“No one is good but God alone”

A sermon by Rev’d Wendy Morecroft

2 Timothy 4.6-8 & 16-18, Luke 18.15-30

When my children were very young, I used to review my parenting techniques at the end of every school holidays. Invariably each new school term began with a new set of rules and accompanying reward system, based around the latest undesirable behaviours – things like endlessly talking on the phone before homework was done, for example. From time to time I’d use the tried and tested star-chart-on-the-fridge method of keeping track of good behavior. Once the squares on the fridge had been filled with gold stars, some reward would be forthcoming.

It occurred to me that the rich ruler in today’s Gospel had been doing well with his metaphorical star chart. His many possessions were proof of his good behavior. His perception was that good people were blessed with possessions. They had become part of his identity.

The rich ruler had identified Jesus as a fellow good person. He says to Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was expecting that he would be creating rapport with Jesus. He must have been taken by surprise to hear Jesus say “No one is good but God alone”. In our culture where many people think that all that matters is that they are a good person, this is an alarming statement.

I read six commentaries on today’s Gospel reading from Luke 18 and barely a mention was made in any of them, of this statement, “No one is good but God alone”. My priest of 8 years and twice my lecturer at St Barnabas College, Rev’d Dr Warren Huffa would often talk and preach about this comment and so much of what follows (minus any reference to star charts) is based on his blog “God alone is good”. The web address[1] is on the printed copy of this sermon at the back of the Cathedral.

When Jesus goes onto ask the rich ruler how he had been going with the ten commandments, he pulled out his metaphorical star chart to show just what a good person he was. He had kept the commandments since his youth.

When Jesus tells the rich ruler that his star chart isn’t complete, that he must sell his possessions, that is, his identity as a good person, and follow Jesus, he is sad. The disciples don’t get it either. They want to know, well then who can get into heaven? The example of a camel being unable to get through the eye of the needle just adds to their dismay. But Jesus does give them the antidote. In verse 27 he says, “What is impossible with men (and no doubt camels) is possible with God.”

It’s what we call grace. Grace is the free gift of eternal life that we don’t deserve and cannot earn.

Now imagine that the rich young ruler did give up all his possessions and put another star on his chart. Would that make him good enough? This question actually misses the point. Jesus doesn’t want the rich young ruler to be focused on being good. He wants to release him from this star chart obsession. He doesn’t want him to be focused on himself at all. Loving God and loving his neighbours, need be his only concern.

Jesus knows that none of us can ever win enough points in our own strength to win eternal life because salvation comes from God, who is good. All Jesus wants is our humility and love, and for us to accept God’s love through the forgiveness of our sins, the passing through the eye of the needle, the unconditional grace, that comes with true discipleship.

This open acceptance of grace is portrayed beautifully in the beginning of today’s Gospel when Jesus says “Let the children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

True discipleship is about loving God with our whole heart and our neighbour as ourselves – not point scoring. Good works flow from such love but they do not earn us eternal life. Good works are evidence of our love for God and God’s people.

As a church, as members of the body of Christ, we an opportunity to demonstrate our love for each other and most especially for the innocent children amongst us. We can do this by participating in Safe Ministry Training.

The Adelaide Anglicans website says that “Safe Ministry exists to ensure that our church environments, our spaces, leaders and culture, are safe.” Canon Jenny is charged with ensuring that those of us who volunteer or are employed here, comply with this training. Let’s get it done and do all we can to protect the innocence and trust of the little children and vulnerable people amongst us.

As I was writing this sermon, I was struggling to hold together Jesus’ words that “God alone is good”, with St Paul’s dying words in his letter to Timothy in the second reading. He says that he has “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” We may be tempted to see these words as Paul stamping his star chart with his final gold stars. How does this line up with Jesus’ words that “God alone is good”?

There are many examples in Paul’s letters of his identity as a sinner – he admits ashamedly that he was one who persecuted Christians before his conversion. Paul isn’t saying that he has fought well. He is saying that it was a good cause – a fight worth fighting.

His comment that he has finished the race is acknowledging that he has done all that he can, as he now prepares to die. He is handing the baton onto Timothy whom he has prepared well to supersede his ministry. We may pause to reflect on who we are developing as future disciples.

Despite his many hardships, floggings, imprisonments and being abandoned, Paul says that he has “kept the faith.” How many Christians have left the church at the slightest difficulty or need of a lie in? Paul doesn’t believe he has won eternal life because he is good, but rather because in a child-like way, he believes that God alone is good and that with God, all things are possible.

Next time you ask someone how they are, and they reply innocently “good thanks”, why not take the time to explain why only God alone is good, and why that is such good news for us all?

[1] https://classic-theology-new.blogspot.com/search?q=God+alone+is+good