Reading John 15.9–17
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
One moment of victory laid upon another. How cruel that, hours after the astonishing results were known, the vanquished found themselves side by side with the victor of the 2015 General Election in an image that was to be on every front page: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband with their wreaths at the VE Day remembrance service. Headline – ‘And then there was one.’
Cruel, but – deep down – meet and right, as the Prayer Book puts it. What could be more fitting on that day than to see leaders whose own immediate experience had embodied a large part of what the war in Europe had been fought over: establishing the possibility that power could be defended or captured bloodlessly, and not by the command of tyrants but by the will of the people? [See below]
There will be times when preachers will need to touch on the result and its implications. For Labour and the Lib Dems there will be existential questions, dark days of searching the soul. And for the PM, this ‘sweetest of victories’ may already have brought on a gulp at the tasks ahead, when the next five years might see big strides towards the UK leaving the EU and Scotland leaving the UK, and all this with an economic recovery not yet secured and a majority barely half that of John Major’s 23 years ago. Still, it’s too early for me at least to say anything that would be worth your listening to. Instead, let us take a few minutes to contemplate the act itself, and the power of the act, which is at the heart of what we have just gone through, and see how it looks in the light of Jesus in today’s gospel.
Speech after speech during that long night – from winners and losers – used the language of choice. The defeated Douglas Alexander, for instance, said that the people of Scotland had chosen to oppose Conservatism but had not chosen to put that trust in the Labour Party. They were right to use that language because ‘to elect’ literally means ‘to choose’. At our own VE thanksgiving service tonight we shall hear words from a document forged in the furnace of the Second World War, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a kind of secular ten commandments, though its 30 Articles make it rather longer and we’ll only read part of the Preamble tonight. A lot in those Articles is about people’s right to choose – to choose to leave or stay in your own country, to choose who to marry and to choose who to vote for. After a turnout of only 66%, we’ll probably look at other ways of encouraging people to exercise that right – voting by text, voting online or at a supermarket checkout – but I hope it will always be possible to cast my vote with a blunt pencil in a plywood booth that reminds me of a Punch & Judy stand. It’s almost a religious act, part of the liturgy of democracy.
I’m not sure that more choice is always what we want – I don’t mind not having much choice in healthcare, for instance, as long as the care is good – but choice is something we have made into an article of secular faith. Mind you, the faith of the Bible is about choice. In the first recorded election broadcast, Moses addresses the people of Israel: ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30.15-19). There are many other choosing moments in the Bible but – and here at last we come to the Gospel reading – the traffic usually goes in the opposite direction.
John describes Jesus, on the night before he dies, giving a long meditation. The part we hear this morning weaves in and out of the themes we’ve touched on. There is no doubt that Jesus is the leader – ‘Keep my commandments’ – but then he suggest that their relationship is not going to be exactly command-and-control – ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends’, and friends have claims upon each other. And then, most remarkably, this: ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
What a thing to hear. The disciples are in a world where it’s commonplace to be on the receiving end of other people’s choices – a Roman soldier can choose to make you carry his bags, slaves are chosen and paid for in the town square – yet Jesus’ words are still a surprise – wasn’t it they who opted to follow him? How much more are they a surprise for you and me, if we hear those words addressed to us?
Our secular commandments tell us that the most important thing about us is that we are capable of choosing and must be able to do so. At certain important points in life we ought to be in control, so that we can elect to do this or that. And God is in favour of that (we are made in God’s image, after all); but what matters even more – this is what Jesus makes clear – is that God elects us.
That changes the shape of living. When you do the choosing you are at the centre of your little universe. If someone else chooses you, then you are not at the centre; the centre is somewhere else and you are drawn into something bigger than you are. That may be good or bad, depending on what you are drawn into, but when God is doing the choosing, nothing gives us greater dignity.
It means that your and my being here this morning is not a matter of consumer choice but of vocation – ‘You did not choose me, I chose you.’ Why, I wonder? What might God be waiting to communicate to you in this service of Holy Communion?
It means that real setbacks in life – bad things that are beyond our control – may just possibly set us free to respond to that constant call from God and begin to bear some different ‘fruit’, as Jesus calls it. One of our regular worshippers said to me recently that losing a job – though it was bad at the time – has turned out just like that.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t. I’m thinking especially of illness, the thief of choice, when your body or your mind seem to rise up in revolt against you, and stop you making the choices you used to make. Even then those words, ‘You did not choose me, I chose you’ are a defiant statement that loss of powers, of ‘agency’, is not the last word about you.
For thousands of candidates, this is the third day of their rejection, after the electors chose someone other than them. For some, it is exactly what they expected. For others it has meant destruction, even a kind of death: loss of seat, job, the end of perhaps decades of service to a constituency. It’s a moment to think, talk to friends and colleagues, to look at the choices open to you. And it might be a third day of a different kind, a moment of resurrection, a moment to discover or rediscover that – deep down – our lives are not things we construct for ourselves but responses to the extraordinary gift of existence. Our lives are those of chosen people. God says to us, as to the prophet, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you and appointed you’ (Jeremiah 1.5); or as Jesus says, ‘I have chosen you and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that shall last.’ What might that fruit be?
What the war in Europe had been fought over
He turned quite grey in his bath…I thought he would faint. Then he turned to me and said: ‘They are perefectly entitled to vote as they please. This is democracy. This is what we’ve been fighting for.’
Captain Richard Pim on the night Churchill lost office, 26 July 1945