I have a number of friends with whom I correspond primarily through email. There are at least a few who enjoy sharing in theological repartee, which is something I find particularly hard to resist. Being an incurable theologian, I often find myself stopping whatever work I’m doing in order to shoot back an email to one of these friends, especially when the issue is something about which we disagree. It’s a shame that my electronic friends never know how wrong they are, and apparently I see myself as some kind of minister of theological correctness. This is something I can get away with on the internet with my email friends. At home it’s something I dare not attempt.
So it’s no surprise at all that this week when one of my electronic friends sent out a chain email with the subject line, “Jesus Christ is the best choice you will ever make!” I felt it necessary to craft an immediate reply. I have to wonder if it was by sheer coincidence that this email arrived in my inbox the very same week that I was preparing to preach on this text from John 15, in which Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you!” The juxtaposition of email and scripture was enticing.
Now you don’t need to have electronic friends to be familiar with the kind of solicitation my friend sent out. It’s the kind of exhortation that has existed for centuries of Christian history. I remember vividly several years ago sitting in a congregation, listening to a pastor who was well known for his fiery pulpit rants, each of which came with a healthy dose of spittle. With burning eyes and bulging veins in his forehead, he pounded on the pulpit repeatedly as he shouted, “Choose Jesus Christ today! Choose Jesus Christ today!” You may have heard similar sermons in your life, or maybe you’ve encountered someone on the street, or at work, or on your front doorstep, who simply wants you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. “Choose Jesus!” they will say, and their hope is that you will make some profession of acceptance in order to save your immortal soul from eternal damnation. You’ll choose Jesus, and then they’ll move on to someone else. As common as these kinds of encounters tend to be, most of us rarely stop to wonder what they’re all about. What is this business about choosing Jesus?
Let’s suppose for a minute that all of us here in the congregation of Philadelphia Presbyterian Church are here this morning because we choose to be. There’s truth in that. Each of us here today could have gone to play golf, or worked in the yard, or just stayed in bed this morning. Instead, we chose to be here, sitting in these pews. You deserve some credit for that, and I truly believe that the act of coming to church for worship is no ordinary or insignificant thing.
But consider for a moment that the Christian life is not just about coming to church. In fact, that’s a very small part of the Christian life. What about your journey of faith? What about the things you believe about God, or Jesus? What about the very fact that you call yourself Christian, and experience a relationship with God through scripture’s witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? We may assume that just as we have chosen to be here in these pews today that we have also chosen to have faith. We might assume that we have chosen to believe certain things about God, and Jesus, and that we call ourselves Christian because we’ve chosen to be.
There may be nothing at all wrong with that. Especially for those recovering Baptists in our midst, there may be a time in your life when you publically made a profession of faith. It was the moment at which you chose Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior, and then you were saved. That’s fine. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Baptist theology if that’s what has given your life of faith its meaning. However, in light of our scripture reading this morning, I do want to challenge you to consider that there is a different understanding. Even if you’ve spent your entire life within the bounds of Reformed (or Presbyterian) theology, I think you have much to gain from reflecting on the depth and power of Jesus words to his disciples (and to us) in John 15.
If I think about my own personal journey of faith, I confess that there was a time in my life when I believed beyond all doubt that I had chosen God. I remember certain events in my adolescent years that convinced me of this, especially my relationships with friends and classmates who seemed to have not made the same choice I had. Instead of choosing God, or Jesus, they seemed to have chosen something else entirely, and what they chose was misguided and sinful. I remember my own self-righteousness and pride over choosing the right path, the right faith, and now all these years later I read, “Lee, you did not choose me, but I chose you.” What does it mean that the foundation of my faith is not that I chose God, but that God chose me? The truth of what that means about God, and what that means about me, is almost too much to bear.
Being chosen is a concept that resonates with each of us. When you’re chosen, it is because you are valued, desired, and dearly loved. This is what God does with us. God pursues us with love that is relentless and unconditional. God desires us to be in relationship with him, and cultivating that relationship doesn’t mean denying God’s role in the process by claiming that our faith is all our own decision in the first place. No, being in relationship to God means responding in ways that reflect God’s unconditional love for us. At the very heart of Christian life is the profound and timeless truth that God in love chooses us, treasures us, saves us, no matter who we are. “You did not choose me,” Jesus said. “I chose you.”
The word that Jesus uses for “love” in this scripture reading is “agape” in Greek, which is different from sentimental love or romantic love. Agape is a word for love that is almost non-existent before the New Testament came along. Agape love draws its meaning from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is a matter of will rather than feeling. Agape love is active love. It’s love that requires effort and energy. It’s a self-sacrificial love that lays aside personal agendas and instead values and respects and serves others. It’s the kind of love that we remember today as we show appreciation for the sacrifices made by our mothers and grandmothers. We celebrate today the self-giving love that led them through countless diapers changes and much sleep depravation, the love that shows patience and restraint when children go astray, the love that enfolds us and claims us no matter what we do. Scripture tells us that God’s love for us is like the love of a mother. God’s love takes the initiative with us. It is active love, the kind of love exhibited in the life-giving ministry and death of Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of love that draws us in, no matter who we are. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, writes of God’s love like this: “It is a love that persistently and invincibly pursues the distraught and the alienated.” Those are words of comfort for all of humanity. They are words of comfort for the homeless and the grief-stricken, for the outcast and the poor. And they are also words of challenge to those of us who claim to be the chosen people of God.
You see, it is God who chooses us first, God who loves us first, but then it is up to us to respond. Jesus tells us how, over and over throughout the gospels. “The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul, and mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as your love yourself,” he says. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” he says. And from this morning’s scripture reading, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Time and time again, Jesus reveals God’s great love for all of humanity, and then issues a commandment that we who follow him are expected to reflect God’s love to others, especially the outcast, the alienated, the poor, the weak, the suffering. Especially to those who won’t love in return. Especially to those who seem like they don’t deserve it. Because we know that in truth, none of us really deserves God’s love. None of us can choose it. None of us can secure it for ourselves. No, it is God’s free gift, God’s choice. The only choice we have is how to respond to it.
You may never have an opportunity to lay down your life for your friends, as Jesus says. Odds are that you will not have to make this greatest of sacrifices, this greatest act of love. Sacrificing one’s life for the sake of another is an act that very few people will ever have the opportunity to do. But over time, as the days and weeks, and months of your life roll by, odds are very good that you’ll have lots of small opportunities to sacrifice parts of your life, to sacrifice things that are important to you, for the good of other people. You’ll have moments where an opportunity to love unfolds before you. It may be in the face of a friend. It may be in the face of an enemy. It may be in the activities of your family or the relationships with your friends. It may be in any number of circumstances in which you encounter someone who is outcast, or different, or poor, or suffering, or alienated. Or they may be just a friend or a family member. It really doesn’t matter who they are. When these moments come, you will have a choice to make. If you’re open to God’s love in your life, if you’re intent on reflecting God’s love for you in the direction of others, if you recognize first and foremost that your faith is built on God’s gracious love for you and everyone, and Jesus choosing you rather than you choosing him, then in those moments you’ll choose to lay our own selfish interests aside. You’ll choose kindness, and service. You’ll choose to embrace and welcome. You’ll choose to approach others as God has approached you (and all of us) in Jesus Christ.
In other words, you’ll choose unconditional love. And that will be the best choice you’ll ever make.
Thanks be to God. Amen.