Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 09 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
Our gospel today is is a continuation from last week’s, where Jesus introduces the image of the vine. That image doesn’t explicitly appear today, but it underlies the passage, as he continues to speak to the disciples about what it means to abide in God, what it means that he will abide with them, how the interdependent twining branches of the vine are intended to bear fruit for the sake of the world. They are meant for this, he says—this is their calling. They are chosen as the source of the world’s nourishment.
We tend to think of being chosen as a special designation—the people, the group, selected out from the rest. And sometimes there is truth in this; we are asked to live by values different than the values of the world around us, to be a peculiar people. But perhaps our real chosenness is something deeper and greater than that. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus says. It is not our specialness which is meaningful here. It is not our initiative. We do not even exist by our own choice or strength. Each of us lives, because each of us, every being, has been chosen, made, named, to be an essential part of creation. The life which flows through the vine flows into us, the breath which calls the dry bones to stand animates us, in a way we do not choose or control.
We cannot choose to make God love us; and, even more, we cannot choose to make God not love us. God chooses us, individually and particularly. These selves which we ourselves may not want, may not love, God chooses. God is a constant movement of love towards us from the moment of our creation. None of us deserves, or can possibly deserve, the infinite love poured out upon us. Deserving doesn’t even enter into it. We are God’s beloved, children and friends, simply because we are; loved so much that God entered in our human lives, came to us in our human flesh, simply to be with us, and to bring us all into that love.
We stand on the earth as creatures called to existence, and we do not choose any of the fundamental conditions of our coming. We do not choose our parents, our place of birth, our race, the economic status of our families. We do not choose whether we will have safety or care or enough to eat. We do not choose our own bodies and brains, those intractable givens of muscle and bone and chemicals, with abilities and disabilities, strengths and weaknesses, desires and compulsions, the complicated dilemmas of our lives, out of which we make the best we can. But we have all, each one of us, been chosen for this irreplaceable moment; each of us has been chosen to be a facet, tiny and unique, of the divine whole. We did not choose to live in this strange and difficult time. But what fruit we are to bear, we must bear here, in this climate, this soil.
Now, the author of Acts portrays the work of the Holy Spirit in a rather dramatic, and very much culturally conditioned, way—speaking in tongues, ecstatic experience. But Paul, our earliest writer, thinks about the fruit of the Spirit in a way far less ecstatic, as patience, kindness, gentleness. The fruit we are called to bear is the shape of a life in this world, a life devoted to the hard task of loving our neighbours and working for justice, with grace, with calm, with, as the gospel today says, joy.
Joy is an important word, and it does not mean being happy all the time, or possibly even any of the time. It is the deep inward knowledge that God’s love abides in us, even when we don’t feel it. It is being in our proper home, sometimes even when we feel displaced, being our whole selves, even in the midst of struggle. It is the self-effacing rapture of an artist deep in creation or performance of their craft—as we are all called to be the creators of our lives. Even now, when our lives may be constrained and anxious, we can search for that creative joy. Even now, as the world turns to spring, there are birds, and there are budding trees. Even now, there are people in our lives to whom we are called, and we find our ways to love them not in word but in action, even if it is action at a distance.
And in this living, we are made, astonishingly, friends of God. Not compelled to the divine will, but brought into the divine confidence, made sharers, freely participating, partners in dialogue. It is an invitation which no human injustice can overrule. Last week, the Ethiopian eunuch, that so multiply marginalized person, his very body remade in ways he had not chosen, saw a body of water, and he claimed his moment, expressed his conviction that the God he wanted to understand would not deny him baptism. This week, Peter makes the same claim on behalf of others. The disciples, having apparently forgotten that they themselves were a rather unlikely and disreputable bunch, are shocked to see Gentiles—_Gentiles_, the unchosen people—responding to God’s call. But Peter, though he will struggle with his own issues in all this later on, Peter for once gets it right the first time. He sees the response, and he knows that this is what matters, this is all that matters.
It will be difficult—none of this will be a matter of everyone suddenly agreeing to be just the same as those who are already part of the early church. Joining this new faith will change each person, but the church itself will have to change in order to accommodate this wider inclusion, will have to be open to uncertainty, to disagreement, to the hard process of growth. Gentiles and Samaritans, eunuchs, women, and slaves, Galilean fishermen suddenly travelling the cities of the Roman world, trying to learn what it meant to be one body, in bodies of such various conditions.
And we too, when we turn to love, we are called into complexity. Loving God is not about having a good opinion of God, or constant warm feelings about God. Loving God, as the Gospel today tells us very clearly, precisely means living out God’s commandment of love for our brothers and sisters. Not because we have to, but because we can do nothing else. To learn to be one body, in the midst of all that would divide us. And we, unlikely as we are, small people in this hard place, we are chosen. We, of all people—and with all people—are chosen; we are invited to be the friends of God, invited to live in, and live out, God’s love. Each one of us special, particular, amazing. Step into your life, and let it be claimed. Let the gift make you whole.