit of Christian teaching and practice, but music, and painting, and architecture all began to be put to use in the service of the faith and the Church – that’s why we have beautiful churches and cathedrals in Europe that were designed, built, and decorated by some of Europe’s finest artisans and artists. Music began to be written that enhanced the Church’s liturgy and prayer life, and that sound particularly well for the sort of church buildings that were being built. As the old Roman culture of the Empire began dying away in the fourth and fifth centuries, a new culture was emerging – the culture of the Christian empire, one that was increasingly divided between the Latin West centered in Rome, and the Orthodox East which claimed Constantinople as its headquarters. So Christian faith was having a profound impact – not just on the lives of individual believers, or even on congregations full of worshippers; but on the society in which it found itself; Christianity became a shaper of culture.
We can try to describe culture in many different ways, but usually it is something we take for granted, just the way things are done, culture is to human beings as the water in a gold fish tank is to the gold fish – and most often we see it best when we can step away from our culture for a time.
That became very obvious to me when we were living in Japan in the late 1980s; not only was there a contrast between Japanese culture and American culture to get used to, but among the ex-patriot community there was a constant tug (at least among mothers of young children) between American expectations about the way to do things and British expectations – most often these took the form of complaints about children’s shoes and schools.A very clear example of the struggle between culture and faith was the decline, illness, and eventual death of the old Japanese Emperor Hirohito; his condition was reported on daily in the newspapers and on radio and TV, and yet in our English-speaking Japanese Anglican parish in Tokyo he was never prayed for.
That was because pre-1945 the Japanese Emperor was traditionally considered to be divine descended from the Shinto sun goddess. Although that officially changed after the war, even in 1989 for many Japanese Christians, praying for the Emperor was too close to praying to the Emperor, and so it was not done; the culture, in this case, trumped Christian practice.
The whole relationship between faith/Church and culture has swung back and forth, depending on where you lived, who was in power, and what were the dominant influences of the time. But for the most part, in the United States, there was a broad feeling that our American culture was Christian, or at least some lowest-common-denominator of public acceptance and understanding of the role and importance of Christian faith and Church structure and life.
Even though we’ve always had many different denominations and religions, and celebrated regional versions of our culture and welcomed (for the most part) the cultural contributions of immigrant peoples into our midst, we still had an over-arching feeling and story about ourselves as Americans that included some form of Christian culture and Church belonging.
But those days have been over since at least the mid-1960s, and with each passing year we see more and more that the driving factors in our culture are not Christian, not religious at all, but secular; no religion.
That’s why youth sports and children’s birthday parties get scheduled for Sunday mornings; its why people increasingly have to work on Sundays even though they may not have jobs in medicine, law enforcement, or emergency services; it’s why parents and teachers in school communities have trouble with expectations about children’s behavior and work ethic.
Just this past week, the Pew Research Center released a report citing the fastest growing group in the United States (religiously speaking) is people who formerly claimed some Church affiliation who now claim none – not atheist or agnostic, but no Church.
The reasons for this are too many to go into here and now, and this is not really new news, but it is instructive that these same people who are leaving Church still have a desire to pray, to be connected to God, to make a difference in their communities.
As church and a formal connection to faith has moved from the center of our cultural expectations to the margins, we Christians have an opportunity – one that is very much reflected in the apostles’ experience in this time between the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The apostles had moved from a place of confidence and clarity in Jesus’ presence with them, to wondering what was going to come next, who should be in leadership, what was going to be their role now?
The Risen Christ had given them some instructions – to go out into the world; to teach and baptize; to announce the kingdom of God; but also to stay in the city and wait until the power of the Spirit should come upon them.
Those were, at the same time, enormous projects, and very vague and unsettling.
We – all Christians, at least in America and Europe, and the old main-line churches especially – are in the same place as the apostles were.
We are wondering what comes next, what is our role in our culture and our communities; and our “new location” on the margins of our culture can actually be an advantage.
We don’t have to keep up any particular social appearances, we don’t have to work to hold onto some privileged status, or be fearful that too clear a statement of Jesus’ words and meaning (once we have really delved into what that is) will upset those who come to Church only out of habit or some vague sense of “Church being a good thing” – those days are long behind us.
We get a different perspective from the margins – one that is closer to the disenfranchised, the powerless, the poor, the overlooked and outcast, the very people that our Lord hung out with during his earthly ministry.
Instead, from the margins, we have the opportunity to explore and examine anew Jesus’ words and life and meaning, and to learn to pray deeply.
We can practice speaking with humble confidence about what God is doing with us and for us – not what someone else should or should not be doing, but how God is molding and shaping us and our life together, and why we find that life-giving.
And finally, we can allow ourselves to be curious about our neighbors, about what their lives are like – what their struggles, and hopes, and joys, and fears are – and how we might come alongside them, partner with them in ways that reflect the goodness of God.
In short, we can learn, perhaps for the first time, to be in the world, to be living in our culture, to be fully a member of American society – and at the same time, to know that we are not of our culture; to know that the values, and story, and practices that shape our lives as Jesus’ followers are fundamentally different from what is on offer from most parts of our culture.
And when we do this we will be in good company – that of the apostles as they stood on the threshold of the great adventure of life and faith guided and shaped by the Holy Spirit, taking our part in the blessing of the world.
Let us pray.
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the
nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh;
and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ Book of Common Prayer
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension
May 17, 2015