Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Against All Odds” (John 15:12-16)
May 6, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Recently National Geographic published an article about an avid outdoor enthusiast named Dylan McWilliams, who has paid the price multiple times for his outdoor adventures. Earlier this year Dylan was attacked by a tiger shark while surfing in Hawaii. Last year while he was on a camping trip in Colorado he was bitten on the head by a black bear, and in 2015 while hiking in Utah he was stung by a rattlesnake. Poor Dylan McWilliams!
Now statistically the odds of being attacked by a shark in U. S. waters are 11.5 million to one, the odds of being bitten by a bear in the U.S. are 2.1 million to one, and the odds of being stung by a venomous snake are 37,500 to one. All this means that the odds of one person, like the apparently unlucky Dylan McWilliams suffering all three of these is an astonishing 893.35 quadrillion to one…and yet, against all conceivable odds, it happened (by Stephen Leahy, April 24, 2018).
When we talk about the gospel, about the odds of a holy, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient God loving neurotic sinners like us, the odds would be even larger than 893.35 quadrillion to one…and yet it happened historically and definitively in Jesus’ death on the cross, an act of love that defies all odds for all time.
In today’s gospel passage from John’s account of the Last Supper Jesus talked about the most important thing in the world, love—loving one another with the same love Jesus would demonstrate the next day on Calvary:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you (John 15:12-16).
Jesus assured his disciples that even though they had not chosen him, he had chosen them, as John later wrote in his First Letter, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19).
You may have heard it said one way or another that your life is the sum total of the choices you make, or as the nineteenth century philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” When it comes to your earthly life you may have experienced the truth in that, the truth of what the Old Testament prophet Hosea wrote, “Sow the wind…reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).
And yes, your choices matter. You know that. In the Old Testament Joshua, after leading Israel into the Promised Land, famously exhorted Israel to make the right choice, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods that your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). “Choose this day whom you will serve”…that is the law.
But again, as Jesus assured his disciples at the Last Supper, “You did not choose me but I chose you”…that is the gospel. Because the truth is that more often than not we do not make the right choices, as the Apostle Paul put it, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18-19). Can you relate to that? If you do not relate to it now, trust me, someday you will. Our choices fall short, and that is where the good news of the gospel meets us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you”…that is the gospel. Against all odds, Jesus has chosen you.
A couple illustrations—one from Hollywood, and a second from the NFL draft…I am sucker for romantic comedies. As you know, all romantic comedies tell the basic same story: amidst hilarious hijinks a couple meets and falls in love. Then they break up, only to be reunited against all odds at the end of the film. One of my favorite romantic comedies is the 1998 hit The Wedding Singer starring Adam Sandler as a down-on-his-luck wedding singer named Robbie Hart who falls madly in love with a beautiful waitress named Julia Sullivan, played by Drew Barrymore.
In the midst of this goofy romantic comedy there is a powerful scene of grace. Robbie is singing at a bar mitzvah and notices one of the teenage guys looking very depressed. He walks over to him, “You seem kind of sad. Why don’t you go over there and dance, buddy?” “I asked that girl over there,” the sad boy replies, “She turned me down. She said she doesn’t dance with losers.” Robbie continues, “Oh man. That hurts. But you know why would you want to dance with somebody who doesn’t want to dance with you, right? Listen, don’t worry. You’re gonna meet a girl who treats you right someday, I promise you.”
Then Robbie returns to the mic and says to the crowd, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine by the name of Julia Sullivan.” He beckons her to the stage and continues, “Say hi to Julia everybody. Now who of you out there would like to dance with this fine looking woman?” All the guys are raising their hands, and some are jumping up and down. “Wow, Julia,” Robbie says, “Sounds to me like you got your pick of any man in this room to dance with, so I want you to take your time and find amongst all these young studs here tonight the coolest, most un-losery guy in the bunch.”
As Julia walks down the line each of the boys tries to persuade her to pick him as they flex their muscles or smile seductively or show off their expensive clothes—“Please pick me! Please, Julia!” But to the shock of everyone Julia stops in front of the goofiest, pudgiest kid there, the sad boy to whom Robbie had earlier spoken, who is sitting down and not paying any attention because he is used to never being chosen for anything ever. Julia bends down toward him, smiles, takes his hand, and asks, “May I have this dance?” The boy is completely stunned and his eyes grow wide and he blushes and then stands up and walks with Julia onto the dance floor. “Okay pal,” Robbie says into the microphone, “Have fun!” and the depressed kid who was used to never being chosen for anything ever enjoys a dance with the gorgeous Julia Sullivan who had chosen to dance with him.
The second illustration is from the recent 2018 NFL Draft. In the fifth round the Seattle Seahawks drafted Shaquem Griffin from the University of Central Florida. Griffin is an outstanding linebacker, and he only has one hand. When he was only four years old, he had a medical condition that required the amputation of his left hand. And yet, he has proven to be a great football player, as he demonstrated when UCF defeated Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl (sorry, Auburn fans).
And it gets better…against incredibly high odds Griffin was not only chosen to play at football’s highest level, he was chosen to play on the same NFL team—and there are thirty-two NFL teams—as his twin brother Shaquill. How cool is that? When I was doing my daily ESPN online devotions the other day I ran across an article about this by Brady Henderson, who writes:
The scenario—Shaquem not only overcoming the longest odds to reach the pros, but also rejoining his twin brother on the same team—is the stuff of Hollywood movie scripts, not NFL reality. “I had a feeling (it could happen),” Shaquem said, “but the chances were really low”…Shaquem said the first thing (his brother) asked him after he got the call from the Seahawks was, “So are you living with me or not?” “We may have to knock some walls down,” Shaquill joked on the conference call, “but we’ll figure it out.”
Brady writes, “To be sure, the Seahawks wouldn’t have drafted Griffin if they didn’t believe he could help their team, but this almost-too-good-to-be-true story comes at a time when Seattle could really use one” (April 30, 2018).
Like the fans in Seattle, perhaps you too could use an “almost-too-good-to-be-true story” that defies all odds—and the gospel of God’s unconditional love for you in Jesus Christ is exactly that. The Apostle Paul personally experienced this as God chose him, a violent blasphemer and persecutor of Christians, to preach the gospel throughout the Roman world, and write thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The same is true for you, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one may boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
More recently God chose a Catholic priest who fell in love and got married (and was therefore no longer a Catholic priest), a lifelong alcoholic who later got divorced, whose life was riddled with bad choices and the consequences of those choices (perhaps like your life). He was the late Brennan Manning, whom God chose against all odds to be a phenomenal preacher and writer. Like Paul, Brennan Manning personally experienced the unconditional love of Jesus Christ who had chosen him. Listen to how he describes this love in his book Lion and Lamb:
God loves you as you are and not as you should be! Do you believe this? That God loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity, that He loves you in the morning sun and the evening rain, that He loves you without caution, regret, boundary, limit, or breaking point? I am not asking: Do you believe in love? That is abstract ideology…What I am asking is: can you say with conviction what the apostle John writes in his first letter: “I have come to know and believe in the love God has for me” (20).
Think about your own life for a moment. Perhaps you can relate to Dylan McWilliams, because against all odds in your life you have been metaphorically attacked by a shark and bitten by a bear and stung by a rattlesnake. Or like the sad boy at the bar mitzvah you are used to never being chosen for anything ever because as the mean girl told him, “I don’t dance with losers.” Or like Shaquem Griffin you have suffered a tremendous loss of some kind and have hoped to still be chosen to play at the next level. Or like the Apostle Paul you have been a blasphemer who has dismissed Christianity as folly. Or like Brennan Manning you have suffered from addiction and broken relationships.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper are his words to you today, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” In spite of all the wrong choices you have made, and the consequences of those choices, your eternal destiny will not be shaped by any of that. Instead, your eternal destiny will be shaped by the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, who has chosen you, who loved you so much that he gave his life for you on the cross to atone completely for all your wrong choices, and to secure for you a destiny of eternal life.
Against all odds, Jesus has smiled at you and asked you to dance. Against all odds, Jesus has drafted you to play on his team, the church, a team that has all your brothers and sisters who like you, against all odds, have been chosen by him. Again, at the Last Supper Jesus assured his disciples “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and the very next day on the cross he did exactly that. This “almost-too-good-to-be-true” gospel is absolutely true.
And even now, against all odds, the Risen Jesus offers that same love to you.