The Rev. Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
September 3rd, 2017
13 Pentecost (Proper 17 A): Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.
–TS Eliot (Choruses from “The Rock”)
That’s TS Eliot. He’s right you know. No matter how you “disguise it,” the struggle between Good and Evil is “perpetual,” and as people of faith we are caught up in that struggle whether we like it or not. Any one of you (and I hope it’s all of you) who seek to be a good person, live a good life and inspire goodness in others is a soldier in that fight.
If you were looking for some direction about how to go about doing those things—how to be a good person; live a good life—you couldn’t do much better than following Paul’s instructions to the Romans from our reading this morning. Love, compassion, humility, respect and a lack of vindictiveness; it’s like a recipe for goodness. Seriously, I recommend taking this bulletin home, cutting out that passage, framing it and reading it every morning, because if you spent your entire life trying to live like that, I think that when you walked up to the pearly gates, St. Peter would say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Would that it were that easy, though. For while Paul’s instructions fill our hearts with hope for the possibilities of goodness spreading throughout the world, in today’s Gospel passage Jesus provides the counterbalance: a reality check of what it actually requires to do battle for Good in the face of Evil.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus tells his disciples. These men and women who have left everything and followed the one who would lead them into all goodness and righteousness are not promised an easy go of it. They are warned that the price of being Good in a world where Evil often rules the day, is death, and difficulty.
You know sometimes, like when I read that passage from Romans, I am amazed how few people come to church given all the beauty and meaning on offer as to how to live a Good life. But then I read a passage like this Gospel and look at what being a Christian actually means and I’m surprised any one shows up at all. Think about it, if you really followed Paul’s instructions, if you really blessed those who persecuted you, if you really refused to repay anyone evil for evil, if you really avoided vengeance, and instead showed care and kindness to your enemies, what would happen to you? Well, hopefully you wouldn’t be crucified, but you might be branded “weak,” or “cowardly,” or “spineless.” Imagine if you went into the office acting like this. In most places you would get walked all over. You see, I don’t believe we live in an evil world, but we do live in a world that encourages retribution, selfishness, and exploitation, which I would call Evil, more than love, charity and compassion. And so that’s often how people act.
And who could blame us, right? Because if you look around, more often than not, it seems like Evil is winning! Despite what you’re mother told you, I could list countless examples that show cheaters do prosper; liars go unpunished; greed is good; nice guys finish last; and might makes right. And we expect people not to play by those rules? That’s why what Paul asks for is so hard: because it goes so fully against the way the world operates. That’s why Jesus is trying to warn his followers. He’s essentially saying to them, “Look, this isn’t going to go the way you think it will. It’s going to look like Evil is going to win this thing but, I’m trying to tell you, I’m about to change the rules of the game.” This warning about the suffering that is to come and the Resurrection that is to follow is the first of FOUR times Jesus tries to warn his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. Four times! That’s because it is going to be so hard for them to believe that this time, actually, Evil doesn’t have the last word, Good will triumph in the end. Four times he tries to get this through to them, and they still don’t get it, they still abandon him. Their minds are too set upon human things, not divine. And so to them, it’s not surprising when it looks like Satan rules the day.
But sometimes, once in a very great while, something happens to disrupt this status quo: the tomb is empty. The test results come back. The hurricane makes landfall. And suddenly goodness is fighting back, fighting back person by person with a power that we can neither understand nor control but raises us all up to a higher way of being. And it is then that we start to understand what Jesus was talking about. We start to understand the power each of us has within us to battle back against Evil. Because the real battle lines between Good and Evil are drawn not between nation states or ideological groups but in the rocky terrain of our souls. Good has to win in here before it can win out there. Because, “If [things like] humility and purity be not in the heart, they are not in the home: and if they are not in the home, they are not in the City” (That’s Eliot again). We are, each of us, not just a line of defense against Evil, we are the battlefield. And the troops for each squadron make gains and retreats on a daily basis. If we’ve learned anything from this past week’s disaster, it’s that we can be exceedingly good…most of the time we just aren’t.
For a reminder of the back and forth nature of this internal struggle, we need look no further than our friend, Peter. Recall last week when Peter confesses Jesus as “The Messiah,” and is congratulated with effusive praise: “Peter, you are the Rock upon which I will build my Church! I will give you the keys to the Kingdom!” Jesus extols. And here we are just five verses later and Jesus is rebuking him, and calling him “Satan!” From “Rock of the Church” to “Satan,” just like that! But this is how it goes, isn’t it? We do some good or noble thing and then we turn around and do some evil, selfish thing. It can happen that quickly, can’t it? Mark my words, before the floodwaters in Texas have dried up, we’ll be back to heaping insults on our enemies rather than kindness. And that is why there is no more important place in the perpetual struggle between Good and Evil than our own hearts. For that is where the fighting is most intense and victory most valuable. The state of the world is simply an amplification of a series of people making a series of decisions and then following through. It is those choices we make, those thoughts and actions we follow through on, which spool out into a world that tilts either Evil or Good. This may sound like I’m overstating things, but I don’t think so: every day of our life is a chance for goodness to win over evil.
So if goodness is going to stand a chance in that “perpetual struggle” that rages in our very hearts and minds, we need to remember a few things. First of all, we have to have some vision for the Goodness we want to perpetuate; we need to know what we’re fighting for. “Being Good” is too abstract a concept. That’s why Paul’s words and Jesus’ example are so important for us to hang on to. Then we need to understand that so long as we are fighting this battle by our own strength we are going to lose. We can try as hard as we want to live by Paul’s words, we’re not going to do it. We will fail. Evil has too strong a hold on us to overcome it alone. But if we live those words with a prayer, beseeching the mercies of God to help us, then we just might have a shot. Third we have to be willing to suffer the pains of swimming against the cultural tide. We don’t live in a world that rewards the kind of people Paul is calling us to be, so most of the time we aren’t. If we are going to be Good, we’re going to get a little banged up. That’s why it’s a struggle. And finally, more than anything, we have to have hope. Because most of the time, even if we feel like Good is winning in us it will look like Evil is winning out in the world; it will feel like the path that leads to righteousness is too daunting, too demanding and we’ll want to give up and do the mean or selfish thing. Don’t. Do whatever it takes to keep fighting, whatever it takes to keep struggling for Good, because no matter how dark the night, how heavy the load, how outnumbered we feel, we are on the right side. And we’re going to win.