Choose life

Mary Copping, 26 August 2018

Joshua 24: 1–2a, 14–18; John 6: 56–69

When Moses was preparing his people to enter the Promised Land he said to them, ‘I have set before you life and death … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him’ (Deuteronomy 30: 19–20). As we enter each day, do we choose life?

In our gospel reading many disciples turn away from Jesus because of his difficult teaching to them on eating his flesh. And Jesus asks the 12 disciples, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter’s response is, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Peter is the one who always says what others might want to but don’t. He seems to be the mouthpiece of the disciples. Here he is affirming Jesus as the Messiah, affirming that there is no other to go to for life and salvation but Christ. Jesus gives the free gift of eternal life; where else would they want go?

In our Old Testament reading Joshua is speaking to the people he has brought into the Promised Land. He is instructing them as to how they should live in this land, a land full of different gods – gods of the harvest, gods of rain, many gods people were worshipping to appease, to give gifts to. Such temptations there would be for the Israelites living there to turn away from the one true God and follow other gods! And Joshua puts the challenge to them, ‘Choose this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’. Joshua is such a good leader, setting a good example to follow, and the people respond, ‘We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God’. They remember all the wonderful things God did for them as they came from Egypt, they see how Moses and Joshua have followed him and they know that God is the one they will serve; they choose life.

In the cathedral last week, I met someone from my husband’s regiment, the Royal Hampshire, who told me a fascinating story. He said that in 1918, a young American soldier named Bill Wilson, who was encamped near Winchester with his US army unit while en route to the Western Front, visited the cathedral and came upon the tombstone of Thomas Thetcher, a grenadier in the North Regiment of the Hants Militia. Wilson was struck by the inscription, part of which read ‘who caught his death drinking small beer’. He was also struck by the similarity between Thetcher’s name and that of a boyhood friend, Ebby Thacher. After the war, Wilson became a successful businessman, but heavy drinking ruined his career and he was eventually told that he would either die from his alcoholism or have to be locked up permanently.

Remarkably, however, Wilson and a handful of fellow alcoholics – including Ebby Thacher – discovered a way to achieve sobriety. He became a founding member of Alcoholics Anonymous. (To members of Alcoholics Anonymous the name Thomas Thetcher on the tombstone is synonymous with the foundation of their organisation.) Wilson wrote a book about his battle with drink in the hope of inspiring other alcoholics. In it he recalled his visit to Winchester Cathedral and how the gravestone had caught his eye, describing it as an ‘ominous warning which I failed to heed’.

There is in fact no evidence that Thomas Thetcher was an alcoholic. In the mid-eighteenth century most people drank small beer – a weak brew – rather than water, which carried cholera, typhoid and other diseases. It is likely that the ‘violent fever’ that killed Thetcher was caused by one of these diseases which had not been killed off in the making of that particular batch of beer. Yet Wilson found strength and help in the memory of this man. His book – AA’s famous Big Book – has sold around 30 million copies.

Do look in the cathedral’s Outer Close for the tombstone, which is a replica of the original now in the Royal Hampshire Museum at Serle’s House, Southgate Street. Recently there was a Bill Wilson centenary service at the cathedral, which was attended by those who wanted to celebrate and give thanks for the life of Bill Wilson and for the valuable work of AA, which does so much for so many people.

This fascinating story seems so relevant to our readings today. Bill Wilson and his friend set up this organisation because Bill didn’t want to die or be locked up because of his drinking; he chose life. The AA is not a Christian organisation and is open to people of any belief or none, but it does have its origins in a Christian group and God is mentioned often. But all those who join this organisation – some at the very end of their tether – want to choose life, and continue to hang on and choose life, however hard that may be at times.

Again, the words of Simon Peter, ‘Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ As we meet here today, we are ones who have chosen the life that Jesus can give us, or perhaps some are still thinking about choosing this life. But it is a journey we are on, and each day we can choose to live the life that Jesus wants us to live, or go our own way. Jesus is in all of our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, strangers – those who agree with us, and those who disagree. In every situation and each day we choose how we will act. We can choose how to live, and choose to bring Christ’s life to others.

Each day we can choose to live the life that Jesus wants us to live, or go our own way. Jesus is in all of our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, strangers.

Moses spoke about choosing life as ‘loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him’. I’ll again ask the question I posed at the beginning: as we enter each day, do we choose life?

Do we love the Lord our God in each other, passing on his love to all those around us? Do we obey him in all that we say and do, choosing the way of love and peace? Do we hold fast to him through the bad times and the good, trusting him through our pain and suffering, choosing to trust and follow him?

Perhaps this morning, as we come to receive afresh the life of Christ in the Eucharist, we can think afresh about how we choose life. If we’re feeling empty, let us allow Christ to feed us and fill us once more with his life. ‘I have set before you life and death … Choose life.’

I end with the words of the hymn we will sing in a moment:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown, he alone
calls my heart to be his own.