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the enemy of the best - Chorlton Central Church

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the enemy of the best


This address was given by Dr David Goodbourn in a service at Chorlton Central Church during FairTrade Fortnight, 2009.

I was doing some calculations the other day. I worked out that I have lived for 22,130 days - and on only four of those has someone burgled my house, on only one have I been robbed in the street - two weeks ago, as it happens, and in Switzerland of all places. On only two has someone damaged my car and not apologised, and on only one has someone stolen my computer.  And since I was 13, on only two days has someone seriously threatened me with violence. So on 22,120 days none of those things happened. Some other bad things did, of course, and I realise that there are people and places for whom life is an awful lot tougher, but on the great majority of days the great majority of people I met behaved kindly, politely and helpfully. They didn't rip me off. They didn't expect a bribe for doing their job. Often they took considerable pains to help me.

Preachers are stress how wrong things are. Society is wracked by greed and selfishness. People are cruel and thoughtless. The world is going to Hell in a handcart.  I'm often struck by the opposite. It seems to me that wickedness is the exception, and though the image of God in us may be marred, it's still pretty powerfully present.  Good people are the norm.

Peter was a good man. But in Mark chapter 8 Jesus calls him Satan. Only a verse or two earlier Peter is the hero, now he's Satan. It's a scary passage, but an important one because it deals with the temptation that besets most of us. Not the temptation to do evil instead of good; the temptation to let the good be the enemy of the best.

Let's look at the situation facing Peter.  Mark puts this story at the pivotal point of his gospel. The first half has shown Jesus increasingly popular, people flocking to hear him, his disciples revelling in the reflected glory. Just a few verses ago the relationship has deepened to the point where Peter identifies him as the Messiah.  In Peter's mind they are on a roll.  And from Peter's reaction to Jesus going on about suffering and death, there's little doubt what kind of a roll it is. Freedom is coming.

Peter stands with the people in looking for a liberator. The Jesus movement is everything the Jewish people have been waiting for. Tremble in your Roman boots, oh ye occupying forces. Jesus is coming. Tremble in your blood-spattered robes oh ye collaborating high priests. Jesus is coming. We've waited generations for this.

But this is a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. From now on things begin to change. It becomes more and more clear that Jesus is going to suffer and die. Followers fall away. Eventually even one of the disciples will betray him. Part 2 of the ministry of Jesus is going to prove a testing time, for him, for his disciples, for everyone who believes in him.  

So because Peter hasn't grasped that, is still looking for the glorious liberation, Jesus calls him Satan.  But let's be clear. What Peter was hoping for was something good, not evil.  It wouldn't have been a bad thing if Jesus had been a messiah of the kind he wanted. If he had successfully rebelled against the Romans and run a fair and just society, that would have been great. He would have been a major figure like Moses or Mohammed, both of whom were both prophets and military leaders and just rulers, and both of whom inspired devoted righteousness from their followers.

It wouldn't have been bad, it would have been good. And that's why it was such an insidious temptation. It would have been good, but it wouldn't have been enough, because it would have accepted the assumptions of this world that Jesus was turning upside down.  The good would have been the enemy of the best.

It wouldn't have been enough because it is less than God hopes for. God isn't looking for a well run society based on power, but for a community of love. God isn't looking for a well regulated system of rewards and punishments based on justice, but for forgiveness. God isn't looking for fairness, but for generosity. In Jesus God subverts all the things that make this world work, all the things that practical people have to base their lives on.  And God does it because so often in this world the good gets in the way of the best. Even good, practical working solutions to human life have to be subverted, because we are called not to good practical working solutions but to newness of life. That's God's hope for the world.

So, good people are the norm. Most of us want to do what's right, and that's as true of people outside the church as in. Good people do good things and seek good ends. But good people are under divine judgment when they - when we - are content with a goodness that falls short of the glory of God.  

Does this say something to us in Fair Trade fortnight? I think it does.

I remember the early days of the Fair Trade mark. At the time I was a member of the Executive Committee at Christian Aid, and Christian Aid was a key funder of the Fair Trade Foundation. Several other sponsors were considering pulling out, and only a couple of products - Maya Gold and Café Direct - were using the Fair trade Mark. We had to decide whether to pull out, too. If we had done, it would probably have gone under. In the end we decided it was doing just enough to go on supporting. So we did. Clearly it was the right decision. It was a decision based on confidence in people.

For the Fair Trade Movement depends on the fact that most people are good people who want to do right, and given the chance will be willing to pay an (admittedly small) price for justice. They will do just enough to make a difference. But will it ever be just enough - i.e. sufficiently just?  It seems to me that in some ways the Fair Trade Movement stands in a Peter-like position. It is a Christ-like response to a situation, but it could become Satan if it ever lulled us into thinking that it was enough.  World Trade is worth about $8,000 billion per year. Just over $2 billion of that carries the international Fair Trade mark.  Fair trade is good, but something much more radical is ultimately needed. We have to stand for an approach that wants to change the rules. How to change them is a technical issue about which the Church has no specific wisdom. The values the new rules must reflect are a different matter. Until they reflect the values of the kingdom, they will never be enough.     

And if it says something about Fair trade, it also says something about the Church. It is good people seeking good ends who keep the Church obsessed with its own life, focused on preserving what it has got, endlessly mesmerised by the problems of buildings and ministry, forever divided by theology and culture. To be concerned for the life of the Church is good, but it is never enough. The Church becomes Satan when it deflects us from the concerns of the kingdom, from embracing the topsy turvy world of Jesus.

So, who or what is Satan for you today?  Not the really wicked things you are tempted to do; you know you are going to resist those.  Not even the bad things you will let yourself do, because they'll make you feel guilty enough.  I mean, the good things you are tempted to be satisfied with, but which fall short of the kingdom of God - where, instead of feeling guilty afterwards, you will feel self satisfied and pleased with yourself.   

Paul's passage from Romans, of course, provides some comfort. In the end, what we do is shaped by what we believe. And if we believe in the values of the kingdom, if we hold fast to the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament, then that will shape our actions, and even when they are less than enough, they can be "accounted as righteousness".  Our hearts will be in the right place because our faith is in the right gospel vision. So the Lenten discipline is not just to examine ourselves to ask who or what is our Satan, it is also to ask what we are doing to nourish the values of the kingdom in our hearts, to stay close to Jesus as we walk the Lenten journey.

For God's way is ultimately the most human way, it is the way that reaches the highest potential of what humankind can be. Loving. Generous. Forgiving. Creative. Beautiful in the communities we create. Let us become what we are, made in the image of God.

copyright © David Goodbourn, 2009
unauthorised use or reproduction prohibited

new page 29 March 2009

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