Before I came to Manchester, I served a church on the coast of Maine for fourteen years. When I first moved there, I quickly learned that my congregation in Camden was made up of two different kinds of people. There were Mainers, and there were not-Mainers. The not-Mainers were called “people from away.” To be a Mainer, you had to be born in Maine, preferably to a family that had already been there for several generations, and you had to have lived in Maine all your life. Mainers, I noticed, were usually quick to tell you that they were Mainers. But if you a not-Mainer, no matter how long you might live there, you would always be “from away.” Now, mostly, this was all a matter of good-natured teasing, but I think about it whenever I come across this idea that Christians are meant to be “in the world but not of the world.” Part of what I learned from my time in Maine is that I could certainly be “in” Maine, but I would never be “of” Maine.
That’s actually a pretty common experience for us. There are all kinds of clubs, groups, tribes and parties that we might or might not want to get into, and might or might not find welcoming. If you think about it, almost every human gathering, big or small, represents two different worlds. There is the inside world and the outside world. There is the world of belonging and the world of not belonging.
I’m sure most of you remember the old song by Billy Page, “The ‘In’ Crowd.” It came out in 1964, and still has a lot to say about the ways people sometimes treat each other. You remember…
I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows
We got our own way of walkin’
We got our own way of talkin;
I don’t care where you’ve been
You ain’t been nowhere till you’ve been in
With the in crowd…
Now, we have to be a little careful here because the language can get a bit confusing. When Jesus says he wants us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world, being in the world is not the same as being in the “in” crowd. Mostly, what we would call the “in” crowd is what Jesus was calling “of” the world. And the reason that the “in” crowd is “of” the world, is that when you’re part of the in crowd, you have to accept the rules that go along with it. You’ve got to dress right. You’ve got to look right. You’ve got to talk right. You’ve got to impress all the right people.
You remember West Side Story? It started off with this great song about what it meant to be a Jet.
When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette to your last dying day.
When you’re a Jet you’re the swingin’est thing
Little boy you’re a man, little man you’re a king!
The Jets had their own way of walkin’. Their own way of talkin’. As far as they were concerned, you ain’t been nowhere till you’ve been in, with the Jets. But like being a Mainer, getting in wasn’t really something most of us could make happen, even if we wanted to.
And the power of that song, both of these songs really, is that the people who are “in” always know that the people who are out, want to be in. We all want to belong, somewhere. Maybe not to the Jets. But to whatever our own version of the “in” crowd might happen to be. Maybe your “in” crowd is fans of the Mets, or maybe the Yankees. Maybe your “in” crowd is the Republicans, or maybe it’s the Democrats. Maybe it’s weavers, bikers, foosball players, opera lovers, or backyard barbequers. When we start thinking about it, there’s a gazillion “in” crowds of which we might want to be a part, and to which we might want to belong.
But then, along comes Jesus, with a message that shifts the balance on all of this. My disciples, he says, don’t belong to this world, or the things of this world, or the “in” crowds of this world. My disciples belong to God. Which means, we don’t have to worry about impressing other people, dressing right and talking right. We don’t have to twist ourselves up like pretzels in order to feel like we fit in. We don’t have to earn our belonging, because we belong already. All we have to do is embrace it. And when we do, that’s when we discover that we can be in the world but not of the world. We can be in the world without the world having a hold over us, without feeling like we need to put on a costume that doesn’t fit very well. And without being afraid of losing, our respect, our dignity, our essential selves, or even our lives. We just don’t have to be afraid of any of the things that people of this world are so commonly afraid.
When Jesus first started talking like this it started a revolution. And Peter, as one of the first disciples, was right at the heart of it. If you know the stories of Peter, you know it took him a while to understand what it was that Jesus was actually saying. But once he did get it, he made a point of trying to pass the word on to others. It’s right there in his letters. What did it mean to be in the world but not of the world?
In this morning’s passage, we find him talking about the suffering that some of the newly minted Christians feared. It was a time of persecution, so their fear was certainly understandable. In part, Peter is trying to reassure them that everything is going to be alright. But the way he offers his reassurance is interesting. It picks up on this same “in the world but not of the world” theme. There’s no guarantee, he says, that you won’t suffer. But even if you do, you are blessed. You don’t need to be afraid of what people often fear. You don’t need to be intimidated. You belong to God, and that is not ever going to change. So therefore, simply keep your hearts close to Jesus and follow his example. Always be gentle and reverent. And always be willing to respond faithfully when anyone asks you why you are so hopeful.
Now, that last line always brings me up short. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Now, just imagine that. Imagine being the kind of person who is so filled with hope that it shines out of you for all the world to see. Imagine, even in the midst of great suffering, that someone would stop you on the street and demand to know why. Why you are so joyful, hopeful and confident. And with an overflowing heart you can reply by saying, “I am in this world, but I am not of it. I belong to God. I belong to Christ. And there is nothing this world can do to me that will ever change that. Just imagine being that person.
Jesus knew, and he wanted us to know, that stacked up against belonging to God, all the lesser belongings of this world pale by comparison. There is no greater “in” crowd than the crowd of people that includes all God’s beloved children. God’s love for us is so great, that we’ve all been given this life to live as a gift. To be in this world, to be able to live and love and experience the joys and sorrows of our days, is an incredible and precious gift. We often think that life is a blessing when it brings us good things. But Peter’s message is that even when we suffer, we are blessed. That’s because ultimately, we are in this world, but we are not of this world. We need to be careful to not become so wrapped up in the life, the values and the endless longings of this world, that we forget the giver, and the kingdom to which we truly belong.
This theme, in the world but not of the world, was the lesson for one of our recent Morning Watch weeks. Our faithful group of Morning Watchers had a chance to reflect on it for a bit. One of the readings for that week was written by John Mogabgab in a piece he called “Editor’s Introduction.” Let me just share this with you.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (ch. 17) reveals that there are indeed two worlds in which we must learn to live. One is the world both John and Paul understand to be marked by division, confusion, and hostility. The other is the realm of Christ characterized by reconciliation, understanding, and peace. We are called to live in the first in a manner that reveals that we belong to the second. Specifically, we are sent into the world to show forth the truth of God’s kingdom already present in Christ (John 17:16-23). We belong in the world, but [we do] not [belong] to it.
(—John S. Mogabgab, “Editor’s Introduction,” Weavings (March/April 1987), Job, Rueben P.. A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God . Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.)
I love that line: “We are called to live in the first [world] in a manner that reveals that we belong to the second.” We are called to let the light of God shine in us and through us, and should it happen that someone stops us on the street and demands to know the source of our hope and joy, we can simply say that God has given us the great gift of being “in” this world, but our belonging is “of” God’s kingdom.