Monday, May 18, 2009

Sermon on John 15:9-17, for the 6th Sunday of Easter, "You Did Not Choose Me"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. For all the talk that we make of having free will in our lives, and in whatever earthly choices we may apply it to, Jesus makes it clear with one irrefutable statement, that when it comes to being in Christ we have no such free will. “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Here at Jesus’ words, we lay down any pretensions that we sought after God, and humbly acknowledge that He has chosen us and called us by His grace alone. We confess together with the Scriptures that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10b-11). Today we look at the Gospel reading, and what it means that Jesus has chosen us to go and bear fruit. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hear it again: Jesus says to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Yet is this what we hear, believe, or say? More often than not, we reverse Jesus’ words, and say that “I chose Jesus, or I made a decision for Jesus.” These words are commonly used by Christians to describe how they think they came to faith. So essentially, it seems the reason I’m a believer and the next guy isn’t, is because I was the one who chose Jesus. In return for my act of choosing Jesus, by my free will, Jesus then calls me His friend. I sought Jesus’ friendship, and He graciously obliged. Is that how it works?? Is Jesus returning our favor to Him? Quite the opposite!! Jesus makes it clear that He was the sole initiator of our relationship to Him, and that our friendship with God isn’t based on anything, ANYTHING, we have done. He chose us, and appointed us to go and bear fruit. What is this fruit? To show that we love others as He has loved us. This will be the sign and evidence of our continued friendship with Him.

So why is it so important that we keep this order straight? Isn’t it just quibbling over words? Not at all! There is an enormous difference between thinking that we chose Jesus by an act of our free will…and that He chose us by an act of His grace. If we chose Him, and if we think that we have free will in this matter, it’s saying that God’s grace was given to me in response to my act of choosing. God’s grace for me followed my initiative to seek Him. But we already said that Scripture clearly shows that no one seeks after God, not one. So God wasn’t waiting for us to act, before He shared His grace with us. This would make our act of choosing our first and most important good work. If we claimed no other good work, but acknowledged ourselves to be sinners in every other way, but held to this as the act that put us in the kingdom of God—then this one work would still be our boast before God. But so that pride may have no room before God—and so that God may be our teacher, and not we His teacher—God saves us by grace, through faith. And this, this faith, is not of yourselves. Why? So that no man can boast (Eph. 2:8-9). So that God can remove any ground of boasting, even this small act doesn’t belong to us. Faith in Christ is purely God’s gracious gift, and He chose us, not the other way around.

Quite opposite of God waiting on our initiative, God came and sought us by His grace. He did not wait for any man to act, or to seek after Him, but sought us—pursued us lost sheep and carried us into His fold. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Greater love has no one than this, than someone lays down his life for his friends. All that we have and are in Christ Jesus is by His grace, and undeserved choosing of us. He made the sacrifice, He gave His life, He gave the Spirit who gives us faith to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3b). All credit, all glory goes to Him. We don’t share in or claim any of that credit for ourselves, even in the smallest degree. Any such claim to share the credit, takes away from His glory and suffering on the cross, by making it somehow insufficient or incomplete. That our part had to be added also, in order for it to be effective. But there is no room for that.

So that we in no way diminish the greatness of Jesus’ sacrifice and what He has done, stop and consider how great is His love for us. That Christ should call us His friends, and let us know what our master is doing is an astonishing love. He laid down His life for us rebel sinners, when He died on the cross, when we had been His enemies (Rom. 5:6-8). Such a great and unheard of love, a man who pays off all the debts of His enemies. More than just paying monetary debts, which only requires a painless shelling out of cash, He paid the debts of our sin, which required His painful binding to the altar of the cross. There He paid the ransom price for all the debts of His enemies, and even those who gained from this reward mocked Him. But this is the greatest love. A love so high and beyond all description, that it has but one name: Jesus. Jesus who chose to make a friend out of an enemy. He chose us as friends, even though we made no effort, no initiative, no movement toward Him, but He came the whole way to us, arms opened in a loving embrace, hands filled with the riches of salvation to pour out to you, all at His expense. He has lavished on us the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7-8).

Since we are His friends, He has chosen us to go and bear fruit that will abide, and this is how. He has given us the command that we love one another as He has loved us. This will be the abiding fruit that shows our continued friendship with Him. Abiding in His love, so will we love one another. But the devil is bent on destroying and disrupting this love at all costs. The devil is always active sowing “discord, anger, impatience, hatred, and envy.” He knows that there will be no shortage of trouble in this life, and that when we are tired, anxious, or stressed, that we will also be especially irritable and open to attack. I will quote Luther here at length because he explains this so true to life, and better than I could say it. Because of our sinful flesh,

even dear and faithful friends fall out or become irritable with one another. At times the devil injects poison and suspicion into a heart because of a single word or glance and thereby stirs up mutual animosity. He is a master in this art and devotes himself to it most diligently. He employs his craftiness before one is really aware of it.

Trifles can lead to such quarreling and enmity that great harm results to many. The blood soon begins to boil; then the devil shoots his venomous darts into the heart by means of evil tongues, and finally no one says or thinks anything good about the other person. The devil keeps on fanning the flames and is eager to set people against one another, to spread misery, and to incite them to murder.
But Christ declares: “That is not the right attitude. Do not let the devil, the world, or your own flesh overcome you; but think of how I have loved you and still love you. Call to mind what I have spent on you to make you righteous and to save you, to make you acceptable to the Father, to make you His priest and servant and My disciple. To accomplish this, I suffered and overcame everything both the devil and the world were able to do against Me. My beloved one, thus you also should remain in My love and not be deterred by any aversion you may feel for the many trials and temptations. Stand firm, and defend yourself valiantly. I, too, would surely have reason to complain. I could become displeased and impatient because My Father permits Me to be reviled so deplorably, to be crucified so shamefully, and to have My love [repaid] by the world with such ingratitude. But I do not let any torment or suffering frighten Me away from My Father’s love or deter Me from My love for you. Therefore even if the world inflicts harm and suffering on you, look to Me, and see what I did and suffered for you. Let the world go to the devil, where it is determined to go. But for My sake remain in Me, and let My Word abide in you.

Know that the devil will certainly be around us day and night with his lying and murdering, and will let us have no peace within or without. But it is in this place and against this trial that Jesus chose us to go and bear fruit. Against the hatred and the trouble of the world, against the irritableness of our sinful flesh and all the quarrels and envy, against the lying and malice of the devil, Jesus has called and chosen us from out of this to be His friends and to bear fruit. He gives us His love, so that it will live and grow through us and that we will bear fruit that will be a lasting evidence that we remain in His love.

There is no amount of love that we can ever give or show that will ever repay the love that Christ has given to us—the greatest love of all, to lay down His life for His friends. But Jesus does not ask us to repay or earn His love—which would reduce His love from being pure gift to being an obligation or reward. Rather, He simply desires that we show the visible evidence of His love, by loving our neighbor. That He would see in all of us His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. That He would see at work in us service and assistance for each other, charity and generosity and cooperation. That we wouldn’t stir up factions and divisions, sow disagreement by our unkindness or lack of self-control. That when the inevitable tensions arise and little sparks are lit, that we would take Luther’s advice and “Spit on it, and it will go out. Otherwise the devil will come with his venomous breath or through evil tongues and fan it into an inextinguishable fire, and it will develop into discord and hatred that cannot be allayed but will harm the whole body. For the devil is a spirit who does not desist and cease if he is not restrained.”

Knowing that even petty little things can easily spring up into a brushfire if they are not put out quickly, and knowing that the devil will readily turn those sparks into a blazing fire, we need to always be watchful and on guard. All of this is too much for us. It requires more love than we have or often feel, even toward our Christian brothers and sisters. Our love feels small and cold in comparison to Christ’s love, and we don’t even know how we can begin to do it. But to abide in His love means that it is His love that is at work to do it. His love more than fills up, it overflows, to create in us everlasting fruit that we could never bear, except that we abide in His love, and be the branches of His Vine. His love makes it possible for us to have the patience of Job, the love of faithful Mary, the courage of Peter and Paul, the mission fervor of Philip, the hospitality and generosity of Lydia, the encouragement of Barnabas. All these saints who without Christ were poor and frail, troubled and weak, but with Christ’s love, they bore the fruit of love that evidenced a life transformed. Still a work in progress, but truly friends of God.

When we love one another as Christ has loved us, His work is in progress on us, transforming us from the inside out. But His completed work, the work that is already finished and done for you, is the salvation He accomplished on the cross. When He cried out, “It is finished!” His love for you and for the world was total and complete, as Jesus laid down His life for His friends, yes, even His enemies, on the cross. With nothing to be added to or completed, He did it all, and His love accomplished salvation’s full price for us. So all the love we freely receive and share with others, is poured out for us in His self-less death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead. As we grow in love and draw more and more on this finished work of His love for us at the cross, we draw closer to the heavenly goal, when even this work in progress will be brought to completion, and our love will be perfected in heavenly glory. We owe all of this, and give thanks to Him, for His undeserved, gracious choosing of us, and the love that He so generously pours out through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. While we have a degree of free will in ordinary, earthly matters that are “below us,” how do Jesus and the Scriptures make it clear that we do not have free will in choosing or seeking after God (heavenly matters, or things “above us”)? See John 15:16; Matt. 18:10-14; Rom. 3:10b-11; Ps. 53:1-3.
2. How does this go against all that we instinctively and by nature want to believe about ourselves and our abilities? Give yourself this simple test to see whether or not you have free will in spiritual matters: Exercise your free will to avoid all sin in thought, word, or deed for the next week. How did you do? Are you ready to concede that sin has a greater power over you than you are willing to admit?
3. Before the awakening of faith, what is the problem with our heart that we cannot seek after God? See verses above from Romans and Psalms. Also Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:18-19.
4. If faith was a matter of our seeking out God rather than Him seeking us out, how would this diminish the importance of grace? Eph. 2:8-10.
5. What are the implications of Jesus choosing us to be His friends? How does it shape our lives? How is our love and willingness to bear fruit constantly challenged? How should we respond?
6. If Jesus’ love abiding and growing in us is a work in progress, what is the completed work of love that Jesus has done?

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