A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 14th October at the Parish Eucharist. The readings were Hebrews 4.12-16 and Mark 10.17-31.
Last Tuesday the priests and lay ministers of this Parish of Croydon, the Minster and St George’s, met together to begin a pattern of regular weekly meeting so that together we can discern the task of ministry and mission with you and for you here in church and beyond into the wider community.
There was of course business to discuss, such as how we best enable pastoral care in the parish and about how we encourage Christian learning, growth and discipleship. But rather than start around the business meeting table we started by gathering around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
By doing so, we were doing what we are all doing now; putting ourselves in remembrance of the great gifts and acts of God, mercies that can seep out of our memory during the week and need replenishing, as again we hear of the source of our life, hope and salvation.
At that Eucharist we prayed especially for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being open to the Holy Spirit of God is not the preserve of certain types of Christians, but is what it means to be open to God in all God’s fullness.
Being open to all God’s fullness brings us to the heart of this morning’s gospel reading. For in it we see Jesus prompting a good and well intentioned person to go deeper, go deeper beyond the outward signs of success, and even his religious observance, to know and meet God at the core of his being.
Sometimes we all wrestle with the questions about being good: am I good? How good am I? How can I be good? What does it mean to be ‘good’?
The man who approached Jesus in this morning’s gospel was a good person, of that there is no doubt, and ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’. What a tender and precious verse to hold on to: Jesus, looking at you, loves you. And that love was not connected to his goodness; he simply beheld him and loved him. Make that your own: ‘Jesus, looking at me, loves me; ‘good’ or not.’
And looking at him and loving him Jesus then places a demand upon him to sell what he owns and come and ‘follow me’; follow Jesus.
I sometimes wonder what made the man grieve and walk away. Was it, as the gospel writer suggests, that he had many possessions, or might it also be that Jesus’ call ‘follow me’ was a step too far? Of course, both are intimately connected.
To follow Jesus means setting aside our own preferences, our treasures and possessions, such that we ask: do we possess our things, or do they possess us?
The man who came to Jesus was possessed by his possessions, despite his honest, disciplined and sincere keeping of all God’s commandments.
He was missing out on mercy and without mercy we cannot be saved.
This call to ‘follow me’ and to lubricate all our actions and deeds with mercy moves us from the realm of our behaviour, to the realm of our being, our inner disposition. Life is not just about being ‘good’ but living mercifully.
This is disruptive and hard. It shatters smugness and complacency. It blows apart comfortable assumptions. But ultimately it is life-giving. Little wonder the Holy Spirit is both a gentle, dovelike, breath and a raging, roaring fire.
In a book I have just finished reading the author, Abbot Erik Varden, puts it like this:
‘The gospel offers more than a moral code. It proposes the transformation of the human person.’
In other words we can no longer say ‘look, I have done a good deed and have accomplished the work of God’.
Good deeds are a useful barometer of whether we can be called ‘good’ or not and where we are on our inner journey.
But the true measure of our good deeds, our keeping of the commandments, is to know from where this springs.
It’s something St Paul picks up on in the famous passage of the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians in which he names agape - self-giving, loving, mercy - as what changes a deed or action into something of immeasurable worth to God. He even says, and I paraphrase, ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I give away even my own body so that I can brag of that deed, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13.3).
Then who can be saved? The disciples ask. How can I possibly do all this, if even my good deeds aren’t enough? Those are natural questions: is this way of Jesus even possible?
‘For mortals’ Jesus says, ‘this is impossible, but not for God’. This is where the transformation of the human person comes in, transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the capacity to love, the Holy Spirit who enables us to interrogate our words and actions to ask if they are from God or from our own vanity.
In this we need to become, what one writer describes as, ‘habitations of the Holy Spirit.’ When we are habitations of the Holy Spirit then we do not bolt God on to justify what we do and call it ‘good’, but rather what we do bubbles up from our awareness of the loving mercy of God. This short-circuits moralistic and cruel actions in the name of faith and allows us to make our good deeds not only ‘second nature’ but ‘first nature’ to us.
This is what growing in the image and likeness of God is about: loving first and acting second. And the source of that is in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and turning again and again for forgiveness in confessing our sins.
All this doesn’t make us more ‘good’ than anyone else, but it does mean that when we’re not motivated to be ‘good’ or feel we’re running out of steam on the ‘goodness’ front, we turn again to be replenished by the only one who can truly be called ‘good’; and that is God, the Holy Trinity, whose wellsprings of life and love are inexhaustible.
Let us now draw on those wellsprings, through the Holy Spirit, in this sacrament to renew us for today, this week, for life.
For the Christian we do ‘good’ not to be loved; but we do ‘good’ because we are loved.
© Andrew Bishop, 2018
 Erik Varden, The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, Bloomsbury, 2018. p. 121-2.