Garrison Keillor recalls the childhood pain, a pain that is familiar to me, of being chosen last for the baseball teams:
The captains are down to their last grudging choices: a slow kid for catcher, someone to stick out in right field where nobody hits it. They choose the last ones two at a time— “you and you”—because it makes no difference. And the remaining kids—the scrubs , the excess—they deal for us as handicaps. “If I take him, then you gotta take him,” they say.
Sometimes I go as high as sixth, usually lower. But just once I’d like Darrel to pick me first and say, “Him! I want him! The skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes. You, c’mon!” But I’ve never been chosen with much enthusiasm.
Just once, Keillor said, he wished he could have been chosen with enthusiasm. Garrison could have realized that enthusiasm in one of two ways. First, he could have started worshipping here, ensuring that he would have definitely been enthusiastically tapped to play on our newly formed church softball team, go Sea Island Celtics. Or, he could have turned to Ephesians 1 and discovered the sheer, unbridled enthusiasm God demonstrates in choosing us. Choosing us before the foundation of the world, destining us for adoption as God’s own children.
Last Friday, I experienced something that did not instill confidence in me that this was necessarily true. Becky and I were visiting friends in Lancaster, PA. It was First Friday in Lancaster, and we were downtown with hundreds of other people who were visiting shops and galleries and listening to musicians performing on every block. On one corner, two strangers stopped us to administer a test. The results, they promised, would let us know if we were getting into heaven or not. Based on my understanding of scripture, and of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, I know there is no test that any human can administer that will tell me whether I am going to heaven. That is something only God knows. God is the one who chooses, and God is the one who elects.
For many Christians, election, or predestination, is an area of theology that can be difficult to talk about and understand. Conversations about predestination can be troubling and easily lead people to believe that God is a controlling puppet master and that humans do not have free will. It might make some think that practicing faith is not necessary, since God is the one who chooses us. It might lead some to believe that some are in and some are out, or that everyone is in and nobody is out. Election is a theological quagmire that continues to perplex many Christians. We may determine that it’s too complicated to talk about, and just ignore it. Yet the good news is that God’s election is a joyous affirmation of the power of God’s grace.
So what does it mean to be chosen or elected by God? First and most importantly, it is an affirmation that God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is more gracious that we can even begin to imagine. In as much as this grace is affected through the redemption and forgiveness that is generously and abundantly lavished on us in Christ, God reveals to us that the free gift of grace is available to everyone. We lose sight of what election is truly all about when we begin to get mired in debates about who is in and who is out and whether we are included. God’s free gift is for all, and we have done nothing to deserve it and can do nothing to earn it.
Election shows us that those who are in Christ belong to God, simply because God wills it. God does not elect us because we have committed fewer sins than other people, or because we have done more “righteous deeds” than other. God elects us because God is merciful. God does not pour out grace upon us because of what we have done. God’s gracious election was done independently of anything that we did; it was not based on our response or consent – in fact, God’s grace precedes our faith, and is indeed its very source. Our relationship to God, our salvation, is already accomplished as a work of God before creation.
Ephesians teaches us that God’s election is always “in Christ.” When we pause to think about election, we might begin to feel worried or unsure of our salvation. However, election should lead Christians to thankfulness and praise. Our thinking about election should always begin by looking to Christ and not ourselves. If we start by looking at ourselves, we will become discouraged, because we know we are unworthy of God’s grace. However, when we view election through the lens of Christ, who reveals that God’s will is good, we see the grace and mercy of God. Christ promises us that we are indeed recipients of that grace and mercy. It may be difficult for us to believe that God truly loves us so much, especially when we are bombarded with lies that the world is governed by fate, that we are failures who are susceptible to rejection, that we are guilty and should be ashamed. Ephesians reveals to us the truth: that we are blessed by God, chosen and adopted by God, and recipients of God’s grace. When we live with those truths at our core, we cannot help but be overwhelmed with joy – the same joy that made David dance with reckless abandon before the Ark of the Covenant.
All of this abundance, and the joy that it inspires, can sometimes lead us to think more of ourselves, or of Christians in general, than we should. Paul teaches us that our faith is not a reason to boast – rather we should boast in the cross of Christ, in Christ himself, and in our weakness. Being chosen by God does not make us “special” in relation to others. Our election does not elevate us above others so that we can “lord it over” those we might mistakenly come to believe are not elected or chosen. Rather than lifting us to the heights, God’s election calls us to the grave; our election in Christ does not call us to privilege but to discipleship and the suffering of the cross. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when God calls someone, God calls that person to come and die. This is precisely what we experience in today’s gospel lesson: John the Baptist is imprisoned because he chose to follow God rather than obey the earthly authorities that ordered his silence. He is executed because of his witness. John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, both imprisoned and executed for their faith, teach us that Christ is worth everything they are made to bear and that God does not elect us to an easy life without responsibility. Rather, we take our place in God’s grand salvation story, entering into a covenant relationship with God that leads us to a countercultural, holy, and distinctive life characterized by love. We are called to specific tasks of serving God and neighbor. We are called to praise God in all we do.
Interestingly, the pledge that God gives us to demonstrate the faithfulness of the promise of election is precisely what we need in order to live this covenantal life: the promised Holy Spirit. God says, “You know my promise is sure because I have given you the Holy Spirit.” Yet the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in response to God’s grace. When we think, “It is impossible for me to praise God with every aspect of my life, every moment of the day,” God says, “I know. That’s why I sent you the Holy Spirit.” When we say, “It is impossible for me to love and serve my neighbor,” God says, “I know. That’s why I sent you the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit even gives us the ability to contemplate our gracious election in Christ to the praise and glory of God. The good news of our election gives us the boldness to say yes when we are asked to serve our neighbors. It enlightens us to all the ways God is at work in our lives so that we can rightly praise God.
God did not choose any of us last to be on the team. We were all chosen together, before the world itself was even formed. That is truth. What does that say about what God thinks about you? I know it makes me pretty excited to play ball.