God is Love

Nicolas Stebbing CR offers a reflection on the Gospel according to St John Chapter 17

Something over sixty years ago in a far-off cathedral in one of the colonies belonging to His Majesty King George the Sixth, a young couple were presenting their baby son for baptism, or christening as they called it. He was not, I am sorry to say, a very young baby, as he was notoriously a crying, squalling, miserable baby and it was fully twelve months before his parents could face bringing him to church.

You have probably guessed by now who the baby was! Anyway, in the course of this service the parents were asked on behalf of the child to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil; or more specifically ‘renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with the covetous desires of the flesh and the carnal desires of the same…’

A dark place

Pretty strong stuff for a twelve-month-old baby to deal with and probably that baby and millions of other babies baptized with Cranmer’s magnificent rite were badly traumatized by having such horrid things imputed to them. I won’t say that renouncing all this at the age of one year made a very great difference to my life then and the story of how far I did or didn’t steer away from the covetous and carnal desires of the flesh is not one to be told here. The point here really is that all this – the devil, the pomp and glory, the covetous and carnal desires – were all part of the world. The world was a dark and wicked place, full of the works of the devil, full of nasty desires and sins.

Radical changes

That was back in the Forties. But then came the Sixties. Suddenly the Church discovered it had got it wrong. The world was not an evil place. The devil did not exist. The world was a place of beauty, love and light, a place which God had created beautiful and filled with lovely people. The Church stopped reading all that nasty stuff in the Old Testament which spoke of wrath, judgement and sin; and it cut out much of St Paul who also goes on all the time about the world’s wickedness; and it had to reinterpret quite a lot of the Gospel to get it saying what was wanted.

And of course the baptism service was changed. The nasty bits were taken out. The world became a thoroughly good place, and now the babies only had to turn to Christ and all would be well; they would live happily ever after.

The modern world

Unfortunately the world did not cooperate with this new vision of itself. The Sixties were the time of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the cultural revolution in China, the endless revolutions, military coups and dictatorships of South America; and then the bright new dawn of African independence dissolved into the horrors of civil war, famine and crime which has convulsed almost every country in that great continent over the past fifty years. Even Europe has not escaped – the horrors of Yugoslavia, discovering the extent of child abuse, the exploding drug scene, the increase of crime – well, you see the news.

And so we come to chapter 17 of St John’s Gospel. Where does John stand on this question of the world? With Cranmer, or with the Sixties? Well you do not have to be a great biblical scholar to realize that John is definitely Cranmer’s man. Nine times in today’s Gospel alone Jesus speaks of the world, and on every occasion the world is a hostile place. He is coming out of the world. His disciples are in it but not of it. He will pray that they will be protected, defended, kept from the evil one who inhabits this world. It is pretty clear that the Jesus of St John’s Gospel would agree emphatically with Cranmer’s view of the world, and not at all with the Sixties that produced our present baptism rite.

The evil around us

Where does that leave us? Well, as always, it is not a choice between two simple alternatives. The world is a very bad place, but it is also a very good place. God did create the world and all that is in it, and saw that it was good. The world is full of beauty, light and joy and there are lots of wonderful, generous people in it. It wasn’t the Sixties that discovered this; the Church has always known it. But there is darkness too.

What can we do about it? Well, John’s Gospel does not only talk of the world. He speaks often of the truth, of doing the truth, walking in the truth. We need to keep constantly in mind the truth that there is much evil around us; and of course we live in it; we are influenced by it. Our ambitions, our behaviour, our mental images are formed by the things we see, the papers we read, the jobs we have to do to earn a living. As fully practising, believing Christians we may not be fully of the world but we are certainly in it. We have to be constantly alive to the dangers of living in such a place. That is the bad news.

A major challenge

The good news is that Jesus is in this world. He is everywhere in the world. He is not just in the beautiful countryside, the lovely churches, the joyful Christians. He is not just shut up in golden tabernacles, or imprisoned in a monstrance. It is one of the deepest and most important parts of our faith that Christ can be found in that utterly evil place of Golgotha; the Christ who went down even into the depths of hell can be found in the very worst places in this world.

The bleakest council estate, the poorest parts of town, the poverty stricken places of Africa are places where Christ is found; so too can he be found in the rich places where bankers take huge bonuses and newspaper barons make massive profits.

Finding Christ in these places is one of the major challenges of Christian life. We spend time here at Mirfield, on retreat or in College, or living a monastic life so that we can renew our vision of Jesus, see more clearly what the values of God are, and go and find him in the world. It is his world; he was there before us. We need to go out and find him.

Finding Jesus

And there is one other promise in today’s Gospel that we need to take seriously: Jesus is praying for us. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. Jesus prayed for those first disciples in the upper room and God did keep them safe. Against all the odds they survived the darkness of the Roman world and gave us the Christian Church we know today. And Jesus is praying for us. However dark and dangerous our world may seem he will keep us from evil.

Can we seek him in this world, and find him, and hold on to him and work with him? If we can our lives will be filled with joy, and that joy no one will take from us.

A version of this sermon
was given on the 20th May 2012
at the Community of the Resurrection