The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      4th October 2020
Rejecting the World
Andrew Penny


Rejecting the World. 1 John 2:15ff

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.

These are rather extraordinary words. Their meaning is somewhat softened by John’s paternalistic vocabulary (“my little children… etc”) and his simplistic, repetitive style, but nevertheless they take some explaining.

In the first place we are told in Genesis, in the story of the creation, to which John alludes in the start of this letter and more famously, at the start of his Gospel, that God created the world and that it was good. Should we then not love it?

Further, this letter tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” Are we to disregard that love ourselves?

I does not, I think, it really helps to treat rejecting the world as just rejecting the bad bits; lust not love and puffed selfish pride. But, for a start, that is not what John says. He suggests that the world is entirely composed of lust and pride. And, in a way, he is right that the world exists on these feelings and desires.  The excesses are wrong, that excess or perversion does not invalidate the milder but vital need that human, indeed all creatures, have to sustain and reproduce themselves and their families etc. Nor does it make wrong the sort of pride we feel in wishing to make the most of the wonderful world in which we are set. And in tackling the evil in the world, we need a passion that goes beyond the rational; it’s excessive love that tends to overcome hatred and fear.

So, there is a paradox here, and the inconsistency is not only between John and other Christian writers, but within John himself.

It may help to look a bit at how John uses the word for “World”- Kosmos in Greek, and “love” -agapein. Kosmos has two distinct uses: the world as we generally use it to mean the whole of creation. But John also uses it in the French sense, of the people in the world, even the people in a particular bit of it. So he can talk of the world hating Jesus. This means at most humankind hated Jesus, and even that is something of an exaggeration. Not everyone hated Jesus, but the Jewish establishment and the crowd it whipped up did (and feared might be more accurate than hated)

The word for love is the sort of love that is not, or not merely, erotic, nor simply familial love, as between a parent and child and vice versa, but closer perhaps to kindness, or altruism. It is the word used where John enjoins us to love one another and the word for God’s creative, life giving love for the world. Indeed, I believe it’s meant that our kindness to one another, and indeed all fellow creatures and all creation, is small instance of God’s love, and is inspired by that divine love.

So much for attempts at definition; perhaps more important John’s context and that of most very early Christian writers, is of an imminent second coming. This certainly makes some sense of rejecting the world; giving up all life’s physical pleasures (and most notably, for St Paul, sex) only makes sense as short term proposition.

And that is how it’s been; there is a strong ascetic streak in the history of Christianity, but much more there has been a revelling in the beauty and pleasure there is in the world, and especially a harnessing of the physical pleasures of sight  and sound, used to express and explore the greater glory of God. There can be few better demonstrations of the possibilities of love than the happy union of two souls and bodies in marriage.

Rather than battling with this paradox ourselves, perhaps we would do better to look at how Christians have in fact behaved. As I said, there have been plenty of influential Christians who have rejected the world as far as they could, but almost invariably, they have remained closely linked with the world and been sought as advisors on the world’s problems. It is as if rejection of physical involvement in the world only brings a heightened awareness of the ethical problems, and some answers to them.

Equally, the chief reason for rejecting the world (that it was going to end shortly anyway) has in fact been an incentive to put things right. One might cynically say to put things right in the belief that it will stand you in good stead on judgement day. Whatever the motivation, Christianity has a record of which it can be justifiably proud of engagement with the world in, for example, hospitals, schools and the care for the poor. It has much that is shaming too, but that does not obliterate the good. The second coming has in fact worked as an incentive to bring on the Kingdom of God rather than a reason to reject the world.

John’s words then have had limited direct affect; it’s true that we as members of the world imbued with its lusts, both good and bad will pass away, but by doing the will of God we can be part of his love for the world, which will indeed last forever. That is, I think what John means by God abiding in us, and it is that abiding which he says is achieved by rejecting the world. Rather, I suggest than rejecting it we need to embrace it and change it for the better through that divine love which we are privileged to share. Amen.

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