SMC – Easter 4 2019
Are you any good at making decisions? Indeed what does someone who is good at making choices look like? Choice is a wonderful part of life and in recent centuries it could be argued we’ve never had as much choice as we do now. What shall we do today? Watch a news report from the 1950s on Youtube? Listen to a podcast of two mechanics talking live in Australia? Have lunch in Paris? Do nothing all day, knowing the home is safe and the chance of my home collapsing is minimal and there’s fresh water on tap. Ooodles of choice. It’s wonderful. … But what if I want to do all those things? Well, I can’t have lunch in Paris and stay in my pyjamas all day in bed, because they’re mutually exclusive. But I want to do both. Well, how about I stay in bed for a few hours and then go to Paris, well, I won’t have much time if I do that etc etc. The decision has suddenly become the thing we spend our time doing as we come to terms with the fact that choosing has a cost.
St Peter refers to us Christians as a “chosen race” (I Peter 2:9). My friends, we are that new people, someone has made a choice for us and this choosing, this election by God that I want to think about this morning. This is a high calling indeed and it doesn’t matter whether at the moment you’re feeling particularly great or particularly fed up, particularly tired or particularly fired up, particularly holy or particularly distant from God, if you’ve been coming for decades or you’ve just started all this, but we are this holy race, not only us of course, but also those others baptised and living the faith out through worship and sacrifice. God has chosen you along with others to be His people.
Of course, it is God who does the choosing, as Jesus says, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” And that means He is in charge, He has placed His Spirit within us, His hand upon us, we have accepted the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light. At Study Group on Tuesday, we read about the finding of Rebekah to be the wife of Isaac in Genesis 24, a wonderfully crafted narrative. A nose ring is given to Rebekah to indicate her being pledged to marry Isaac. It’s not appropriate to think about brides that way today but it is a helpful reminder of how we, the beautifully adorned bride, prepared for our bride groom, are to view our relationship with Christ who calls us. The image of the nose ring is like that of cattle who would be dragged towards their destination through use of this ring. And sometimes we will need dragging back to the path Christ has set before us.
Bereavement can be one such way when many return to the fold when confronted with their own mortality and the need to be reminded that death need not separate us from our loved ones. This can a way folk are dragged back, though it is also a set of circumstances when many are blown off course. It may be we need to reach out to someone who is mourning and tell them Jesus is calling them home, back to the fold of the Church. This is the call of the Good Shepherd of which we heard in our Gospel today. I find it a beautiful image and part of the real privilege of us having a sister church dedicated to the Good Shepherd. There’s a particular resonance when we then hear those words: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.”
There’s no disputing about which fold the sheep belong to. Sheep leap around all over the place - and I’m basing this, of course, on what I’ve read in books and seen on the television rather than first hand experience of sheep, which is pretty minimal! Often when we see sheep in the UK they’re marked in some way with a tag on the ear and a painted mark on their body. Apparently there is a book called the Shepherd’s Guide, in which all the different marks are recorded and they show who the owner is. We no less as Christians have a mark placed on us at our Baptism when the oil of Chrism is etched on our foreheads. This prefigures the mark on the forehead of those washed in the Blood of the Lamb, mentioned in St John’s Revelation, the Apocalypse (22:4).
This choosing of the elect to be with God in Heaven has been given the fancy title of the Doctrine of Predestination, which Paul summarises as “those whom God predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified” (Romans 8:28-30 but see also Ephesians 1:4-5). It’s clearly given also in the image of the names written in the book since the foundation of the world (Apocalypse 13:8). There’s great comfort I hope we all realise in this choosing. We are those of whom our Lord said in today’s Gospel: “I give them eternal life; they will never be lost.” We need to keep before us the lesson from Apocalypse 7 that we heard the number of the elect is “impossible to count.“
But there are also two particular related problems to divine election we have to consider as well.
First, the argument can go that if God has chosen His people to be with in Heaven, does that mean He’s also created people having decided he’s not going to choose them, in other words has God predestined some people to go to hell? This second element is referred to as “double Predestination” and something that classically many Protestants have adhered to but which the Church has condemned. The Church of England’s Articles of Religion 17 teach us that “Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God … to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church §600 is even more explicit: “God predestines no one to go to hell.” This we see in the writings of St Paul, when he consoles St Timothy with the words: “God desires everyone to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4). The heresy that God predestines some to go to hell cannot therefore be true. God’s will is clearly that He wants everyone to be saved and we are engaging ourselves in that mission when we tell people about Jesus and invite them into the fold and into a livelier relationship with the Lord.
The second thing to remember is that this Doctrine of Predestination does not limit our freedom to choose. Notice this very sets of actions happening in our first reading where Paul and Barnabas, now about 15 years after the death of Jesus find themselves in Antioch in northern Syria. Paul and Barnabas have been commissioned with this mission by the church (Acts 13:1-4). They preach Jesus to those of faith but all they get in return is jealousy and blasphemies. So they conclude that those people must simply not wish to be saved and therefore they will go to the pagans. Here we see a living out of the same movement which is the will of God, that all might be saved and come to the full knowledge of God in Christ Jesus. The rich folk in that first reading who oppose the Gospel then work together to try and expel Paul and Barnabas who in turn “shake the dust from their feet in defiance.” People can resell against God’s choosing and exclude themselves from God’s grace and we in turn, after much effort first of all and with a heavy heart will sometimes have to just leave them to get on with it.
I just want to conclude by making a general thought about exclusion. We live in a society which makes much of despising the excluding of people. And yet this society has actually created the conditions whereby loneliness is more of a problem than ever in living memory. There’s a particular irony, I fear. We are also more likely to exclude people in our own society now if we disagree with them. People can exclude themselves from society and from the society of the church and ultimately from God. Society can’t really cope with the real consequences of exclusion and we will need to remind it of them and the damage of it. It is the flip side of free choice, God’s gift to us, a painful one at that. We each of us will have something in our life that cuts us off from God, from other folk and from the Church and we need to place a bridge in that place, the bridge of God’s mercy and compassion, the bride of the Cross, the bridge of this Mass, that we may be separated no longer.
So, be glad, my friends, through the trial of this week to know that we the baptised are God’s chosen, an elect who have the option to choose life or death, goodness or hatred. When we proclaim the Gospel if it bears fruit then we will be speaking to people whom God has already called, justified and predestined unto eternal life so we have nothing to fear. Alleluia. Amen.