John 14:1-4, 15-21; 1 Peter 3:13-22
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
The writing that we now refer to as the First letter of Peter is an intriguing patchwork of soul-stirring theology and stomach-churning worldviews. Profound passages on the audacity of hope, longing of angels and strength of nonviolent resistance sit uneasily next to references to slaves obeying their masters, women being the weaker sex and talk of the imminent end times. I think, then, we can all agree that the letter is a work of its time and that time was one of great persecution. Writing in the first century, the author – who may or may not have been the apostle Peter – is writing to his fellow Christians scattered across several lands, to encourage them in their faith; to remind them of their identity in Christ; and to offer them some insight into how to best respond to the widespread persecution that they are experiencing. So to those facing possible betrayal by family, discrimination by friends and torture or death by the state, the author asks;
‘Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?’
What do we think? Is the question a comfort to those in peril? A fair summary of the Christian position on suffering? Good news for the persecuted? Personally, I’m far from convinced. As ever with the letters in the Bible, we lack the return correspondence so we cannot know how these words were received by the Christians of Asia Minor but if they were anything like us, then I think this question, and the following call to patient suffering, probably got a mixed reception! I also think that the question is founded on certain assumptions and preconditions and so, before we ask the question, ‘who will harm us if we are eager to do what is good’, we might consider, ‘are we eager to do what is good’?!
Back last summer, when I was in Brazil…have I mentioned that I went to Brazil?!…when I was there, during my week in the rainforest, we went on a few trips with some fellow travelers. Two of them were Kiwis and the woman, Nicola was her name, a really wonderful person, she had a passion for sloths. Back in New Zealand, she had pictures of them plastered on her walls, carried a keying with a sloth’s face on it, watched documentaries about them…and so she was bursting with excitement about seeing them in the wild. So eager was she to see one that she was always the first up, going on sunrise tours hoping to spot one, whilst the rest of us were still swotting the mosquitoes away in bed.
Anyway, it came to the last day of our trip and Nicola had begun to make peace with not spotting one in the wild, making plans to visit the rainforest zoo in town instead. As we made our way back to what was generously called our hotel, our local guide said that he thought he saw something at the top of one of the nearby trees. As our guide shimmied up the tree, Nicola was preparing herself to be disappointed just in case…just in case…but as the guide returned, sloth in hand, she burst into tears before elbowing the rest of us out the way so she could see and hold the creature up close. It was actually rather beautiful. Anyway, after we’d all taken a moment to have a look at the incredible animal and put him back on his tree, we continued on our journey back and as we did so, I remarked that maybe I was just very British but I couldn’t think of anything in my life that I was so passionate about, so eager to see or do, that I would get as excited as Nicola did seeing the sloth for the first time. My fellow travelers, who of course knew I was a minister – or ‘vicar’ as they called me – half joking, half serious said, ‘you’ve got Jesus’ before we dived in the waters for our final swim in the Amazon.
We can’t straightforwardly compare the excitement of someone hugging a sloth with an eagerness to do good, of course, but I do wonder whether I, we and the wider Church still crackle with an eagerness to do good. Do I, for example, merely seek to do some good when I’m not tired or distracted or when I can fit it into my schedule? I wonder whether we, as a community, have an eagerness to do good that runs through all of our services and events and lives…or whether, sometimes, we get so busy maintaining the machine that our time, energy or eagerness to do good can get a little sapped. I wonder whether, as Christians in the fifth strongest economy in the world, our churches have ideas of what it means to do good that are so conditioned by the wealth that we enjoy that our perception of doing good is diminished to smaller acts of occasional charity, leaving more radical acts of goodness to an odd few.
And I wonder whether the Church worldwide has lost an eagerness to do what is good in all its ecclesial bureaucracy, internal division and scriptural squabbling. Certainly, those of us who watched the film ‘For the Bible Tells Me So’ last Sunday weren’t filled with a sense that the Church is the guardian of the good but rather with an outrage at the damage the Church has caused to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Is the Church known as a community of those eager to do good today or a club of eager do-gooders, I wonder.
Put it another way, last Friday night, along with others here, I spent the night at Clwb-y-bont where there was a fundraising and awareness event for community work with our refugee friends. It was a great night in which good was indeed done and after I shared a few of my moves on the dance floor alongside Render, Magdi and Susan, I got talking to a guy who is teaching English to some of the Syrian families. We had a great chat about the church’s work with our refugee friends – about which he was very complimentary and encouraging – and then we strayed onto more theological ground. The nature and effects of love were briefly considered before I was asked the question:
“Do you think that Christians are better people – do they do more good – than those who aren’t Christian?”
It’s quite a question isn’t it? Do you think that Christians are better people – that those who admit to following Christ do more good in the world than those who don’t?!
I wonder how you’d answer. Perhaps you’d cite all the many wonderful things that we have done and are doing in this community. Perhaps you’d point out that there’s a difference between those who say they’re Christian and those who are Christ-like. Perhaps you’d resist giving any answer, questioning instead what we mean by ‘good’ and how do we measure it, maybe citing a Bible passage such as Jesus’ teaching that when giving to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.
Well, when on the spot, I replied to the teacher – ‘No, I don’t think that Christians are any better, do more good, than those who aren’t Christian. They are wonderful people within the church and wonderful people outside of it’. The opposite is also true.
Whether you agree with my perception of things – whether or not Christians are objectively better people or not – the story doesn’t end there and I’m certainly not suggesting that we’re horrible sinners not doing enough good around the place. On the contrary, this week, as I met up with a series of old friends in between meetings, I heard myself proudly sharing about all the wonderful things that we do as a community – from our intercultural celebrations in March and our welcome to the refugees to our work with the homeless, our ever-growing ladies guild, our love for one another – believe me, my friends grew tired of me!
So before we condemn or congratulate ourselves too much, may I suggest just three things for us to consider this morning?
The first is that the church does not, cannot, claim to be a sanctuary for the saintly – we make no claim of being better than others. Whilst we might strive to be loving, welcoming, cheek-turning, justice-seeking, world-changing ambassadors of God’s good news for all, we are still human. We get tired, we get grumpy, we might speak too quickly, listen too lightly, make up our mind too easily…we are just as liable to the flaws and foibles of humanity as any other of God’s children. We still need the forgiveness of God – and one another on a daily basis. We still need to pray for strength, patience and kindness as gifts given to us. We still need to remember that we are not to save the world – that’s God’s job.
And yet how wonderful, how weird, how wild that God invites us – the broken but beautiful brood of sinner-saints – to join in with this mission of love. So let’s not think too loftily of ourselves, nor judge ourselves or each other too harshly either. Let’s try to forgive one another when we inevitably fall short of our own hopeful standards, let alone God’s. Let us be generous with one another when we’re not full of smiles and joy and eagerness to do good.
That’s not to let us off any hook, of course, which brings us to the second point. In inviting us to join in with God’s mission of love, to walk the way of Christ, we have been challenged to be eager to do good works – to be loving to friends, neighbours and strangers in action. We’re reminded of this also in our reading from John this morning. On the night before he was to be put to death for doing good, being good, being God, Jesus takes his time over dinner calling his friends to remember his message of scandalous, sacrificial love;
“If you love me,” Jesus says to his friends, “You’ll keep my commandments. You’ll remember my call to love God, your neighbor and yourself. You’ll remember my challenge to let your good deeds shine before others. You’ll remember the way I’ve served you tonight; the way I welcomed the stranger, spent time with the sick, asked forgiveness for my persecutors, shared food with the hungry and good news with all I met…and you will be eager to do the same.”
In other words, on that fateful night, Jesus said to his friends – I will be going soon but you can still love me – not by clinging to some cherished memory of me, not by building statues or memorials for me or by retreating into your private experience of me but by doing my work; keeping my commandments of love; by being eager to do good. This is what he calls us to do– to do good for the sake of the kingdom of justice and joy. So let’s sizzle, sparkle, shine with an eagerness to do good in our community today. Let’s support, challenge and enable one another to do good in God’s name by sharing all of our gifts, hopes, experience and ideas. And let’s remember that to do good as Jesus calls us to might well mean letting go of our own hobby horses, embracing sacrifice, leaving comfort zones, and being open to God leading us into places and alongside people that we would never expect to encounter!
And it’s this openness to the voice, the prompting, the movement of the Holy Spirit that grounds my final thought. For, as the passage from John reminds us, at that last supper, Jesus called us to do good and obey the commandments to love, and he encouraged us that we were not called to do so on our own.
“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus tells us.
“The Spirit will be with you.”
We are not, thank God, left to our own devices. God lives in us – strengthens us, sustains us, surprises us – through the Holy Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we start to see people as God sees them – as people to love rather than people to fear. It is through the Spirit that we might rediscover an eagerness to do good. And it is through the Spirit that Christian Aid has raised funds and awareness, sought peace and challenged injustice, fed the hungry, cared for the sick and put faith into action over the last 60 years. Let’s have a quick reminder of what that’s looked like…
[Sixty years of Christian Aid Week: Putting faith into action – http://www.christianaid.org.uk/christian-aid-week/resources]
‘Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?’
The writer of 1 Peter goes on to say that actually, you might be harmed if you are eager to do good and yet we are called to do so anyway for our identity is as friends of the Christ who gave up comfort and power to become one of us, to live amongst us, to suffer, die and rise again so to reveal God’s extravagant love, to offer hope and joy for all, to inspire an eagerness to do good. Today, perhaps we’ll live this out by putting money in a red envelope, by praying for the work of Christian Aid, or by signing the Christian Aid petition to change the story we hear about refugees which will be at the back of the church and in the hall. Perhaps we’ll live this out in all sorts of other ways, both great and small. And as we do so, may God bless us with the strength, the joy, the eagerness to do good; for the transformation of this world and the glory of God. Amen.