Brief synopsis of the readings: Continuing through the Acts of the Apostles, Peter finds himself in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion who was both kind and generous. As Peter addressed those gathered, the Holy Spirit descended and came to everyone, both Jewish and pagan. Rejoicing, Peter directed that they should all be baptized. In John’s Gospel Jesus continued to address his disciples. He told them that they should remain in his love by keeping his commandments. By doing this you will be his friend: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you.”
I am Catholic and I was baptized as an infant. I neither chose nor remember this event. From time to time I’ll meet a Christian who believes that a person should not be baptized until he or she can freely chose to follow Jesus. This can happen at any time, but almost never below age 12. This fellow Christian nearly always attempts to convince me that their way is the correct way. I’m told that if you baptize an infant (or, for that matter, anyone too young to appreciate what they are doing), it’s foolish because there is no guarantee that this child will follow Jesus as an adult.
There are also parents who explain that they choose to raise their children outside of any faith so as not to influence their decision on what, if any, faith their child will choose as adults. They want their child’s choice to be pure and uninfluenced.
To both groups I respond that they have this “choosing” thing backward. We read this today, but also in different places in Scripture: we are the “chosen people.” Jews will sometimes describe themselves this way, and I agree with them. But if we believe today’s readings we are all the chosen people. There is a backstory to our first reading. Cornelius is not a Jew, nor were the members of his household. But the Holy Spirit came upon them all and Peter took this as a sign that all were to be baptized. They were chosen.
This doesn’t mean we are passive in the process and we certainly have the opportunity to accept or reject the offer. But we never stop having that choice. God has given us the ability to accept God’s love on one day, reject it the next, and accept it the day after that. I will often tell these parents that a child who chooses baptism at 12, or 20, or 30 does not guarantee that they will always respect that choice. I’ve met countless adults who talk about “choosing baptism” as an adolescent only to be disillusioned at some later point. And in fairness, if we look at other choices we made at that age we haven’t kept many of them. Do you remember your first high school crush, that you were certain was “the one”?
When we have influence over a child, whether as a parent, teacher, coach, or religious leader, we have the power of invitation. When a parent tells me that their children shouldn’t be raised in any faith tradition I sometimes settle in for a long discussion. I explain that while it’s possible to raise a child with no faith tradition, they are (like it or not) immersing that child in their own values. Their values may be goodness and generosity or they may be greed and selfishness. If there is one thing children can spot above all else is hypocrisy and make no mistake: they are paying attention.
And these children can choose to follow those values or make other choices but in either case they are responding to our invitation.
We also need to recognize that this happens in all of the important decisions in our life. When a couple decides to marry, they are creating a community that has never existed before. And the one who proposes is inviting the other into that community (and yes, I recognize that a proposal is often a formality, but it’s an important ritual). That community has an uncertain future. Speak with any couple who has been married for many years and ask if they knew what they were getting into. Most will laugh, but nearly all will tell you that they had no idea what “for better, for worse” really meant. Over the course of their marriage both have nursed each other in sickness. Many have also experienced wild swings in poverty and wealth. In the marriages that survive (and even thrive) the couple will tell you that it’s been a terrific journey and part of the magic has been the fact that they didn’t know the path they were invited to.
At the end of the day we believe that God chose us because God saw something wonderful in us, something that we nearly inevitably did not see in ourselves. The child who points out inconsistencies in rule making becomes the adult whistleblower who uncovers systemic corruption. The teenager who spends math class staring out the window and later learns that he didn’t concentrate because he was bored. In college he’s finally challenged and eventually develops a program that brings efficient food distribution to poor nations.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not only God who finds our hidden talent. Part of the process of finding our spouse often entails discovering that “diamond in the rough.” When we see a couple who brings out the best in each other it’s not by accident. Their love for each other, their encouragement and support, brought light to those gifts that were there all along.
When we are told: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you” that’s an amazing statement. So often we attempt to show God that we are worthy of God’s love and that our creation was not a mistake. It’s true but it’s hardly news to God. God found the worthiness in a Roman centurion in our first reading and in us in the Gospel.
We are chosen.