May 24, 2020, How Special Are We?, John 17:1-10 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000197
One of my least favorite childhood memories is playing team sports in gym class. It might have been softball or soccer or relay races: the sport itself wasn’t the source of pain. What I remember very painfully is standing in a group with the rest of the class waiting for the captains to choose their team. The super-athletic kids were chosen first, of course, and then the popular kids, and then the kids who were reasonably acceptable, and finally, the rest of us stood miserably in our little huddle, hoping fervently that at least we wouldn’t be the very last one chosen – because to be last meant you weren’t chosen at all.
There is a certain magic to the idea of being chosen. To be chosen is to be desired. To be chosen is to be declared worthy. To be chosen is to belong. And, in absolutely human terms, to be chosen is to be set over against all the others who are NOT chosen. To be chosen is to be better.
And that’s why it catches our ear, if we are really listening, when we read Jesus’ prayer at the close of his Last Supper discourse, and hear this: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, I’m asking on behalf of those whom you gave me…” Later in the prayer, Jesus says: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word….” And earlier in this same long supper conversation Jesus tells the disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” It’s pretty clear: Jesus is talking to the founders of his Church, and through them, to the Church throughout the ages; he’s talking to us – and he’s telling us we are chosen.
And frankly, that is huge. It’s one thing to be chosen by the reigning king or queen of softball to be on their team. But what Jesus is telling us is that we have been chosen by the Creator of the Universe. We have been picked by the almighty, eternal, Lord and Father of all. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, he chose you for his team. That is the truth. Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…”
Peter is echoing the language of the Hebrew Scriptures here, because the glory of having been chosen was absolutely central to the identity of the people of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament God refers to Israel as his chosen people. Sometimes he uses the image of marriage: God spoke of himself as the faithful husband, who chose Israel as his beloved wife. Isaiah wrote:
“Your Maker is your husband—
the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth…
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer.”
Other times God used the image of father and child. Hosea wrote:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son…
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.”
And in Deuteronomy God speaks plainly to his people through Moses:
“The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples…”
The big question, then, is what does that mean? What exactly does it mean that we have been chosen by God? For what purpose have we been chosen? Moses makes clear that God didn’t choose his people for any great virtue on their part. Israel wasn’t a great nation in any sense of the word when God called them. Paul puts it in even starker terms. Not only were we not chosen for any great virtue; God chose us while we were his enemies. He chose us, in fact, when we were dead in our sins. Clearly, unlike fifth grade gym class, being chosen, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, is NOT about being better than the other guy. So what does it mean?
If we go all the way back to the first patriarch of Israel, Abraham, we read what God said to him when he first chose him. God called Abraham to leave behind everything that gave him identity – his family, his land, his position, his nationality – and to follow him into the unknown. And on that day God said to Abraham:
God promises to bless Abraham. He promises that through Abraham he is going to create a new nation that never existed before, a great nation. But he doesn’t stop there. In establishing a great nation through Abraham, he promises to make Abraham a blessing for everybody else, for all the peoples on earth. Abraham is special, but the purpose of his special-ness is not his own glory or status or honor. God chose Abraham, not to bring honor and glory to his own descendants, but for the blessing of the world.
Of course, the most obvious fulfillment of that promise is Jesus himself, who was born an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and who gave himself in life and death for the salvation of every man, woman, and child who ever lived or ever will live. In that sense God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled. But clearly that isn’t the end of the story. Because God’ s pattern of choosing people for the blessing of others wasn’t a one-off. It is just that – a pattern. God chooses people, he calls people in love, for no particular merit of their own, and he makes them to be a blessing for others. We have been chosen, and we have been chosen for the purpose of following the pattern Jesus left for us. That’s what he means when he tells us to take up our cross and come after him. The pattern for the chosen people of God was shaped forever by the cross. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
That is what it looks like to be chosen by God. As his chosen ones, we receive the immeasurable love of God through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. But not for our own glory: we are chosen so that we might follow our Lord in pouring ourselves out in service to the world, sharing his love so that like Abraham, and like our Lord, and like Paul and the other apostles, and like so many faithful followers of Christ throughout the centuries, all peoples on earth might be blessed through us. God continues to fulfill his covenant day after day after day, through those whom he chooses, for the blessing and restoration and reconciliation of the whole world, which he loves.
And I believe that it is more important than ever for the chosen people of God to recall that pattern now, in this culture in which we live, at this particular moment in history. Because I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is in very great danger of forgetting what our Lord revealed to us by his life of service and his sacrificial death on the Cross. I believe that we, the chosen ones of Christ, are in very great danger of choosing entitlement over sacrifice, and of forgetting that God has blessed us, not for any virtue of our own, not for our personal comfort and prosperity, but so that we might be a blessing to others – and not only to others of our own choosing, others within our comfort zone, but to all the peoples of the earth.
Clarence Jordan, a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar who founded Habitat for Humanity, wrote these remarkable words:
“The reason the world is so terribly neurotic is that it no longer has a sin-bearer. The Church doesn’t want to bear the sins of the world. We don’t want to be anybody’s dumping ground. We don’t want to have them throwing their dirty dishwater on us. And the world has no scapegoat; it has no sin-bearer. The body of Christ is unwilling to bear the sins of the world. But God was willing to bear. And so we throw on him our sins. Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away in his own body, bearing our sins in his body up to the cross….Love makes itself available, love makes itself expendable.”
To make ourselves available and expendable, that seems to me the perfect definition of being a blessing to the peoples of the earth, following the pattern that Jesus Christ showed us. And yet, as Jordan remarks here, the Church today is rarely willing to be a dumping ground for this sinful world. We the Church, and I would say in particular the Church in America, we are much more comfortable being the morality police for the peoples of the earth, or some kind of shining example to the peoples of the earth, or a lobby group to force Christian values on the peoples of the earth, than we are being available and expendable for their blessing. We are enraged by the disrespect of a world who refuses to say “Merry Christmas.” We are disgusted by the flagrant immorality of the gay pride movement. We preach a prosperity gospel to prove that we deserve to be rich and well-fed in a world full of starvation and suffering. We feel entitled to lobby for legislation that favors Christian values and Christian education and Christian traditions – because hey, we’re better, right?
At Jesus’ baptism, and again at his Transfiguration on the mountain, God proclaims his love for his Son, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.” And Jesus, the chosen One, the delight of his Father, told his disciples, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” And we, his Church, have been chosen to follow in the way our Lord walked. Jesus goes on, in his High-Priestly prayer, to pray this: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” We are chosen. We are loved. We are blessed. But as our Lord did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, so we are not chosen in order that we might grasp our sense of superiority and entitlement. If we follow in the Cross-shaped way of Jesus Christ, we know that we are chosen in order that we might make ourselves available. We are loved, in order that we might make ourselves expendable. We are blessed, in order that we might be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.