The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
May 13, 2018
On Wednesday, members of one of our small groups and one of our Sunday school classes had a conversation with John Dominic Crossan from his home in Florida. (Zoom teleconferencing is so cool!) The Seekers group had read the book he wrote with Marcus Borg, The Last Week, and an adult class is reading Dom’s latest, Resurrecting Easter. And it was a treat to be able to ask questions of one of the world’s pre-eminent New Testament scholars.
Today’s scripture reading comes at the end of what we would call Maundy Thursday and before Good Friday. It happens just before Judas’s betrayal and Jesus’ arrest. Dom said that the thing that makes John’s gospel different is that the character of Jesus calls all the shots and controls everything that is going on. None of the events happen to him…they happen because he wills them.
In the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that he is “deeply grieved” and offers the tortured prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks God to “remove the cup from me” and avoid crucifixion, which Jesus says is what he wants. It’s pretty clear in the synoptic gospels that Jesus does not want to go to the cross. But in John’s gospel, there is no heart-rending prayer in Gethsemane; Jesus is in control of his fate.
I have to tell you that my first reaction when I read today’s scripture was that John’s Jesus is incredibly verbose! Today’s scripture is part of a prayer, but not the kind of prayer we hear from the synoptic Jesus…these are not the words of a “needy petitioner, but the divine revealer and there the prayer moves over into being an address, admonition, consolation, and prophecy.”
John’s Jesus frequently mentions “the world,” and he has a love-hate relationship. The Greek word in the New Testament is cosmos, and it means God’s world as well as the created universe…but it means something else, too. (Stay tuned for that!) On the one hand, John writes that “God so loved the world…that he gave his only-begotten Son.” And he also says in today’s scripture that “they do not belong to the world” and two chapters earlier, John’s Jesus says, “I have chosen you out of the world–therefore the world hates you,” but at the same time he says of his disciples, “I have sent them into the world.”
For John the created universe is all good. However, the world of human civilization is pretty warped. John earlier says that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Speaking personally, I love the world. I love creation and the splendor we can see in it. I love the diversity of people and cultures that inhabit it. I love the amazing creatures that inhabit it (except for the Ebola virus, rattle snakes, and great white sharks). I love the bodily experiences we can get by living in the world. But I also know that the world is broken place…not because of nature, but because of us: because of humanity.
Did you all read the news this week? Mr. Trump revoked US participation in the nuclear arms agreement with Iran. Israel launched a massive missile strike in Syria. The Saudi foreign minister said that his nation will build nukes if the Iranians do. John McCain is urging fellow senators not to confirm Gina Haspel as CIA director because of her presumed endorsement of torture. Trump’s lawyer got $1.2 million from Novartis after he promised White House access to the pharmaceutical giant. Donald Trump ended protections for 300,000 Central American and Haitian living in the U.S. New York’s attorney general resigned after accusations of abuse from four women. The attorney general of the U.S. vowed to split up immigrant families. The NRA selected Ollie North as their new president. North was convicted in 1989 for obstructing justice, mutilating government documents and taking an illegal gratuity in connection with the Iran-Contra Scandal.
That was just last week, folks. If you think “the world” is all peaches and cream, I’d ask you to reassess your appraisal.
Jesus lived in a world that was dominated by empire…for Jesus it was the Roman Empire. It wasn’t that the people who ran the Empire were all awful, greedy, immoral, selfish individuals -– they weren’t. It is simply that the nature of empire is fall back on the human condition for its vision of the world. It is a vision of winners vs. losers, rich vs. poor, oppressor vs. the underling, economic domination vs. economic justice, slave owners vs. enslaved, the self-righteous vs. truly just, the proud vs. the humble, the landed vs. the landless, the dominant sex vs. the “inferior” sex, the privileged vs. the deprived. It is based on scarcity…the mistaken idea that there isn’t enough for everyone, so I’m going to grab what I can.
Where do you see the signs of empire today? I’m quite sure that Vladimir Putin has fantasy-filled dreams of restoring Russia to its former grandeur…he started with Crimea and Ukraine four years ago. I imagine that President Xi Jinping of China, now that he has swept aside the nuisance of term limits, has visions of even greater expansion of China’s reach into Africa and the developing world as a dominant economic player.
And what about us? The Romans in Jesus’ day had military outposts along the Rhine and the Danube, out to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and France, and they had troops stationed in Africa down to the Sahara. And of course, they occupied the Jewish homeland and Egypt. We have bases in Afghanistan, Australia, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, Djibouti, Greece, Israel, Italy, Germany, Greenland, Japan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Niger, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. And we spend a lot to support our military. In fact, we spend more than the next seven countries combined -– that’s more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK, and Japan combined. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, I’m just saying that it is. What do we say about a nation whose leader who cuts taxes for the rich, increases military spending, and who wants to pay for part of the huge deficit spending it causes by getting rid of health coverage for needy children?
I think the case can be made that we human beings tend to create empires when we want something that someone else has, whether it is land, wealth, natural resources, political or military influence. The Chinese have appeared in Africa with the promise of development aid and economic prosperity, and their influence is massive, but their motives are not egalitarian. And it isn’t too far off from what the U.S. has done in Central and South America since the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s.
Perhaps this litany has made you wonder why God so loved the world. I know that the world looks good here in Fort Collins. It looks good to those of us who have good jobs, a roof over our heads, time to go on vacation, some money saved for retirement, enough to pay our own student loans and enough to help our kids with college costs. But how ever beautiful our bubble, Fort Collins is not the whole world. Is the world such a benign place? Maybe that litany makes you think that God’s world actually needs saving.
If you see Jesus as an opponent of empire and a proclaimer of an alternative vision of a commonwealth of righteousness, peace, and economic justice, then perhaps the prayer you heard in today’s scripture is an anti-imperial prayer. See if this replacement of “world” with “empire” makes sense: “They do not belong to the empire, just as I do not belong to the empire…As you have sent me into the empire, so I have sent them into the empire.” The world that John’s Jesus talks about is the world of empire. The world of injustice. The world of dog-eat-dog. And the kingdom of God provides the only vital and viable alternative vision to those elements of the “normal” course of human civilization.
You and I don’t have to be part of that imperial world…Jesus has invited us to be part of the liberating reign of God. It takes time; progress is slow and often takes two steps forward and one step back, but don’t give up hope. You and I probably won’t be here to see the kingdom come into its fullness, and that’s why we have the church, which will continue to work for the reign of God long after you and I are gone.
I close with the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the guiding lights of the UCC in the 20th century:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
The world needs saving. The world needs us working together. So may you keep hope, keep faith, and keep love. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Mark 14.36, cf. Luke 22.42, Matthew 26.38-39
 Ernst Käsemann, quoted in Gerald Sloyan, John. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) p. 196.
 John 3.17
 cf. John 17.16 &18
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.