A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on July 24, 2011.

Predestination is not a subject  Episcopalians usually worry about. John Calvin talked about it a lot and it’s always been a major theme  in the churches of the Reformed tradition –  the Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed,  and Congregationalists. But I don’t think they worry about it anymore.  Ask your Congregationalist friends when they last heard a sermon  about predestination.  But in the second reading today St. Paul has a lot to say about predestination and if we want to learn from St. Paul, we need to spend some time with this subject.

Predestination is the idea  that God has destined some people for salvation from the very beginning. That salvation is God’s decision  made before we were born.  Predestination is not  the idea that everything that happens is predetermined: that God has every event all planned  from the recent slaughter in Norway to the day you will die – when, as they say,  your number is up. It’s not about that; it’s about your salvation, your eternal destiny, and the notion that God determines that  before you were born.

Now, that is obviously unfair and even un-American. We’ve all been brought up to believe that you should make something of yourself, that it’s up to you what you achieve, that you can go as far as you want in this country. And predestination seems to say the opposite: that it’s all decided in advance and we’re just playing out the game with no hope of changing the final score. If you look in the back of the Prayer Book, however – please wait til later – you’ll find a short essay on  predestination on page 871 which says “the godly consideration of predestination . . . is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.”  So I hope that includes us and that we can find some comfort in thinking about a subject that’s not very appealing at first.

What St. Paul tells us in this morning’s passage from Romans is that God first foreknew, then predestined, then called, then justified, and finally glorified. In other words, God chose certain people and then worked in them and on them to save them – and only them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like that. It goes against everything I believe about the way things ought to be. So what I’ve been asking myself as I ponder the matter is, what would be a better plan. If not predestination, then what? What are the alternatives?

I think there are only two alternatives. One alternative would be that God simply saves everyone: no choosing, no favorites, no standards, everyone wins. What about that? Well, I have to admit, I don’t like that any better. In the first place, it gives carte blanche to all our worst instincts. You want to make a killing by insider trading, buying up banks with political influence, destroying the economy so you can rake in billions? Go to it; it makes no difference to God. You want to covet your neighbor’s wife, batter your spouse, neglect the kids? That’s cool; God loves you anyway and we’ll all be saved no matter what. Now, can you really imagine a universe built on those principles: the idea of universal salvation? What kind of heaven would it be if there were no alternative place for Hitler and Eichman and Stalin?  I think I prefer predestination to that.

There is a second alternative.  What about a world where you are free to choose and to earn your reward?  What about the American ideal: a level playing field on which each is rewarded according to the choices they make and the deeds they do? Of course, there isn’t a level playing field but God can probably compensate for that. God would see that some had an advantage and some made bad choices out of ignorance but it wasn’t really their fault so God would forgive the sins of invincible ignorance and judge everyone with absolute fairness and heaven would be for those who truly deserve it. Why wouldn’t that be fair?

Well, It sounds good at first, but the fact is I think such a world would also be a terrible place. In a world like that we could all take full credit for our accomplishments. It would be our doing, not God’s. What kind of heaven would it be where finally God had to let in those who succeeded and keep out those who failed? One great advantage of predestination, in fact, is that it rules out human pride and human boasting. Earlier in this same epistle St. Paul says, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded”  No one, says St. Paul, should be able to boast in God’s presence. And besides that, it takes God almost out of the picture, as if God had no say in who wins heaven and who doesn’t. God becomes – as Grantland Rice put it long ago – “the One Great Scorer” who simply adds it up and announce the results. And, as I said, the losers, simply get left behind.

Of course, this does have a certain appeal because it’s a lot like the present system in our world. The communist system was supposed to be different, but it was actually even worse. So we’ve given that up and now it’s free enterprise and democracy for all. I don’t know a better human system, but I hope God does because our system still leaves too many people in the dust, unemployed, without hope, on drugs, in jail.  Even predestination might be better than that.

So I may not like predestination, but even less do I like the alternatives. I don’t like a God with no standards who opens heaven to all, nor do I like a God who keeps score and lets in only the winners.

And notice this: neither alternative involves a God who acts in human life.

So I think the only real choice is a God who is involved, who chooses, who predestines.

What does our text really say? What it says, it seems to me, is that God does act and that God has worked from the beginning of time for you to belong to God.  God loves you that much.  Before the planets spun away from the sun, before the earth ever cooled or the first amoebas swam in the primeval ocean, God knew you and knew you would respond, and so God called you and died for you and justified you and glorified you. God was at work in your life long before you knew it and all for the purpose of sharing God’s glory with you.

Now, what’s wrong with that? Only one thing, of course: what about everyone else? How is it fair for God to choose some and not choose others. Well, if that worries you, let me suggest three answers.

First, what others? Choosing some implies not choosing others, of course, but who is not chosen? How many are not chosen? We can’t answer that. The Bible gives no numbers. Perhaps it’s only a few: Hitler and such. Maybe no one. We don’t know. So that’s God’s problem, not ours.

Second, Paul says that first God knew and then he chose: “those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” So the choice, perhaps, is not arbitrary but based on foreknowledge of our response, our free choice.

But third, and most important:  is this, in any event, something to worry about? God chose you. What business is it of yours to ask why? If they tell you that you won the lottery, is it your first concern to ask why? Do you worry about the losers? If someone you love asks you to marry them, do you worry first about all those not asked? God loves you. That’s what predestination is all about. God loves you. What else matters? Shouldn’t our first response – and maybe our only response – be gratitude and love?

You know, there are lots of problems, we won’t work out this side of hereafter anyway; this isn’t the only one. There’s the Trinity, the Incarnation, evil, suffering, pain. I don’t expect to get final answers on these either any time soon. But what are the problems as compared to the answers? What matters to me is the fact that the Creator of the universe cares enough about you and me to choose me, to call me, to die for me, to make me the free gift of eternal life and glory. If everyone gets that gift regardless, what’s the thrill of that? If you have to earn it, what chance does any of us have? But if God gives me this gift for love alone, that is truly glory.

What is glory?  We use the word all the time in church and seldom ponder it. But glory is God’s nature, God’s splendor, God’s very life. And we, to quote a contemporary English priest, must come to realize: “that we are the glory of God . . . we live because we share God’s breath, God’s life, God’s glory.  Take this,” he writes, “as your koan (a phrase to be repeated).  ‘I am the glory of God.’ . . . You are the place where God chooses to dwell . . .and the spiritual life is nothing more or less than to allow that space to exist where God can dwell, to create the space where God’s glory can manifest itself.”  (Basil Allchin)

Believe in predestination?  What other choice is there?  But more important still, give thanks for God’s love: that God chose you and called you to share with you God’s glory.

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