5th May 2024

You did not choose me, but I chose you

You did not choose me, but I chose you.
A sermon for Easter 6 by Kenneth Padley
5 May 2024

Choose Life. Thus begins the opening mantra of Trainspotting, the critically-acclaimed 1996 film about urban squalor and heroin addiction in Edinburgh. ‘Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a [somewhat] big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players [remember them?] and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance… Choose your friends… Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of [colourful] fabrics… Choose your future. Choose life.’

The irony is that the main character in Trainspotting, Renton, played by Ewan MacGregor, has very little choice. His life is caught in a spiral of drugs, crime and poverty. He cannot choose good health or his friends, and his future is bleakly restricted.

I was reminded of this recently when national treasure and chief medical officer Chris Whitty made a powerful intervention in the debate about whether to phase out smoking by prohibiting sales to those born in 2009 and afterwards. Supporting the ban, he said ‘If you are in favour of choice, you should be against something that takes away people’s choice. When I was a junior doctor doing surgery, I remember the tragedy of seeing people, whose legs had had to be cut off because of the smoking that had damaged their arteries, outside the hospital weeping as they lit up because they were trapped by addiction – that is not choice.’

Chris Whitty’s statement reveals a complex, nestled hierarchy of choices. Some choices inevitably limit other possibilities, and choices by individuals and institutions can impact the possibility horizons for others.

There is nothing new in this paradox. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’, Jesus told his disciples in this morning’s reading, part of the long Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel set on the night before Jesus died. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’. It is a seemingly innocuous statement yet is anything but.

The way in which Jesus gathered him immediate followers was an inversion of received ancient Hebrew practice. Back then, Jewish students selected their rabbi, not the other way around. It was remarkably commercial – a bit like parents analysing the OFSTED reports and exam results to determine a preferred school for their offspring.

Jesus did things differently. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’. Maybe his disciples did not know they were even looking for a rabbi! However, they responded instantaneously to his alluring invitation to leave everything and follow. This summons by Jesus to Peter, Andrew, and the others underlines his authoritative voice. In addition, it allowed him to create a fellowship of no fewer and no greater than twelve. In this he stands in the place of God himself, inaugurating a new community akin to the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament.

Jesus’ words of course speak to us as well. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’. We are reminded that our God is a God who leads and directs. He calls you and me to salvation and he directs you and me in good works.

I have spoken before about the theological tension between God’s choice and our choice. We make free decisions based on factors before us, our background influences and immediate prompts. As a result, we bear moral responsibility for our actions. Yet, somehow, my free choice also aligns with the foresight of the Creator. God does not physically compel me to choose cheese instead of tuna in my lunchtime sandwich. Yet She knows my choice from eternity. The two processes operate in parallel. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.

Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles illustrates this. We heard the concluding sentences of a long story in which a Roman centurion called Cornelius is told by an angel to invite Peter to his base in Caesarea. Meanwhile, Peter is granted a vision which convinces him that Jesus is not just for Jews but also for Gentiles like Cornelius. Peter thus accepts the invitation to go to Caesarea; here he preaches to Cornelius’ household about Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And then, as we picked up in today’s passage, quote, ‘while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word’. Throughout the story, there is a seamless interweaving of human choices and divine action. The whole episode falls within the greater purposes of God.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’. 2024 is, infamously, the most democratic year in human history. More than half the population of the world will be voting in national elections this year.

We are privileged to make individual choices through the ballot box in order to establish governments which can take collective decisions for us all. None of us is so libertarian as to be able to retain absolute individual freedom. No man is an island. In that sense, each of us is a bit hemmed in, a faint echo of Renton in Trainspotting.

The role of government in shaping society plays itself out in many tough choices. Some of these are pastorally sensitive because they have the potential to confine the boundaries of individual choice, for example around protection for the most vulnerable near the start and end of life on earth. So I urge you this year not only to vote but also to pray for wisdom for those who must make such demanding choices on our behalf.

As corporate bodies, churches are also involved in the challenges of collective choice. A particular hymn, a fabric project, or a piece of art may not be to everyone’s taste. Such is the life of a faith community. Unanimity is not always possible. Instead, what we strive to implement are sensible and transparent systems for making and reviewing decisions for the good of our common life, systems which are guided by principles like the inclusion and diversity which Peter learns today in Acts chapter 10.

When Jesus says that ‘you did not choose me, but I chose you’, he is reminding us that Christian freedom is not about maximising individual liberty at the expense of others nor even that we might live in a vacuum away from others. Communities are more complex than that, be that at a national or local level. Our individual choices are exercised in a framework alongside the choices of others. In addition, the Christian acknowledges the theological truth, that our choices are also exercised under the providence of Him who is eternally choosing, to whom belongs all honour, majesty, might and dominion, now and forever. Amen.