When my daughter Meredith was about 5, I saw her riding her bike, training wheels and all, down the middle of the street. This wasn’t a huge deal since we live in a cul-de-sac neighborhood and almost every person driving here is a neighbor, there are lots of kids, and no one drives fast. I caught up to Meredith and was about to redirect her to the sidewalk when she burst into a very involved, very important story. I couldn’t get her attention until she finished telling me about something very important that happened – I think it involved a baby bird perhaps. A neighbor was coming down the street and had to stop. I could see through the windshield a bemused look on his face as the greater world came to a halt and Meredith’s world took precedence.
In a way, five-year-old Meredith was in our world but not of our world. All children seem to go through a stage in development where the boundary between their interior world and the world outside is not quite clear.
I thought of that anecdote when I read in the Gospel for today. Jesus prays for the apostles, and by extension, for us, to be in the world but not of the world. This passage is the middle part of what is called Jesus’ high priestly prayer, during the last time he would be with his apostles until after the resurrection. I find it touching that Jesus prayed so hard for his disciples, and for us, to be kept safe from the world and from the evil one when he knew that the full weight of the world, and even the apparent triumph of evil, awaited him.
This section of the Gospel of John has always frustrated me, in a large part because I find it almost impenetrable, even with the aid of commentaries. What exactly does Jesus mean: be in the world but not of the world?
I know that the Church puts a lot of thought into the readings of each Sunday and ties them together with a common theme, or even several themes. In particular, the first reading and the Gospel build on each other. So I looked at the first reading from the Book of Acts that we heard just a few minutes ago, where Matthias is chosen as an apostle to take Judas’s place. Now the time sequence is backwards here – the events of the Gospel of John took place before the events in the Book of Acts. Since we know that Jesus prayed that apostles would be in the world and not of it, this prayer must have been answered and the apostles, and in fact the entire Church at that time, must have been in the world and yet not part of it. How is this represented in the reading?
Well, for one thing, Peter, that is, the Church depended upon Scripture to guide them. Peter refers to the book of Psalms, written between 600 and 1,000 years before that time. And Peter acts upon that prophetic scripture. That is not a worldly thing to do. Being of the world would have meant forming a blue-ribbon committee to decide what to do, or even splitting into two communities if the matter of succession was disputed. There are plentiful examples of that happening in history.
Then again, Peter did not simply appoint someone to be an apostle, though certainly he had the authority to do so. In a community that was of this world, he could have appointed his best friend, an ally, or his nephew who needed a job to the role. Instead, he stood up in the midst of the disciples and proclaimed that the Church is not of this world. Peter let the decision of who to nominate be up to all those gathered there, and up to Jesus really since Jesus certainly called who he wanted to be part of the close group of disciples that accompanied him throughout his ministry, which was felt necessary to be an apostle.
What did they do next? “Then they prayed”. The Church prayed as Jesus had prayed for them. The Church in praying put all into the hands of God. How blessed would we be if we left all our decisions up to God? Then they cast lots to see who the next apostle would be. Sounds strange to us but casting of lots has a well established history in Israel and is mentioned about 70 times in the Old Testament.
Being in the world is something we cannot choose. We are here until were not. We cannot stop the world to tell our story, as 5-year-old Meredith did in the middle of the road that day. We can however choose to be not of the world. How?
We can depend on scripture. As Catholics, I would say we depend on scripture and Tradition, which is how the Church lives out scripture. We depend upon Jesus, who wants us to be one as he and the Father are one. Things that are from God unite us, and things that do not unite us divide us. Let decisions be made by those who will live with those decisions., as Peter devolved authority to the disciples in nominating Justus and Matthias. We call that subsidiarity. We can make decisions for the good of all not just a few. We call that human dignity. And we pray, for small decisions as well as large ones. When praying we ask for guidance and listen for an answer however God wills to send it. We call that faith.
If we do these things, individually and as a Church, it will go a long way to our being in the world but not of the world. The world will notice and wonder why we are different. The world, which values conformity above all, will hate. We do them anyway.