Notes from a sermon preached on 01.02.09
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
Jesus is approaching his Hamlet moment. It is a time for choices.
To serve or to be served?
To go or to stay?
To accept the cup God was offering him, or to reject it?
This theme is one that runs throughout John’s Gospel.
‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…’ John 1:10-12
Jesus, the Word made flesh, has come into the world, the Light. Who will accept him and who will reject him? What choice do we make?
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 God, the Father, has chosen the world and has sent his Son to save us from perishing.
At the heart of this passage is another important choice:
‘You did not choose me, but I chose you…(5:16)
‘Follow me,’ Jesus demands of Philip at the start of the Gospel, and ‘follow me’ he has demanded of us as we read this books pages. We are given a choice – to accept this call, or to reject it, but this decision starts with God’s choice, his choice of us.
There is a story about a Sunday School teacher was teaching a group of teenage boys one Sunday about Christ’s disciples; about their abilities, their attributes, and why Jesus might have chosen them. Toward the end of the lesson a teenaged boy who was particularly enthralled about the whole concept of calling, of being chosen by God, said, “Teacher, why did Jesus choose Judas?” To which the Sunday school teacher replied, “Son, I don’t know. But I have a harder question. Why did Jesus choose me?”
I don’t know if this was a hard choice for God or not. It certainly was a costly choice – again and again humanity has rejected him, but still he keeps on choosing us. But the most astonishing statement in the Bible is this one, God chose us! God chose us not as who we could be, or because of who he can make us, but God chose us as we are – you , me, warts and all. As it says in Romans 8:15, ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
There’s something so liberating about that fact. So many of us have nagging doubts about ourselves, low self esteem for whatever reason. If we have the guts, we can throw those accusations away, because God himself has chosen us – chosen you.
I’ve spoken to lots of different people this week. There was a man who phoned me three times to ask if I was the person who ran the website as he had a proposition for me. By the third time to phone went, our conversation was short. Then there is the receptionist at the school – I’m in school quite a lot these days with the children and the work I do with my church hat on. Occasionally, when she’s not too busy I’ll stop and have a chat with her about how things are going, but it tends to be just niceties. I’ve also been having a cross continental chat with Reuben Dove in Sierra Leone as well this week. Some of them have been quite detailed. I try to keep my emails informal so that they don’t become a list of demands, but to be honest we both know that that is what they are, a list of things that Reuben needs to know or do, in order to fulfil his duties as a Agent for the SLM. My favourite conversation of the week, though, was on Thursday night. Kate and I managed to escape for a meal, just the two of us, and we talked non-stop from beginning to end, sharing bits of news, feelings and the things that are important and personal to us.
How do you tell if someone is your friend? There are many marks to a true friend aren’t there. One of the real tests is to ask yourself what do they tell you, and what do they keep to themselves? One mark of a true friend is that they’ll tell you the things that are on their mind, with you the guards go down.
Over the course of the Gospel, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples changes. To start with he’s a teacher, instructing and encouraging them – in a way a bit like the relationship between Reuben and I. At times he gets frustrated and complains about hw they don’t get it, a little like me and the man phoning about the website. But by this point in the Gospel, this has all changed. He has chosen them to be his friends and is sharing with them in an unguarded, intimate way.
There is a Celtic word ‘anamcara’ for such a friendship. It is more than just someone you get on with. An anamcara is your ‘Soul Friend’, a person with whom you resonate, to whom you can open yourself up to, and who in turn can reveal that to you, to show you who you really are, but in a protective, safe, way.
There is a sense here that Jesus is seeking such a relationship with us. This friendship is not just a past thing, something restricted to the disciples, but through the Spirit, the ‘Counsellor’, he is seeking it with us too. He is looking for people with whom he can share his thoughts, feelings and plans, Soul Friends, and he has chosen us.
But just like the Celtic anamcara is more that a nice companion, Jesus is looking for more than just a nice friendship. As we befriend him, he holds up the mirror to us in the way that only a true friend can. As we befriend him, we come to see ourselves as we really are. You see, Jesus has chosen us for a purpose. Let’s go back to verse 16 again and the rest of the sentence: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…’
Like any true friend, Jesus wants us, his friends, to have fruitful lives.
To explain this, he uses the image of the vine and the branches. We are the vine branches, and like a real vine branches, he wants us to bear fruit. To produce fruit, we need to remain in him, the vine – who has heard of vine branches that can produce grapes without being connected to a vine with its roots that nourish and strengthen the branches. This is another wonderful image of the nature of the friendship he offers us. If we accept his friendship, then Jesus nourishes us and protects us. Equally, if we fall out of relationship with him, if we separate ourselves from him, then we shall be isolated and vulnerable, and find that our lives become unfulfilled.
But there’s more to this image, there’s also the gardener, God the Father. His job is to tend the vine and its branches in such a way that as much fruit is produced as possible. To do this, Jesus says he has to clear out the dead branches, those that aren’t producing fruit and cut back those that are, so that they produce more fruit.
This pruning of the fruitful branches, reminds me of the anamcara who reveals the real nature of a friend to the friend, so that they are able to build on what is good, and work on that which is not. The Father, through the Spirit prunes our lives, snipping away through experiences and more directly that which is not fruitful in us, so that we become more Christ-like.
This facet intrigues me. God is not demanding that we change or he’ll reject us. He has already chosen us. It is not up to us to produce fruit – our fruitfulness is up to him. He does the cutting back, it is the Spirit that enables us to do good and to be good. Again, this is liberating! All we have to do for this to happen is to remain in him, or as the King James Version puts it, abide in him – which of course takes us back to last week’s sermon and chapter 14 where we thought about Jesus preparing a room in God’s home for us.
But what does this mean? How do we develop our relationship with him? We all know the answers don’t we. Spend time in prayer, read the Bible, go to church. This is what good Christians do isn’t it. But wait a minute, that’s not what Jesus says is it? Listen:
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’ John 15:9-12
To remain in Christ, to enjoy fruitfulness through a good relationship with him, we have to go back to that tough calling of love that Noel challenged us with a couple of weeks ago. To become Christ-like we have to be Christ-like, it is in practising that we’re made perfect. Through loving we learn to love.
‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ John 15:13