Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you that you should be a fruit and your fruit should abide.” —John 15:16
“You did not choose me. But I chose you.” What a thought that is in this world of ours where we tend to believe that our choices are sacred and that everything more or less begins and ends with us.
And what about the faith we choose? Many people today understand religion to be about some special dimension of their life, their deepest thoughts or highest aspirations. Alfred North Whitehead defined religion as “what humans do with their solitude.”
Religion understood this way is introspection, contemplation, mysticism, the appreciation of beauty, the natural world, high thoughts, goodness, truth, and beauty. And there’s a lot of truth to all of that.
But biblical faith is not about us; it is about God and us. It is not about some inner disposition we have. It is not about manicuring our souls. Rather, faith is relational, covenantal, personal, yes, but not individualistic. To speak of God, says Karl Barth, “is not to speak about man in a loud voice.”
Which is to say that faith is not all about us. Here in America we have tried to turn even our faith into a consumer choice, a reflection of our lifestyle. We pick our cars, our clothes, our style, if you will. And in much the same way now we even pick a religion, or denomination, our church. But we do not pick Jesus.
“I chose you,” Jesus says. Of course, in some sense, we do choose to be Christian, to go to church, to take it seriously or not, to listen to the preacher, to read the Bible, to put our faith in the equation of what is important to us as we make important decisions.
We do choose; of course, we do! There is an element of choice in all authentic faith. Out of our freedom we are always choosing: the good or the bad, life or death, blessing or curse, God or no God. Yes, we choose all the time and we must choose again and again.
Still, who among us has not felt, at one time or another, that sense that we have been chosen, picked out, invited in, gathered up? The Christian doctrine of election, to put the big title on it, has never been a big favorite in democratic America. It sounds elitist, presumptuous, conceded.
What do we do then with the truth that somewhere along the line in our story, in a moment of truth, of success or failure, of sublime joy or deep sadness, we sensed that God was there? More than sensed, we knew that God was there, and we knew that knowing that, our lives would never be the same. Is that part of your story? I know it is of mine. And in that story God ceases to be an idea or concept and becomes a person, who loves, accepts, forgives, and yes beckons and sends.
“You did not choose me but I chose you, “Jesus says. Notice how the initiative always seems to belong to God. “Love one another just as I have loved you.” “Just as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” That divine priority of love seems to define the church. Church is the community of the just as. The little Greek word kalos, which we translate as just as, is a clue to Christian life. In the ordinary life of the Christian, we are to love just as God has loved us. That helps give some shape to the love. Such love is not mushy sentimentality, or sloppy agape. It is active love, costly love, love that reaches out beyond itself. Servant love, love with a cross.
Whatever the church may or may not be, it certainly is comprised of those who have by some miracle known the love of God in their lives. Yes, there are rules, and there are doctrines and beliefs and traditions. As a community of faith, we have discipline and order, all necessary and important. But behind and beneath it all is the sense of being loved by God. And more than loved, chosen, called, and appointed to bear fruit, which is about sharing the love of God in tangible acts.
After I retired from active pastoral ministry Martha and I were ecclesiastically homeless for a few years. We went to church, but we couldn’t commit to one.
We sometimes felt like Goldilocks at the Three Bears’ residence. One congregation had good preaching, but not so great music. Another had terrific music, but the sermons were on the light side.
This period was an unhappy time in our lives, for we are serious “church nerds” and we needed a church home. We knew there was something unfaithful about “church shopping” and being, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “tourists and not pilgrims.”
The problem was there was no perfect church. Thomas More coined the word Utopia in 1516 to describe a perfect society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. Utopia in Greek means “not a place.”
There has never been and there never will be Utopia. There is no perfect congregation, just the ones we’ve got, full of imperfect people that God loves and calls to be the church. And we knew ourselves well enough to realize that if we ever found the perfect church, as soon as we joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
When our Congregationalist ancestors started a new congregation, they never said their church was founded. They always said they were gathered.
And who do you think they thought did the gathering? And who do you think gathered us into these beloved community? Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you, that you might bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” Amen.
(I preached this sermon virtually at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI on May 9, 2021. To view the service on YouTube go here.)