I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
Are you familiar with the Smurfs? It was a cartoon series on TV in the 1980s about these little blue people named Smurfs that lived in their own community in the forest. What was interesting about the Smurfs is that they were all essentially the same. They had blue skin and wore white pants and hats. Only Papa Smurf wore something different; he wore red instead and had a beard. He was the wise old leader of the Smurfs. The Smurfs also hid from the rest of the world, they secluded themselves in their village and avoided interactions with humans.
So, the Smurfs were an ethnically homogenous community united around a leader, separated from the rest of the world.
There’s another cartoon, this one from the late 80’s/early 90’s, called the Rescue Rangers. The Rescue Rangers are a group of friends who help people. Chip and Dale are chipmunks and the leaders, and they team up with Monterrey Jack an Australian mouse, and Gadget Hackwrench a female mouse and inventor, and Zipper, who is a housefly. So, these chipmunks, mice, and fly all work together for a common cause. They may be different, but they’re all equally important and have a role to play. They’re out in the world, solving problems and helping people. They have their own identity as Rescue Rangers, but they’re engaged with the world.
So, the Smurfs and the Rescue Rangers illustrate two very different ways of interacting with the world. The Smurfs avoid the rest of the world in order to protect their own community, while the Rescue Rangers go out into the world as a community in order to interact with the world to make it better.
Therefore, I would submit to you that the Smurfs and the Rescue Rangers, by analogy, provide us with two contrasting models of the Church. Is the Church a community sheltered from the world, protecting its own and avoiding contact with everyone else, like the Smurfs? Or, is the Church a community made up of various types of people that goes out into the world to make it better? That is the Rescue Ranger view of the Church.
The Smurfy view of the Church tends to be pretty dominant in our thinking sometimes. The Israelites in the Old Testament eventually fell into this line of thought. They began to think that they existed as God’s people for their own sake. They had their culture and their beliefs and their high priest and ceased to be God’s witnesses on earth, but instead tried to seclude themselves away from the rest of the world in order to remain separate from it. They became like the Smurfs, except worse because though their lack of witness, they began to lose what had made them “Israel” to begin with. They were Israel because they had the Lord as their God, but as they forgot that, they began to focus on other aspects of their identity such as their descent from Abraham and thus missed the whole point of who they were meant to be as God’s people, the Church on earth. I fear sometimes that we in our own time are tempted to fall into the same trap by focusing on things other than Christ within the Church.
Now, the reading from the Gospel of John today comes from what is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (John 17:11-19). After the Last Supper, shortly before Jesus was to be arrested and crucified, Jesus prayed to the Father to protect and guide his Church. And what does he ask of his Father?
He says that his disciples, that is his Church, are still in the world. He prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
So, Jesus prays that his Church may be in the world, but not of it, and then he sends them into the world. Later, after his resurrection and before his ascension, he will reiterate this mission to the disciples directly.
I would submit to you that this is a Rescue Rangers view of the Church, rather than a Smurfy view of the Church. Jesus doesn’t want his Church to be secluded from the world and exist only for itself. Instead, he wants the Church to engage the world in order to bear witness to him and proclaim the forgiveness of sins and salvation that comes through his death and resurrection. He also calls on the people of the Church to exercise their various vocations faithfully in order to tend and care for the world.
In verse 20, which is just after our reading, Jesus says, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
The Church is called to be God’s witness in the world, but it is not of the world. And it’s not of the world, because it does not have the false gods that the world has. Instead, the Church has the one true God as it’s Lord. And because of this identity as the Lord’s people, the Church has the Truth and the Word and is enabled to go out into the world to proclaim this Truth to others, without losing its identity in the process. That is to say, because we are grounded in Christ and he has made us his body, then we can engage with the rest of the world without losing our moorings.
Remember that in the Bible there are two groups of people: there is Israel – the Church – and then there is everyone else, the gentiles or nations or ethne. So, you have two types of people, those in the Church centered around Christ, and those outside the Church. Those in the Church are Israel, those outside are the nations. The Church then, is it’s own nation, God’s people (1 Peter 2:9).
And the Church, as God’s nation, is composed of people called out of all nations, who are therefore no longer defined by those former nations, but rather defined by Christ as part of the Church. So, the Church is not Smurfville where everyone looks the same, but rather instead is like the Rescue Rangers. The Church is God’s ethnos, His nation, united around the crucified and risen Christ, and the people of the Church are therefore blood brothers and sisters in Christ, despite differences in the way we look, talk, or where our ancestors may have come from. We are to love one another, because God has brought us together as the body of Christ. And then, we as the Church bear witness to what God has done for us and all people through Christ so that others may believe and also receive salvation as well. This is one of the significant points of the “Song of Simeon” that we sing following the Lord’s Supper: Christ is the glory of Israel and a light to the Gentiles.
You see this light of Christ being shone on the Gentiles throughout the book of Acts as the people of the Church go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. You see that in the reading today as the Apostles choose Matthias to fill the slot in the twelve that was left open by Judas when he betrayed Jesus (Acts 1:12-26). They knew that they had to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection before the world and therefore called one of those in their midst to fill the apostolic office. You see it in the life of Paul, a Jew, who is sent to the gentiles to bring them to faith in Christ. You’ll see it next week on Pentecost Sunday as the Church bears witness before the nations to what God has done for us through Christ. You saw it a few weeks ago as Philip proclaimed Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch.
And you see it throughout history, ever since the New Testament, as the Church continues to bear the testimony of God before the world. You see it today as the Church wields the Gospel and the Sacraments as witnesses to what God has done for us through Christ. The Church is always in the world, but not of it. The Church is God’s people, which He forges together through Christ and which therefore finds its unity in Christ.
And the Church is called to fulfill the mission given it by Jesus Christ himself, when – after his resurrection – he said in Matthew 28:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
So, the Church is sent. The Lord tells us to go. And he doesn’t leave us unarmed, he sanctifies us in his Truth and gives us His Word so that we may bear testimony, that is be witnesses, before the world.
That calling is similar to what the Rescue Rangers did. They had a clear identity as Rescue Rangers, and it didn’t matter where you came from, you had a new identity as a Rescue Ranger and were now part of something different, something special. There were the Rescue Rangers and then there was everyone else, and the Rescue Rangers went out into the world to engage it and make it better.
Likewise, we go out into the world to engage it to make it better. We bring the Word of God’s Law to bring people to repentance so that they recognize that they are fallen sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. We bring the Word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to give this free forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God and each other. We bring the love of Christ to those around us. We bring the first-fruits of the restoration of all things as we better the world through our art, music, industry, teaching, learning, and all other God-pleasing vocations. We show the world that God cares enough for it to send His Son to die for it and then to send you into it to tend and care for it until the time comes for the full restoration.
Through all these things we fulfill the commission of Christ to go into the world to bear witness to him, to the forgiveness and reconciliation he brings, and to the restoration of all things that he is bringing in full at the end of the age. We show people what God has done for His creation and what He has in store for it, that He has not abandoned it to death and decay and sin, but that He is bringing into it life abundantly. “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11).
(Image: Fresco, 14th century, Battistero Padova, by Giustao da Padova, Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battistero_Padova_-_1dome1.jpg )