Reading John 15.9-17
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
If you have even the tiniest interest in football, you probably know that today and the next six days are a period of unusual importance. Today brings the final day of the English Premiership season, next Saturday the Champions’ League final. Depending on how each team performs in ninety-odd minutes, one of two could be champions of Europe, one of another two champions of England; any two of four teams could qualify for next season’s Champions’ League – or fail to, with the loss not just of glory but of tens of millions of pounds – while at other end of the table, one of two teams will drop through the impoverishing trapdoor of relegation.
Imagine you are one of the managers involved. What do you put in your pre-match talk? What do you say to the pricey star, recently returned to form but still fragile? What to the journeyman who knows he’s only in the team because your first choice is injured or suspended? How do you achieve that alchemy, the perfect mix of praise and threat, encouragement and warning, that will not only make the team fight, but release their guile and imagination and flair?
In the film The Damned United, Derby County manager Brian Clough (played uncannily by Michael Sheen), adopts a spare approach as his team sits round the tight walls of the dressing room before taking on those giants of the 1970s, Leeds United. He quietly prompts them to repeat pithy phrases he’s told them in training, things they can hold in their heads in the heat of battle.
‘Know what your job is today?’
‘Yes, boss: stay in position, keep the shape.’
‘Clear what you’re doing today?’
‘Be big. Be strong. Any chance I get, flatten Paul Madeley.’
Last Sunday’s and today’s gospel readings come from what we call the farewell discourses of John’s Gospel. It’s another scene in a confined space, Jesus at the last supper, the night before he is arrested, talking to his team of close followers – now just eleven in number – preparing them for the ordeal that will come when he is arrested and taken from them and killed. He adopts a similar approach, giving them things they can hold in their minds in the middle of fear and confusion. Last week it was a vivid image:
‘I am the vine you are the branches,’
Today it’s a series of nuggets:
‘Keep my commandments…Love one another…I no longer call you servants, but friends;’
and, most remarkably, this:
‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
What a thing to say, and to hear. Unforgettable. In a few hours’ time, when they are surrounded by menacing faces in the lamplight, by swords and clubs of violent men looking for Jesus, when they wonder how they ever got themselves into this, ‘You did not choose me…’ When things are demanded of them that they just do not feel up to, ‘You did not choose me…’ When they are convinced that Jesus has been raided from death, when they see that this thing is vastly bigger than they realised and feel out of their depth: ‘You did not choose me…’ It is inspiring – and terrifying – that someone sees more in you than you can find in yourself. In the college where I was trained for ordination, a place in which it was easy at times to feel deskilled and inadequate, we saw those words every morning and evening in the chapel, written on an open book held by Jesus in an icon:
‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
What can we learn from this? One thing is that here in the scriptures we receive words of life. A powerful reason for getting to know the Bible better is to have by heart words through which God can strengthen us. A colleague of mine said that in tough situations she would have in mind the words of Jesus that night as he waited for the violent men to come:
‘Your will, not mine be done’.
Foe moments like that I have a verse from the Psalms:
‘In God I trust and will not fear. What can flesh do to me?’
But what of today’s particular verse, ‘You did not choose me…’? The only point in hearing these words here is that they are true of us. Consider this: the most important thing about any of us here is not that, say, you have exercised your free will in choosing to come, but that God (whose face we see in Jesus) has chosen you. What looks like free choice is actually your response to a call.
If that is true, that changes things. When you feel out of your depth at work, or if work is folding up: ‘You did not choose me…’ If circumstances have changed, years have rolled by, and people who gave purpose to your life aren’t there now: ‘You did not choose me…’ But why did he choose you? And what for?
‘…I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit.’
And what could that fruit be? Last week we touched on one thing, finding our own words to speak about God. But that’s not the only fruit. What else?
Do you think you have something to offer the life of this church? What might that be, and who are you going to tell about it? Or have you something to offer ‘out there’, in places that may have nothing obviously to do with this or any church? Or is it something else again? Yesterday during the May Fair (and thanks to everyone who made it all go so well) Fenella Warden filled this church again and again with good music and fine pictures, created by young people. Is that the kind of fruit God has in mind? What was that talent you had as a child (so long neglected); that passion you had all those years ago, that has got crowded out by the stuff that fills our lives?
Happily, these are fruitful times in our churches: six people from our congregations are to be confirmed here tonight, a great act of openness to the purposes of God (come and support them, and be inspired); several people are in conversations of one kind or another about whether they are being called to some ministry in the church; and, two weeks today, our Christianity at Work group moves to its new slot, over coffee here on a Sunday morning, with its brief to help us make connections between the work people do and the purposes of God.
All that matters is that, however we do it, you and I discover the fruitfulness for which God has chosen us, that we receive the nourishment we need to bear that fruit. And this is how.
Every Sunday, on your behalf, bread and wine are placed on the altar. Bread, basic food, stands for the essentials of life, the things that you have to do, at home, at school or at work. Wine, not basic but very nice, stands for those parts of life where you celebrate, enjoy yourself, or relax. All of your life and mine summed up in wafers and wine, placed on the altar, put in God’s hands. And a few minutes later God gives it all back, bread and wine, work and leisure, your life and mine, back in our own hands again; except now it has been transformed, and we receive it with the words ‘The body of Christ…The blood of Christ’: your life and mine, now vivified, revived with the life of Christ. That is why God has chosen us to be here, to receive this nourishment, so we can bear fruit in places only we can reach.
The Damned United http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp_0ITy8nrk&feature=relmfu
Bread and wine These thoughts owe much to Charles Elliott’s, Praying the Kingdom (DLT, 1987).
What does God want to give you here? What is it that you need? And what is God calling you to do?