Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9th February 2014
9 February 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
The sermons at Matins this month are based upon the theme of 'The Fruit of the Spirit'. Last Sunday, at the feast of Candlemas, I spoke about the fruit of faithfulness and gentleness, in the context of Simeon and Anna embracing the young Jesus in the Temple. This morning I shall be focusing upon the fruit of kindness and goodness. Fruit so closely related that sometimes it is not easy to distinguish between them. For example, a kind person is also a good person, a good person is by nature a kind person, and of course both these characteristics stem from love. It may be helpful to think of kindness as the inner compassion which listens to and cares about others, and goodness as the active demonstration of that kindness and rather broader in its meaning.
The marks of Christian discipleship are both characterised and challenged by such qualities, which in turn help to form the foundation of Christian moral activity. When we consider the fruit of kindness and goodness we are invariably personally challenged: How kind are we? How good are we? Not just to those whom we love, that maybe hard enough, but to the weak of our world, perhaps the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, excluded, disregarded, insulted by passersby? As members of the Body of Christ do we deal kindly with the people in our lives?
There is no doubt that all civilised people should be marked, in some capacity, by morality and on the whole our morality is grounded in our capacity to be good and kind. But morality is something that can be achieved beyond faith or religion. This challenges us to look carefully at how we understand the fruit of the Spirit: how we are sensitive to the nudges of the Holy Spirit; how we keep our eyes open and our hearts soft; how we understand the fact that Jesus gave the Spirit to his Church, to lead, guide and inspire. This means that for the Christian, goodness is more than just the act of being good; and that kindness is more than just a mere quality. What’s vitally important for us is to understand how goodness and kindness are embodied. Being good is ultimately all about how we can help and empower others, not so much about working out how we can be good to ourselves. In teaching children to grow up we help them to understand the importance of others; for as Christ teaches us: when we show mercy we are being good. The parable of the Good Samaritan immediately falls to mind.
The Dalai Lama explores this notion of compassion within his recent book Ethics in a New Millennium. He helps by explaining that our innate capacity for empathy is the source of our most precious human quality of compassion or nying je in the Tibetan language. He argues that compassion is the bedrock of our capacity to serve; that although we are naturally compassionate, we must constantly battle against negativity; greed, pride, selfishness and other negative emotions.
For the Christian its the Holy Spirit, the mysterious invisible enabler, that unites God’s creative power with our very own inner beings. And yet we need to constantly remember that the fruit of the Spirit is given in order to help others and not for personal aggrandisement. This morning’s reading from Acts is a case in point. Peter and John were walking up to the Temple in Jerusalem for afternoon prayers. They approach the ‘Beautiful Gate’, a popular location for beggars, strategically chosen as a place to ask for help from those going in to pray. Peter demonstrates an extraordinary act of kindness to the lame man by saying 'I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk'. From the early chapters of Acts we know that the fledgling Christian community cared for each other, sharing their goods in common. But here we see kindness and goodness extended to those who didn’t yet belong.
The sociologist Rodney Stark argues that such compassion, freely given, changed the Roman empire. One of the huge factors that captured the attention of people wherever the good news about Jesus took hold, was a previously unknown emphasis on such kindness. In his book The Triumph of Christianity (published just over a year ago) Stark writes: 'In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security…' He goes on to say that this was at a time when philosophy particularly regarded mercy as a 'character defect' and pity as a 'pathological emotion'. It was widely believed that if someone displayed kindness or help that was unearned, it was contrary to their notion of justice. They said 'humans must learn to curb the impulse to show kindness; the cry of the undeserving for mercy must go unanswered. Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up'. Yet Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, knew that they had experienced the undeserved mercy of God, and had no option but to reveal the fruit of that same Spirit to others. Here lie the personal challenges that I referred to earlier.
Perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay to a person is to say that he or she is kind and loving. For Christians, this kindness flows from Jesus’s command that we love our neighbours as ourselves. All Christians should be known for their kindness and goodness. A person who exercises the virtue of kindness builds others up. They do not tear others down. Such altruistic love challenges us to go the extra mile, and as the Dalai Lama reminds us, kindness and caring for others is an extraordinarily powerful motivating force behind existence. Those who walk closely with Christ embody the characteristics of goodness and compassion. A kind Christian integrates love into the centre of his or her existence with acts of kindness, not random and sporadic, but as a way of life.