The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of St Simon and St Jude, Apostles, 28 October 2020.
Jesus chooses you (John 15:9-19)
When I was a young man, I went to the animal shelter to get a pet. Boy it was a hard choice. All those wounded and pathetic looking creatures. I didn’t want the healthiest one. I wanted to be kind and charitable to the underdog. But I also didn’t want a real sick one either, one that would require too much love. I obviously couldn’t pick them all. I’m not God. I can’t redeem everybody. So I chose something in between. I felt good about myself. Felt good about my choice to love that pet. And I didn’t really think any further about my choice to not love the others.
Unlike us, when God chooses, He does it out of pure love.
“You did not choose, me, but I chose you.” These words of our Lord flow from what He says prior to this text. He tells us that He is the Vine and we are the branches. We are connected to Him, rooted in Him, nourished by Him. These words, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit”— are spoken for our comfort. In these words we learn two things. With respect to Christ, we have been chosen by Him. With respect to our neighbour, we are to love them as Christ loves us. Christ chooses us and then we love others as Christ loved us. But as usual, our sinful flesh wants to work things the wrong way, go the wrong direction, make us the most important. Christ says He has chosen us. He teaches us to love each other as He has loved us. Yet our minds think that we choose Christ. And our hearts tell us to love only those who love us first or who we feel obligated to love in return. We end up believing that we make no choices in regards to loving others. With His words, “You did not choose me but I chose you,” our Lord rescues us from such thinking and turns us once again to His gracious and patient love.
Dear branches of Christ the true Vine, the Bible teaches us that we cannot by our own reason or strength even believe in Jesus or come to Him. Human nature is so corrupted and spoiled by sin, that we could never “choose” to love God. Left to our own choices, we would have nothing to do with God, instead we would choose only those things which gratify us and please us. To be turned away from this kind of self-worship is not something we can do by our willpower. There is no “free will” to choose to be a follower of Christ. Rather, we are born so dead in trespasses and sins, that we could never turn ourselves into godly disciples of Jesus. There are many preachers who tell you that you must choose Jesus. That you must make him your personal Lord and saviour. That you must “surrender all to Christ”. Does Christ demand some of this of us? Well yes! The Bible says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.” But we don’t do it. We cannot do it. We are unable to make a choice for God but only a choice not to. Born dead in our trespasses, we are incapable of fearing, loving or trusting God, or following His commandments well. We sinners are in no position to choose God—as if He is like an item on a shelf at the local Walmart, or the cute little puppy dog at the pet store (hmm, which one will give me the most joy, or benefit. What can I get out of this relationship)—sure, we think that we are choosing God by our pious lifestyles, choosing to do the right think in thought, word and deed, during the string of moral decisions that need to be made throughout the day. When we think that God will be happy with us because we have made all the right and ethical choices, and God is really proud of us now (he’s wagging his tail in adoration). When we are honest, all these choices, no matter how sincere, are poisoned with sin and also operate in ways centred in self-righteousness. There is nothing in a sinful human being which can make us want to, or able to, love God or choose to truly live a life of discipleship for Him. Our only hope is that He has, out of His undeserved kindness and mercy, chosen us!
“You did not choose Me, but, rather, I chose you!” Christ chooses you! And He chooses you not because you are holy. Not because you deserve it. Not because you have earned it. He chooses you because He loves you. You are the least desirable creature at the pound, and yet he’s got his eye on you (without losing sight of all the other tragic homeless animals, which he deals with each separately in His time). And that choice of Christ for you, for us, for them, materialized when He was conceived in the flesh in the holy Virgin’s womb and when He chose to live a life of obedience in man’s place and then chose to die in our place on the cross of Calvary. Those decisions that Jesus makes for you are materialized when the Lord chooses to grab hold of you personally to be His own in the waters of Holy Baptism and washes away your sins. He takes you, that stray dog, from the pound to His very own home where He carefully dresses any wounds you may have with the ointment of His shed blood. He makes Himself your “personal Lord and Saviour”. His decision for you is echoed again and again as the Gospel is preached. It is told to you personally when your sins are absolved by a pastor. Christ’s chooses you each time you approach the communion rail to feed you with His own body and blood. If the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work in your heart and life, you wouldn’t be here (and there) this morning. “You did not choose Me but, rather, I chose you.”
There is so much great comfort in knowing that God chose you, especially in the midst of the changes of life. The disciples were in the midst of great changes when Jesus spoke these words to them. Soon Jesus would no longer be with them. And perhaps they were afraid: did they make the right choice? When times ahead may look bleak, we wonder if we made the right choices. Maybe you wonder about that in your studies or career decisions. That you made the right choice. But Jesus encourages them and us in midst of change with the words, “I CHOSE YOU”.
It is indeed a great comfort and honour to know, not that I chose God, but that God chose me. Because I make a lot of poor choices in life. But God doesn’t. And choice always has to do with purpose. As Christians it means God chose you because he has a purpose for you. How remarkable. God chose you! And what is that purpose? Is it a secret purpose that you need work hard to discover? Is His will hidden, like a puzzle that you need to spend lots of time in prayer trying to solve? No. The text says that He’s chosen you to bear fruit: to love one another as He has loved you, within your ordinary seemingly un-special callings of life. “This is my command, my teaching, my instruction: that you love one another just as I have loved you.” That is your purpose and my purpose. That too is His choice.
Chosen by God, we are chosen to choose others; to love them as Christ loved us. Christ loves by choosing those who don’t deserve it—all of us sinners—and dying in our place. And that is what Christ wants us to do too. To choose to love others even though they may not love us and even if it means going so far as to die for them. To love the guy who just cut you off on the highway. To love the colleague who back-stabbed you at work or school. To love the one responsible for whatever it is you have suffered at the hand of another. Now you and I know that we do not like to love others that way. Rather, we love those whom we choose to love. You like me? You respect me? You do something nice for me? OK, I can love you. You talk about me behind my back? You are ungrateful for all that I do? You want nothing to do with me? Fine, then I’ll not love you or have anything to do with you. Our love is based on what’s in it for us. Our love chooses those who respond back and appreciate us. Our love, ultimately, is just because we love ourselves. Even the pagans do that. Christ, on the other hand, His love is selfless. So He calls us to love others as He has loved us. Love our enemies even. Those who hurt us. Without counting the cost. Choosing the ugly and sick dog, without weighing the pros and cons (what’s in it for me?) Whether they deserve it or not. Whether they expect it or not. Whether they give anything in return or not. And He enables you to do it. And you may not do it perfectly, but still you do it faithfully. Even accepting, no, embracing persecution. St Jude beaten to death with club. St Simon likely martyred by being sawed in half. They willingly went, though probably with some mixed feelings about it. Yet still faithfully and lovingly sacrificing, since from the vine of the martyr’s witness grow new believers of the one true faith. Their purpose and ours: Choosing to suffer for the faith out of love for others.
Because of His sufferings, through his suffering, in spite of all persecution, Christ has chosen you. He’s chosen you to be a child of God. He’s chosen you to be free from sins. He’s chosen you for eternal life. Yet this gracious king has chosen you not only as a slave—which would have been the greatest of conceivable honours—but He has called you His friends. Most people are pretty careful picking their friends, becoming vulnerable to others; letting them into your world. It takes courage. It takes trust. It takes love. Well God chooses you as His friends.
Yet being a friend of God means we share something in common with Him. As the king became our servant, we become servants of others: our neighbours. That means we choose them, to bear with them, to love them as Christ has loved us. When we love, our choices are his choices. No one has any greater love than when they lay down their life for their friends. Dear branches of the True Vine, Jesus Christ laid down His life for you, and He let’s you lay down your life for others. Amen.