Sunday 12 May 2024

John's evil cosmos-world

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th May 2024, the 7th after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension.

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I apologise for my singing! But I’m sure you all recognise the song – memorably sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it - we all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a real Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s world. The kosmos-world is a dark shadow of God’s good world. It is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as Jesus tells us through John in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.

It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples’ feet. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’s twelve closest friends and disciples, has left the room. He has gone to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus is speaking to the remaining disciples, in what is known as his ‘farewell discourse’. Afterwards, he will go out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led by Judas, as Peter recalls in our 1st reading (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26).

Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points from Jesus’s teaching about the relationship between his disciples and John’s kosmos-world.

1.       Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.

2.       The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus, and his disciples too, because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.

3.       Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work in the kosmos-world.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.

It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus today on the hatred people harbour in their hearts for others they see as different from themselves, as enemies.

Personal hatred wounds the soul of both the hater and the hated. It is often expressed anonymously on social media, as those of us who use it know only too well. Children are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, whether it is aimed at their body form or their gender identity or some other perceived weakness. Vulnerable adults can also be severely affected. It blights lives and in extreme cases leads to suicide.

We may think that we cannot be guilty of such hateful behaviour - but what about old fashioned gossip? How many of us can say that we have never been party to passing on rumours that damage other people?

Group hatred, hatred of others because they belong to a different race or religion, is even more damaging than personal hatred.

Such hatreds are evil. They have been with us since the dawn of the human species, a kind of original sin, to which we are all potentially vulnerable. They fracture communities. And in the extreme they have led perfectly ordinary people, not so very different to you or me, to attempt to exterminate whole populations as dangerous enemies.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945, alongside innumerable Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. My father as an army chaplain was taken to see one of the extermination camps after its liberation, and he made sure that as a teenager I saw the horrific movies taken at the time so that I would recognise evil when I saw it.

We do well to remember this Holocaust every year in January. But that has not been enough to stop other genocides in my lifetime, such as those in Ruanda and in Bosnia.

Understandably, surviving Jews sought to establish a safe homeland for themselves. But tragically 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes as refugees when the state of Israel was founded in 1948. They were never allowed to return to their homes. Palestinians remember it as the Nakba or catastrophe. It is the root of the violence we see in the middle east today. Palestinians hate Israelis, and Israelis hate Palestinians. One group hatred begets another, in a vicious circle of evil. We see the consequences today in the horror of Gaza, in Israel, the West Bank, and other countries still hosting refugees from the Nakba and subsequent wars.

Lest we think that we cannot be caught up in such events, let us reflect on the cycle of violence in the North of our island. The Good Friday Agreement was meant to break the cycle, and we have had peace there for many years. But the hatreds still fester. And let us not forget the continuing prejudice in our communities against Travellers.

So to sum up:

The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.

As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.

Jesus confronted evil and refused to collude with it, at the cost of his death on the cross.

Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. God has set us apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, and that includes evil hatreds, whatever that may cost us personally.

We can and we should take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us. He asks God to protect us from something much worse than suffering or death – that is, from being drawn into doing evil ourselves.

As Jesus’s friend and disciple Judas was.


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