The evil of good

SERMON 

St Andrew’s Church of Indooroopilly 

Fourth Sunday of Easter 

Sunday 2 May 2020 

Acts 2:42-47 

Psalm 23 

1 Peter 2:1-10 

John 10:1-10 

The evil of good ©Suzanne Grimmett 

Probity, sincerity, candour, conviction, the idea of duty, are things which, mistaken, become hideous….1 

These are words describing the tormented character of Inspector Javert  in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, whose countenance, Hugo goes on to  describe as revealing “the evil of good”. The novel speaks many truths  about human nature, (which is probably why the story has endured in our imaginations), and this idea of the way an attachment to upright  moral living can actually lead to great evil is one of the confronting  themes. 

Questions about what it means to lead a good life have for millennia occupied human attention. Moral codes, guiding proverbs and cautionary tales have been part of our inherited understanding of what is  admirable and true. Characters like Inspector Javert reveal the dark side  of this committed endeavour where, when we seek the good through an  effort of personal will and self-discipline, the goal escapes us and we can become instead, something monstrous.  

Scripture and particularly the epistles in the New Testament, offer  something different to the morality discourses, testifying to the  experience that in this man Jesus, something new has been birthed in and for human potential. This difference is that the good life is not to be  earned or achieved through an effort of will and dedication to duty, but  simply received as gift. Furthermore, the gift is given for the life of the world from a God who is deeply committed to human flourishing. In  short, the nurturing of good in us turns out to be good for us, in stark contrast to the anguished misery of the rigidly upright Inspector Javert.  Of course, Jesus says the same thing in powerful and moving language  in today’s Gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it  abundantly.” 

The Rev’d Dr Sarah Bachelard expresses well the kind of joyful freedom that is being offered in this gift of life, saying,  

The whole point of Jesus life was to save us from our compulsion  to secure our lives for ourselves, to make ourselves matter or make  ourselves good.2 

These compulsions so readily lead us into rivalry with one another and  are the shackles we place on ourselves. The disciples in their encounters  with the resurrected Jesus realised the truth that God was on their side in  the most final, absolute way. The powers of evil had been defeated and new possibilities for human flourishing had been opened, as a gateway  before them to abundant pasture.  

So much of our lives are tainted by the compulsions that lead us to  judge one another or advance our own cause. The new vision for  humanity that is open to us because of Easter is where we can be set  free from such obsessive patterns. Can you sense the freedom of a life  not turned inward upon itself, a life lived in love not judgement, where  the joy of others multiplies our own? Could we glimpse a horizon where  we might be at peace with ourselves, others and in harmony with  creation? Whenever we glimpse that kind of hopeful possibility, we are  celebrating with those first disciples encountering the Lord and  embracing the meaning and possibilities of resurrection. 

There is no direct path to virtue, whatever our favourite morality tales  may claim. Rather, a good description of the way to goodness is what  

David Ward describes as “active passivity”. 3We cannot do good, but  we can allow good to embrace us and fill us. We do have a role to play,  but it is in receiving the gift of mercy given and seeking to be fed by the  kind of food that energises us and leads into life, what the first letter of  Peter describes as “pure spiritual milk”. The epistle for today begins by  telling us to rid ourselves “of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy,  and all slander.” There is some effort required on our part- but that is  less about striving and more about a recognition and resistance to that  which leads away from life; the kind of short cuts that lead ultimately to  what Jesus metaphorically describes as the thieves and bandits that  come to steal, kill and destroy.  

Because you see, Jesus is not just the good shepherd who has given his  life for us, but also the gate…the way in… to greener pastures, the place  where our goodness means also our joy. Often the wrong emphasis is  placed on this gospel, casting as Jesus a gate that separates, rather than a  gate that provides a way through. The goodness of God has already  been given to all of us, and the holiness, and indeed the happiness, of our lives is determined by how much we embrace that gift and  participate in the life of God and follow Jesus’ way. 

A gate can also signify a crossing over. I love the Celtic word, Trasna,  meaning a crossing place, a moment where there is a choice to commit  to one way or another. I believe that the Covid-19 crisis has taken us to  a crossroad and made some of our potential pathways painfully clear. 

There is before us and our global communities the chance to reorder the  future in a way that is not given over to the compulsions of materialism  and consumerism but embrace our interconnectedness and the need for careful stewarding of the gift of life that we have been given. We should  not long for a return to normal when that normal means an unjust  distribution of resources, an exploitation of the most vulnerable and a  desecration of the earth. I find immense hope in the widespread  empathy and action on behalf of the unemployed, the revival of life and  diversity in natural habitats and the creativity, courage and selflessness displayed by so many working for the care of others through hospitals,  school and emergency services. This virus has created a liminal space  where we can choose what makes for life, letting go of the striving and  competing. Right now the world needs God’s people to show the way; people not of rigid, upright, moralistic virtue but rather the quiet, everyday saints who have received mercy. These are sustained by the  spiritual food that provides wisdom and courage to recognise the life giving possibilities before us in this time. 

What might this spiritual food look like, this food that enables us to  participate in God’s goodness? I think it begins with the acceptance of  the truth that our own significance is simply given and we do not have  to strive to attain it. Our life is rich with meaning bestowed already  upon us by the author of creation. There is no life that is not sacred life.  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are shown that God is  always and forever on our side. Yes, God desires us to be good, because  God desires us to be happy and to thrive. God desires justice, because  without justice there can be no love. Through Jesus, God has made a  gateway to goodness and freedom and life in abundance. As we entrust  ourselves more and more through contemplation of the One who is love,  we will see more clearly what makes for life, and what we need to  resist. Our active passivity is a life of prayer that renews in us daily the  commitment to following the One who is both the shepherd leading us,  and the gate through to greener pastures.  

As we follow, may we awaken life and a thirst for justice in others who  have encountered the Christ who lives in us. And may we then together  live into the hopeful possibilities of a people who have entrusted  themselves to mercy and shared in the goodness which, wondrously, has  also made them glad. 

+Amen.

1 Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables , (Wordsworth Classics, UK 1994), p197

2 https://podcast.wccm.org/episodes/a-living-hope-the-shape-of-christian-virtue-1st-session

3 Ford, David F., The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life, (Canterbury Press, 2014) p 63

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