As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. – John 15:9-17
There was a very popular tradition in the 1800s that was a way to say goodbye to someone. Not just a “see you later” kind of goodbye, but a real goodbye – a “this is probably the last time we’ll ever see each other” kind of goodbye. The tradition took place in many groups – extended families, church congregations, whatever – that the women of the group would get together and make a Friendship Quilt, where each of them would make a portion of the quilt, and they’d all sign it and give it to the person who was leaving. It was a way for that person to remember those they’d left behind, and to stay, in a very real way, in their loving embrace whenever they’d wrap up in the quilt. It was a beautiful tradition, an excellent way to “say goodbye well,” as we might say today. It’s the same sort of thing that Erika Castro was talking about last Sunday – that on the last day of the service teams’ weeklong stay at Montaña de Luz, the kids would all sign their T shirts, or draw little pictures, or maybe put their handprint on the shirt with paint. It’s a way of allowing a little bit of them, and their love, to go with them when they left.
The portion of John’s gospel that’s been part of the Lectionary texts for the past few weeks has been telling the story of Jesus’ saying the same kind of goodbye to his followers. During his time with them, there have been good times and bad. When you read through some of the stories, especially in Mark’s gospel, you can sense the frustration in Jesus’ dealing with them at times. You can almost feel him sinking into a deep facepalm over their cluelessness. But on the night of this story, that’s all behind them. This is the night of the Last Supper, the night Jesus is going to be arrested, and he’s in the middle of a long farewell to them all. He’s trying to say goodbye well. He’s trying to give them some final words to help explain what this has all been about, and how to go forward from here.
As part of this, he tells them that in fact, they hadn’t chosen to follow him, but he chose them – that since before the beginning of time, God had chosen them.
This idea of having been chosen by God, instead of us having chosen to follow God, has always been a very big theological thing to us Presbyterians. It’s why you’ll never see a so-called “altar call,” asking people to “make a decision for Christ,” in a Presbyterian church. It’s why sometimes, making fun of our generally reserved nature, people will jokingly call us “The Frozen Chosen.” Thinking about this idea of having been chosen by God led John Calvin to refocus on the long-standing Christian doctrine of predestination, an idea that went at least back to Saint Augustine in the early 400s. And taking that idea to its logical conclusion led Calvin to a thought that even he himself admitted seemed repugnant: that if we say that people have been chosen by God before the beginning of time – that they had been “predestined” to be God’s people, long before they’d even been born – then it seemed to logically follow that there were also people who God *didn’t* choose; people who had been predestined to be condemned, without their having any recourse or anything to say about the matter.
It’s a pretty unsettling thought all the way around. On the one hand, how do you really know whether you’re among the chosen or the condemned? If you’re one of the condemned and there’s nothing you can do about it, that hardly seems fair, or any way that a loving, merciful, just God would act. And even if you are one of the chosen, it’s still a pretty grim thought – your whole life is apparently predetermined, all the ups and downs scripted out without any input from you, and no matter what you may try to do about them.
Are we just a bunch of involuntary players on a stage, performing in a play written and directed by God? Are we all just marionettes, with God pulling all the strings?
Well… what if Calvin and Augustine and all the other adherents of predestination got it wrong? What if Jesus meant something very different when he talked about having chosen people? What if he meant that God hadn’t chosen only the specific people sitting around him that night, but rather, that God had chosen human beings, period? What if the whole outrageous act of choosing to create human beings was God’s act of choosing us? When God created us and called us Tov Meod – “Very Good” – was that our having been chosen? What if Jesus was explaining to them that God’s choosing to enter into this world by being present in him, a human being, that this was evidence of God’s showing solidarity with us, of God’s having chosen the human race? There’s a funny T shirt that says in bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then in small print, it says “But then again, he loves everybody.” What if that T shirt was more profound than it intended? How might it change the way we understand God and ourselves, and what it means to be a follower of Christ, if all of our T shirts said “I’M ONE OF GOD’S CHOSEN” – “But then again, he chose everybody”?
In this gospel story, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means to be chosen – and what they’ve been chosen for, and those are important questions that a lot of people don’t think to ask; they just gloss over those points when they think about this whole chosen business. As he talks with his followers, Jesus explains what all this convoluted talk about vines and branches was all about: we’ve been chosen to be the agents, the conduits of God’s love in the world. We’ve been chosen to show what God’s love, and what God’s dwelling within us, looks like in concrete reality, in daily living. We’ve been chosen to show that both right belief and right practice of the faith are important, but when it comes right down to it, right practice – that is, extending love to the world, wrapping others in love – always trumps the details of right belief.
We’re given the strength and the boldness to live this way – to live as God’s chosen – by keeping ourselves connected to Christ, the vine, the very presence and definition of the divine in flesh and blood, the source of all life and love.
Those Friendship Quilts I was talking about earlier were made by the people who were staying put, and were given to the people who were leaving. In this story, it was the other way around. It was Jesus who was leaving, and when he does, he’ll give them two gifts. The first one is in this text. He tells his followers he won’t call them his servants any more, but now, they’re his friends. That’s a powerful thing. Most of us can remember some greatly respected mentor, maybe a teacher or a professor; and after we’ve graduated, these people we respect so much go from being, say, Mr. Burns, or Professor Langknecht, to just Stan, and Hank. There’s a very real difference in the interpersonal dynamic when that shift happens, and it happens with the disciples right here. The other thing Jesus is going to do is to leave those followers – his friends – with the gift of a Friendship Quilt of sorts of his own – the gift of God’s Spirit. He leaves it for them, and for us, too. Sometimes, often in the most intense moments of our lives, we’ll experience that Spirit. Maybe it will come directly, in the form of some special unexpected answer, in some intense personal and private moment of prayer. Maybe it will come more indirectly, in the form of a card or a letter; a kind word, or smile. Or a casserole after the funeral. Or maybe just a hug. However it comes, friends, recognize that it’s all the same thing. It’s Jesus’ Friendship Quilt, the very Spirit of God, encircling and wrapping around us, warming us, and always reminding us that we’re loved – that we’re chosen.
Thanks be to God.